In "Thank You for Smoking," tobacco lobbyist Nick Naylor (Aaron Eckhart) does battle against a culture increasingly hostile toward cigarettes.
Using his considerable charm and the aid of a Hollywood agent, Nick tries to spin cigarettes back into the realm of acceptability, all while dodging his own son's questions about his vocation.
The film is a hot-button satire that's sure to ignite debate among co-workers and bar patrons (at least until the smokers have to go outside to light up).
"Thank You for Smoking" couldn't have been made during Hollywood's so-called Golden Age of the '40s and '50s. Not because smart satire didn't exist (see 1957's "The Sweet Smell of Success") and not because movies were afraid to take on the corporate world (see 1956's "The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit"). Rather, an anti-smoking film never would have been greenlit simply because in those decades — in films, as in real life — a solid majority of men and a huge proportion of women did smoke, while medicos were only beginning to suspect the now-obvious lethal dangers associated with the habit.
Nick and Nora, Captain Spaulding, Charles Foster Kane, Rick Blaine, Bugs Bunny, Gilda, George Bailey, Stanley Kowalksi, Joe Friday, Holly Golightly, Rooster Cogburn, the Man With No Name and a thousand other movie characters all lit up, as did most of their fellow Americans.
These days, however, a cigarette is hardly ever just a cigarette; it's almost always a metaphor. Some directors still love the visual impact of wafting smoke and glowing embers (David Lynch seems to put an extreme close-up of a burning butt in every film). But for the most part, smoking in films now has to mean something. To wit, there are a handful of archetypes that are still allowed to smoke in contemporary films. Let's count 'em down, shall we?
10. He Whose Primary Tool of the Trade Is a Gun
We were going to say "Bad Guys," but then we thought of James Bond and John McClane from "Die Hard" (Bruce Willis) and Vincent Vega (John Travolta) from "Pulp Fiction" (an anti-hero, to be sure, but not a "bad guy" in the film) and we realized that there's some strange connection between shooting a gun for a living and smoking. Maybe nerves need to be cooled so as not to miss the target? But what about smoke getting in your eyes?
9. The Newly Cuckolded
Let's say you're a movie character who's just caught your spouse in bed with the pool guy (or mailman or pizza delivery guy or your best friend, whatever). What's the first thing you do? OK, you go to a bar and order a shot of whiskey. But then you chase it with a cigarette, especially if you've never, ever smoked before. Drag deep, disillusioned friend — your life just went in the dumper!
8. The Soldier in the Foxhole
It doesn't matter if the setting is Virginia in 1862, France in 1944, Vietnam in 1972 or Iraq yesterday, any movie soldier facing death is likely to find solace in a cigarette. The whole "Smoke 'em if you got 'em" rationalization comes into play when the character seems about to buy it. Hell, why worry about your health now? Too bad there aren't any juicy steaks in those foxholes.
7. The European
There are a number of visual shorthand devices to indicate to an American audience that a character is from another country (if ethnicity is not obvious). If the pretentious artist or spoiled royal is from one of the European countries, he will inevitably light up, usually at an inappropriate time. Like, say, when the heroine is trying to enjoy her dinner or Grandma is dying of emphysema. Bring on the Freedom Fries!
6. The Devil
Almost every anthropomorphized version of Satan in recent memory smokes: Al Pacino in 1997's "The Devil's Advocate," Robert De Niro in 1987's "Angel Heart," Elizabeth Hurley in 2000's "Bedazzled," Billy Crystal in 1997's "Deconstructing Harry." And, in typical devilish fashion, they usually smoke giant, obnoxious cigars. Old Beelzebub — so rude! At least Old Nick never has to fumble for matches.
5. The Catholic Priest
While we're on the subject of religion, you rarely see a Catholic priest in a movie who doesn't have a cigarette between his holy fingers. Father Karras (Jason Miller) in "The Exorcist" (1973), Archbishop Gilday (Donal Donnelly) in "The Godfather, Part III" (1990), Father Casey (Vincent D'Onofrio) in "The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys" (2002) and Father Bobby (Robert De Niro) in "Sleepers" (1996) all smoke like they're anxious to move on to the Great Reward. Perhaps when your calling denies you so many earthly pleasures a stick of tobacco might be one's only vice. (We hope.)
4. The Drug Addict
It would, of course, be unbelievable if the movie addict didn't smoke. While they seldom spend money on a low-rent nicotine buzz, most habitual drug users are, of course — in addition to any other jones they might have — also addicted to that most addictive (and profitable, and legal) of drugs.
3. The Wall Street Tycoon
Film characters who are all about making money are usually portrayed in a negative light (ironic, since movie acting is arguably the most overpaid profession on Earth). Picture the silk-suited, narcissistic arrogance of Ricky Roman (Al Pacino) in "Glengarry Glen Ross" or, of course, Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) in "Wall Street" (1987). Having them blow second-hand smoke (usually from the same, cannon-sized cigar that the devil favors) in the faces of others is an easy, but effective, metaphor.
2. That Punk Johnny Down the Street
In movies of the past, juvenile delinquents all came in the same package: Cuffed dungarees, greased hair, dirty white T-shirts, leather jackets and a butt dangling from the lower lip or cocked behind an ear. These days, bad kids in movies can look as innocuous as Macaulay Culkin. (What? He's 25 now? Get out!) OK, as innocuous as Rory Culkin, then. Pick a Culkin, any Culkin. The point is, any underage character with a cigarette is still movie shorthand for bad (while in real life, it's usually a sad sort of shorthand for "trying to look cool and/or older").
1. Most Characters in Any Period Piece
Would choosing cigarettes for a film fall under the tasks of the costumer or the production designer? Usually, smoking is indicated in the screenplay, but if the movie's a period piece, set in, oh, say the offices and studios of CBS News in the 1950s, it goes without saying that there had better be a dozen cartons of Kents or Luckies sitting nearby. As last year's "Good Night, and Good Luck" shows, smoking was so pervasive in the hard-boiled 1950s that newscaster Edward R. Murrow partook on the air. And he wasn't alone. We're not sure, but we think Lassie might have lit up once or twice.
As we move closer to a smokeless society, we have to wonder if, like fedoras, land-line telephones and indie record stores, the gray swirl of cigarette smoke will one day be relegated solely to the period film.
Geez, we hope Johnny Depp can handle it.
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