Smoke Screen

Sean Connery was a smoking James Bond

Sean Connery was a smoking James Bond

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It’s becoming very difficult to find a place to fire up a cigarette and tobacco use is being demonized just about everywhere. A recent Gallup survey found only 20 percent of Americans now smoke, the lowest rate in 69 years. Cigarette sales also are down. In California sales have dropped from a peak of 2.8 billion packs in 1982 to 972 million packs, a dramatic decline in sales.

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But there is one place where cigarettes are gaining, in movies. No, I don’t mean in movie theatres. Firing up there will still get you tossed out.

Maybe you’ve noticed this scene in recent movies you’ve watched. Early in the film one of the main characters, usually a big movie star, lights up a cig and puffs away. Just last night I was watching a movie and the female lead, playing a doctor, was sucking on a cig a few minutes into the movie.

It’s happened so many times, I’ve become convinced the tobacco companies must be involved inseanpennsmoking all this on-screen smoking. It didn’t take much digging to find  out that movies have become a not very subtle, insidious form of advertising for the cigarette business.

This isn’t exactly new news. Marlboro paid $42,000 to have their brand appear in Superman II. Another brand paid $350,000 to have James Bond smoke their brand.

And even though since 1998, the tobacco industry has been banned from paying marilyn-monroe-smoking-in-a-movie1to have cigarettes shown in movies, smoking in movies has increased. Just two years after the ban, smoking in films intended for a young audience increased by 50 percent.

In 2002, 68.5 percent of youth-rated movies (G, PG, PG-13) had smoking, and 83 percent of R-rated movies showed smoking. A study published in 2003 by Dartmouth Medical School found that over 52 percent of teens who start smoking attribute it to seeing smoking in movies.

“Film is better than any commercial that has been run on television or in any magazine, becauseactor-and-cigarette the audience is totally unaware of any sponsor involvement.” -Hollywood Public Relations Firm

It seems that tobacco companies responded to being banned from all print and broadcast advertising by creating tacit endorsements on film by adored movie stars in a culture that is obsessed with celebrities.

Scarlett-Johansson-5481189-300x205And even though tobacco companies are technically barred from spending money to promote smoking in movies, it’s obvious from the number of famous actors firing up cigs on camera that their influence, however they are doing it, is still there.

Perhaps most disturbing is their targeting of teens, the age at which most smokers get hooked on tobacco.

Just last year the Surgeon General determined that there is a causal relationship between tarantino3miawalla_1460841cviewing smoking on screen and initiating of smoking among young people.

Between 2002 and 2012, almost half the movies were rated PG-13, making them easy for teens to watch.

Recent content analysis of PG-13 movies showed a decline in depiction of smoking between 2005 and 2010. However, in 2011, the incidents increased, and there was a further increase in 2012.

JohnTravolta-GreaseAs of January, 2013, five movie studios had policies in place discouraging smoking in youth-related movies, but all five studios allowed exceptions to the policy.

In 2012 the Surgeon General said that a policy of giving an R rating to youth-related movies with smoking would be effective in reducing the number of young smokers.

It’s highly unlikely that will happen given the influence of the tobacco lobby. Even if that policy were in place, the tobacco industry would probably just ferret out an even more nefarious way to promote its product.

All of which should make us step back and ask ourselves a big-picture question. If a product issmoking_movies1 legal to manufacture and sell, why should the advertising of that product be banned? The way the tobacco industry has exploited movies shows that successfully keeping a large industry from promoting its product is virtually impossible.

But the next time you see a big star light up, know this, it’s really the tobacco companies that are blowing smoke.

Movies About Movie Stars

Daniel Day Lews and Sally Field in Lincoln

Daniel Day Lews and Sally Field in Lincoln

Nicole Kidman as Grace Kelly

Nicole Kidman as Grace Kelly

In the last couple of years, I’ve noted a growing trend in moviemaking, films focused on movie stars and political figures. In other words, movies about celebrities, being played by other celebrities.

With the 2013 Academy Awards less than a month away, one of the leading contenders for best picture is Lincoln, and the favorite to win best actor is Daniel Day Lewis who portrays the sixteenth U.S. President. Also favored to win is Sally Field for her supporting role as Mary Todd Lincoln.

Meryl Streep in The Iron Lady

Meryl Streep in The Iron Lady

Just last year, Meryl Streep took home an Oscar for her role as Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady. Julianne Moore won a 2012 Emmy for playing Sarah Palin in HBO’s Game Change miniseries. And Bill Murray also is getting into the act, literally, with Hyde Park On The Hudson, in which he plays FDR.

But even more profuse are the films being churned out in which movie stars play other movie stars.

In one of the more intriguing films of this type, yet to be released, Princess Grace of Monaco, Nicole Kidman plays Grace Kelly with a story line about how miserable Kelly became during her marriage to Prince Ranier.HITCHCOCK-Movie

In current release is Hitchcock, in which an ensemble cast led by Anthony Hopkins, cast as Hitch, step into the shoes of movie royalty so moviegoers can go gaga with celebrity worship retroactively. Scarlettt Johansson takes on the iconic regurgitation of Janet Leigh in Psycho, James D’Arcy morphs into Tony Perkins, Jessica Biel is Vera Miles and Helen Mirren plays Hitchcock’s wife Alma Reville.

Toby Jones and Sienna Miller in The Girl

Toby Jones and Sienna Miller in The Girl

Actually this is the second time the legendary director has been the centerpiece of a film recently. Just last October, HBO premiered The Girl, about the making of Hitchcock’s The Birds, starring Toby Jones as the director and Sienna Miller as Tippy Hedren.

It seems that if you were a major Hollywood star, you can count on a movie coming out about your life not long after you die.

One example, Liz and Dick. Last year 3.5 million viewers tuned in to Lifetime to see Lindsay Lohan imitate Elizabeth Taylor and Grant Bowler try to recreate Richard Burton.

Lindsay Lohan and Grant Bowler in Liz and Dick

Lindsay Lohan and Grant Bowler in Liz and Dick

Finally, there is the most portrayed movie star of all time, Marilyn Monroe, who has been the subject no less than 25 times in films, music videos, advertising campaigns and TV shows. And the idolatry goes on. In October 2011, My Week With Marilyn came out, featuring Michelle Williams as the blonde bombshell and it garnered some awards attention. And released just a few months ago and produced by Brad Pitt, Blonde is based on the Joyce Carol Oates novel and Naomi Watts is the latest actress to try to inhabit the legend that is Marilyn.

So the question arises, why all these movies about movie and political stars? There’s certainly no denying that we’ve seen these kinds of movies before, with everyone from Jim Morrison to JFK being chronicled. But in past times, these kind of movies seemed to only come along occasionally. Now, we seem to be inundated with them.

One factor seems to be that celebrity worship is more rampant today than it’s ever been. A few years back, Robert Redford came and gave a speech at the local university. One of the things he addressed was celebrity worship and how overblown it is in our culture. Then, as soon as he finished speaking, a huge mob of people rushed up to him to fawn and grovel.

70202150When Hollywood makes a movie about some former movie idol, there is a double-edged built-in audience. First, movie lovers are interested in learning more about the life of the person being dissected, and second, they are interested in seeing how closely some current actor can transform himself or herself into the legend. So the appeal for this kind of movie is strong, and that should drive the production of more and more movies like this.

Another aspect that makes these movies ready-made for shooting is that the audience already knows the story and mainly just wants to go along on the ride. Who doesn’t know how Lincoln’s conflict over slavery came out? Who doesn’t know the Sarah Palin boondoggle fiasco? We know Princess Grace died in a car wreck. No dramatic surprise ending there. The point is that no screenwriter has to strain creativity to produce a brilliant innovative screenplay. The story is already there, laid out, and all the writers have to do is journalize real events. That’s a lot easier than creating a story from scratch.

Time and again, I’ve heard movie lovers who’ve seen one of these movies raving, saying  something like, “It seemed so real it was spooky.”

Naomi Watts as Marilyn in Blonde

Naomi Watts as Marilyn in Blonde

There’s no doubt that good actors can do almost letter perfect portrayals of other actors. When you play someone famous, the audience knows that person, so they are amazed when the actor playing them practically brings them back to life. But this ability is overrated. Actors can spend endless amounts of time reviewing how a famous person talked, what their signature mannerisms were, how they walked, how they dressed, how they comported themselves. Any good actor should be able to do this, and it shouldn’t be so amazing. But because the actor can hitchike on the star’s charisma, is usually is.

Probably a lot more difficult, from an acting standpoint, is creating a memorable character from fiction, a character the audience never met before. How impressive is Tom Hanks’ Forrest Gump or Billy Bob Thornton’s twisted Carl from Sling Blade? Those actors didn’t have nearly the template to work with. They had to envision the character themselves from words on paper. That’s much more challenging.

The future of this genre, movies about celebrities, seems secure. It could get ridiculous. Every person with name recognition is a potential movie. (Remember that movie about Chuck Barris?)

Scarlett Johansson as Janet Leigh

Scarlett Johansson as Janet Leigh

I have to wonder if one of these days, we’ll be watching a movie about the life of Scarlett Johansson, and it will include a section about Scarlet playing Janet Leigh, and then, whoever is playing Scarlett, will there eventually be a movie about her, playing Scarlet, playing Janet? The whole thing could get more convoluted than that picture on the Pet Milk can, which just shows that celebs are cash cows and Hollywood will keep milking them.