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Smoking Actors in Smoking Movies

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Time was, an elegant woman or dashing man was portrayed on-screen with a lit cigarette in hand. Wealth could be indicated by a long cigar, poverty or desperation by a short stub clenched in the teeth. Anxiety was telegraphed by a nervous flick of ashes from a tightly-clutched cigarette.

Everyone smoked.

This reflected a society in which many people smoked. I recall watching movies from a balcony seat, since my parents smoked, and that was where smokers were seated in the theater. In one of the first smoking restrictions, smoking was prohibited in movies theaters after that&#8212but on-screen, cigarettes were still a frequent accessory to glamor and the good life.

As societal norms have changed, though, have the movies kept pace? That was the question addressed by a study by Dr. Karan Omidvari and others at St. Michael’s Medical Center in Newark, NJ. They recorded smoking habits of five main characters in each of 447 movies made during the 1990s, including hits like Independence Day (with its celebratory cigars), and There’s Something About Mary.

Wikipedia image of Ernie Kovacs, Image Hosted by ImageShack.us

Ernie Kovacs rarely appeared without a cigar.


The researchers excluded animated features and science fiction with settings other than Earth, because they aren’t typically intended to represent reality. They also didn’t count as a smoker any character whose smoking was only depicted in a flashback or another scene that didn’t occur “in the present, in the sense of the film.”

What they found about smoking in movies from that decade may surprise you. Only 21 percent of “good-guy” characters smoked, while 36 percent of their adversaries did. Omidvari reflected that it is good news that Hollywood tends to depict smokers as unsympathetic characters.

Overall, 48 percent of the movie smokers were portrayed as from a lower socioeconomic class, while 23 percent appeared middle-class. Only 11 percent of smokers could be identified as upper-class. (The remaining characters could not be assigned to any particular class.)

The study revealed that smokers in US movies are more likely to be villainous and poor than heroic or wealthy. Omidvari did note that in R-rated and independent films, main characters were more likely to smoke than they were in studio releases. In fact, in these films, smoking was more prevalant than it is in the US population as a whole.

I wonder how they counted Jim Carrey’s manic character in The Mask? To quote Stanley Ipkiss, “SMO-kin’!”

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About DrPat

  • http://livefromblogdahd demabloggery

    But are they considered sexy?

  • http://paperfrigate.blogspot.com DrPat

    Well, Stanley Ipkiss was a genial loser and a non-smoker, but his alter-ego of the “SMO-kin’!” tagline lit up only to blow a cupid’s heart for Cameron Diaz. HER character was a sexy non-smoker.

    I vaguely recall that the only other smoker in the movie was a criminal who died as his fag was being lit…

  • http://blogcritics.org/author.php?author=Cerulean Cerulean

    I see way too much smoking in the movies. The characters that smoke are portrayed as cool, dangerous or compelling. I believe that this does influence young people to smoke. I think it should be stopped.

  • http://bonamassablog.us Joanie

    The fact that people still smoke in real life, regardless of whether they are good, bad, or somewhere in between, is grounds for including smoking in movies. Especially if we want them to be realistic.

    Do we need all our movies to be stripped of everything dangerous? What will happen to car chases, bombs, guns, Cheech & Chong movies, and – gasp! – romantic encounters?

    The majority of movies that I see with characters that smoke aren’t movies that I’m watching with my kids. They’re too young. Adults can make up their own mind about cigarettes and cigars. And how many adults do you know who pick up smoking just to be cool?

  • http://victorplenty.blogspot.com Victor Plenty

    People pick their noses in real life too. That doesn’t mean I want to pay nine bucks to watch overpaid actors pick their noses, no matter how much anyone may natter on about “realism.”

    There are lots of things I just don’t want to see in movies, not “to protect the children,” but simply because they’re gratuitously disgusting and serve no useful purpose.

    Most tobacco usage falls squarely in the middle of that category.

  • http://blogcritics.org/author.php?author=Cerulean Cerulean

    Thanks, Victor.

    I think young people, not necessarily minors, are influenced to smoke because of what they see in the media, along with other factors. I also do not care to watch it.

  • http://wisdomandmurder.blogspot.com Lisa McKay

    I think that peer pressure probably has more to do with smoking initiation than the media. In any case, I don’t think the purpose of movies is to model good behavior for teenagers so I’m in agreement with Joanie on that point. If I’m not mistaken (and I’m too lazy to look this up right now), the incidence of smoking among teenagers has been declining for the past several years.

  • http://blogcritics.org/archives/2004/08/03/232849.php Rodney Welch

    Can you imagine those glorious films of the 1930s and 1940s without smoking? Would you want to? People then, of course, lived in the naive belief that it was harmless and hip, and even today, with all we know, those old movies absolutely convey that idea. Mitchum, Bogart, Gregory Peck, Bette Davis, Ingrid Bergman, Glenn Ford, Barbara Stanwyck, Burt Lancaster, Jimmy Stewart — these were all first-class smokers, and the way that silvery smoke drifts through their black and white worlds accounts for part of the appeal of those movies; it’s as if they exist in a dark fantasyland where, for all the many real dangers involving guns and women, lung cancer and emphysema are simply not matters of concern.

    Not long ago, I caught Now, Voyager on AMC — which of course has one of the greatest cigarette scenes in history — and there’s this scene in it where a young sophisticated girl announces she recently took up smoking. No one, of course, says the first thing to her about her health; the other characters simply find it amusing, nothing more.

    I smoke myself, and I often wished I lived in the blissful ignorance of those old movies.

    I’m rather divided on how I feel cigarettes should be used in modern movies, because a filmmaker can no longer present it as unself-consciously as they did back when half of all adults smoked — back when Jimmy Stewart lighting up in It’s a Wonderful Life didn’t signify anything more than that he wanted a cigarette.Today, it has to have some sort of reason, as noted in DrPat’s post: low-income, bad guy, or hip.

    I think in the same way, although it may not have been subjected to as many academic studies, drinking has gone through a similar change in perception. Back in the 1960s, it seems every sitcom family had a bar; Darren Stevens always came home and Samantha fixed him a drink. Carol Brady did the same for Mike. Growing up in a Southern Baptist household, I figured that was the way everyone but us lived — that everyone had a bar stocked with liquor, as the parents of my friends did. But you don’t see that in as many sitcoms either, and I don’t think you see it in as many homes — which I can only guess has something to do with the fact that we no longer live in such swinging times.

  • http://victorplenty.blogspot.com Victor Plenty

    Casablanca would have been just as great without any cancer sticks in it. So would any other truly great movie.

  • http://wisdomandmurder.blogspot.com Lisa McKay

    I think the cigarettes were part of the ambience of the times, much as the clothes and the hair styles. I have a hard time picturing Bogey without a cigarette.

    And for what it’s worth, I’m not a smoker and loathe being around smokers, so I’m certainly not defending the habit from a health standpoint.

  • http://victorplenty.blogspot.com Victor Plenty

    Do there even exist any pictures of Bogey without a cancer stick? Of course you have a hard time picturing him without one!

    The ambience argument doesn’t really mean anything significant. Sure, it would have made Casablanca look different. It would also look different if it had originally been shot in color. That still wouldn’t make it any less a great film.

    (Disclaimer: nothing I have said here, or anywhere else for that matter, should be interpreted in such a way as to support colorizing any film that was not originally shot in color. Thank you.)

  • http://blogcritics.org/archives/2004/08/03/232849.php Rodney Welch

    Victor, please. You sound like an old woman who spends all Saturday evening sucking lemons. That’s like saying any given movie would be “just as good” without the profanity or violence or sex or any other element that may or may not offend a particular viewer — usually a viewer who thinks every movie should reflect his own world view. These things are part of a movie’s world and its character. Casablanca isn’t the first smoking movie that comes to mind, but there are so many great others where smoking adds a certain texture — either of grime or cool or hipness” Out of the Past, The Big Heat, Breathless and Reservoir Dogs soar to mind. They wouldn’t be the same without lots of cigarettes and no, they wouldn’t be as good. The characters in those movies don’t live in a smoke-free world, and the audience wouldn’t accept it if they claimed otherwise.

  • http://victorplenty.blogspot.com Victor Plenty

    You asked whether those films could be imagined without tobacco, Rodney, and I answered, yes, they can.

    And yes, they would in fact be just as good without it.

    That doesn’t mean they’re ruined by it, it just means they don’t need it.

  • http://wisdomandmurder.blogspot.com Lisa McKay

    Victor, if part of what makes a movie good is a realistic portrayal of the cultural milieu in which it takes place (and I contend that it is indeed part of what makes certain movies good), then smoking has a pretty important place in movies that take place in the first half of the 1900s. I disagree that the ambience argument is not significant.

  • http://blogcritics.org/archives/2004/08/03/232849.php Rodney Welch

    You know, you could just as well say the movie would be just as good without Bogart, Bergman, Paul Henried, S.K. Sakall, Michael Curtiz, Nazis, the getaway plane, French Resistance or Dooley Wilson. It’s possible, I suppose — in this imaginary movie that exists entirely in one’s mind — to always substitute something that’s there with something else. Maybe you’re right. But it wouldn’t be Casablanca, and while it might suit you, it wouldn’t suit me. I don’t want a smoke-free Casablanca and I don’t trust the judgment of people who do. Here you have this international city where, as Sidney Greenstreet puts it, human beings are the Number One commodity. But, on the bright side, THEY DON’T SMOKE! They buy and sell human beings, but no smoking is allowed. Yeah, I’ll buy that for a dollar.

  • http://victorplenty.blogspot.com Victor Plenty

    Who said anything about changing all these things in Casablanca? I’ve certainly never said any such thing.

    All I’m saying is, if for some odd reason this movie had been originally filmed with no visible evidence of tobacco use, and with every other element the same, it would still be a great film.

  • http://blogcritics.org/archives/2004/08/03/232849.php Rodney Welch

    All I’m saying is you’re comparing an actual film against one that you’re imagining, and it’s about as credible as saying it would be just as good without any of those other vital aspects I mentioned. You’re speaking in what-ifs, and not a believeable what-if at that.

  • http://victorplenty.blogspot.com Victor Plenty

    It’s a comparison you invited, Rodney. It’s one thing to say Casablanca just wouldn’t be nearly as good without Bogart. That’s a meaningful and defensible statement.

    Saying the movie wouldn’t be great without the tobacco is just an obsessive patch of nonsense. It would be a slightly different movie, sure, but not significantly diminished from the actual movie.

    That being said, I do hope the frequent rumors of a Casablanca remake are false. Today’s Hollywood would be almost certain to ruin that effort in every conceivable way, unless maybe they let Peter Jackson do it.

  • http://blogcritics.org/archives/2004/08/03/232849.php Rodney Welch

    It wouldn’t be Casablanca. — it would be a movie you made; not just “slightly different” but a movie made in an alternate universe. See, just as there has to be a reason for smoking in today’s movies, there would have to be a reason NOT to have it back then, and that would fundamentally change the movie. It’s kind of a butterfly effect thing, I think.

  • The Duke

    All the “big” smokers in Hollyweed died of smoke related disease. From Cancer, to hardened arteries, to coronary.

    I think that everyone thinks the only malady to befall smokers is cancer. Untrue. Serious smokers really start to feel degradation in their lives at 40 to 50. Oh it’s always been there, but at 50 or so, the arteries are well on their way to closing off blood/oxygen supply to limbs and organs. And it’s all systemic. Meaning if you suffer from intermittent claudication, it’s in your heart too. It’s in your kidneys, it’s in your brain, it’s everywhere!

    Cancer may take you out faster… once it starts really spreading. But the whole arterial system really is affected, over time and will definately crush your quality of life, at a time in life when you really start to enjoy yourself.

    I’ve seen it over and over again. Quit now, if you smoke. It’s slow suicide. It’s suicide for those who are afraid to blow their brains out. It’s a good way to leave your family hanging, because your lack of responsibility pulls you out of the equation and leaves loved ones unable to provide adequetaly for themselves in your absence.

  • http://paperfrigate.blogspot.com DrPat

    I really saw this shift as reflecting the change in society itself, not driving it. Would My Man Godfrey be the same hilarious romp if Carole Lombard never appeared in a bias-cut gown? Sure it would — but she was costumed that way as a short-cut to indicate that “Irene Bullock” was wealthy, and careless of her wealth.

    It worked as a short-cut because high-end evening fashions in the ’30s were styled that way.

    Likewise with smoking — as long as it was fashionable and chic to smoke, fashionable, chic characters were depicted as smokers. The study showed that now, they’re not, to some degree.

  • http://livefromblogdahd demabloggery

    I don’t smoke and don’t drink much…but I like my vices when I do…There’s some wierd beauty in trashy Reno culture; smoking, drinking, gambling….

  • http://bonamassablog.us Joanie

    Lisa phrased this perfectly – “a realistic portrayal of the cultural milieu”.

    You can’t portray reality by removing everything to which a certain population objects. In this overly-PC world, I honestly don’t think we do ourselves any favors by trying to pretend that everyone is squeaky clean or living as we want to believe they should.

    I’d rather have people smoking in a movie than trying to hide it. I liken it those who want to shield their children from guns. No movies with guns, no television with guns, no history lessons that involve guns.

    I once had neighbors who were so very much against anything gun-related that they spoke of history in vague terms, not explaining that major battles were fought with guns. Their explanation was always along the lines of “there was a war and the good people had to take a stand for what they believed in.”

    I feel bad for the children of people who are that disconnected.

    There are aspects of reality that we all wish we could turn our backs on, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist.