Donald Clarke on US cinema’s war on tobacco
Word reaches us that the MPAA, the shadowy body concerned with movie certification in the US, is opening up a new front against the demon cigarette. The organisation wants to slap its most prohibitive classification – the feared R – on all films featuring “smoking outside of a historic or other mitigating context”. What, I wonder, constitutes a mitigating circumstance? If the MPAA doesn’t include being from France among its list of extenuations then that country’s film industry may as well give up on selling itself to young America. Even infants and pets seem to smoke in Russian films. Inanimate objects get at the fags in Turkish flicks.
Let’s take the authorities at their word when they tell us their intention is to stop film-makers from glamorising smoking. Are they crazy? The only characters who light up in American films these days are depressives, psychopaths and those whose handkerchiefs already show the bloody signs of an impending early demise. Many mainstream features could comfortably accommodate a preamble from that wise doctor who, in the 1950s, introduced such public information films as Communism: The Begetter of Self-Abuse, Beat Poetry Gives you Emphysema and Greasers Ate My Aunt. “Young Tommy thought smoking was a laugh,” Dr Brownvoice might begin, “but, before long, he found himself speaking in a vaguely racist Russian accent, slapping unconvincing prostitutes around the chops and being shot at by Denzel Washington.”
Balanced, virtuous movie characters still smoked in the 1970s and 1980s, but it is not since the 1950s, when the connection between lung cancer and fags was still being argued over, that the inclination to inhale the emissions of burning leaves identified the hero as a fellow to be envied and admired. When Paul Henreid popped two ciggies into his mouth during Now Voyager – one for himself and one for recovering mental patient Bette Davis – it was regarded as an act of overpowering romantic resonance. Nowadays, the only people allowed to smoke two fags at the same time are jobless unfortunates in Ken Loach films.
Mind you, Hollywood in its golden years did attach negative traits to certain modes of behaviour we now view as being not just acceptable, but barely worthy of comment. Men who wore beards, but expressed no interest in going to sea, were generally depicted as brutes and degenerates. If a fellow favoured an effete turn of phrase or a lilac shirt, then he was almost certainly disposed towards murder and world domination.
Times change, but, then as now, movie professionals appear unable to stop themselves from – both explicitly and implicitly – lecturing us on what they regard as unacceptable modes of behaviour. Where will it end? Will horrific conduct be excised from horror films? Will infidelities be banned from sexual comedies? Movies without all that bad stuff would, surely, end up looking like the most boring bits of real life. We can get that at home.