Category Archives: smoking in media

“Hail, Caesar!” — and the shame of smoking

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Finished watching “Hail, Caesar!” this week, a campy Coen brothers comedy that actually made some gentle, yet moving, statements about smoking.

The movie, which takes place in 1951, begins with a studio “fixer” Eddie Mannix played by Josh Brolin, in a confession booth giving his confession to a priest. His big sin? He had promised his wife that he would quit smoking and he lied to his wife that he had sneaked two (maybe three) cigarettes during the past 24 hours.

Brolin’s character is so wracked with guilt he actually breaks down crying confessing to the priest that he’s trying to quit smoking, but can’t.

Perhaps the scene was meant to be comedic, but honestly, I found it really touching, because I’ve talked to so many people who try desperately — and some people are legitimately desperate — to quit, but simply cannot break free of the nicotine. I’ve seen people almost on the verge of tears just talking about it. They hate smoking, they hate their addiction and they hate the fact that they cannot quit, no matter how hard they try.

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Josh Brolin breaks down crying because he can’t quit smoking in “Hail, Caesar!”

Later in the movie, Eddie asks to bum a cigarette from a cop with a look of abject self-loathing in his face. He hates how weak he is when it comes to cigarettes. I found this interesting, because as mentioned before, the film is set in 1951, pretty much the height of smoking in America. Smoking was portrayed making men appear either virile or sophisticated in all of the advertising — and Hollywood films — of the time. But, for this particular character, smoking made him feel weak — and a sinner. It to me showed a dramatic change in the culture of film. It was only 10-15 years ago that Hollywood was still portraying smokers as tough or macho — in PG-13 films. Those days are quickly fading, much like the studio system portrayed in “Hail, Caesar!” was shown to be in its final days. The portrayal of smoking in “Hail, Caeser!” reminded me of “Stranger Than Fiction,” a 2006 film that under pressure from productor Lindsay Doran, was forced to portray a chain-smoking character in a negative light (The character, played by Emma Thompson, spent much of the film coughing and spitting up sputum into a handkerchief.).

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I wondered a bit if this was a gimmick by the Coen Brothers to dodge an R rating. I have no idea. There’s a fair amount of smoking in “Hail, Caesar!”, but it wasn’t what I would call “pervasive” (“Pervasive” smoking in films can trigger an R rating, however, the MPAA has this funky rule that “historically accurate” smoking is OK. The year 1951 would obviously contain a lot of historically accurate smoking.).

Anyway, it was a cute movie with a cute take on smoking.

Robot Chicken spoofs smoking in cartoons

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Robot Chicken spoofing an old Flintstones commercial for cigarettes.

Saw a really funny Robot Chicken episode on Adult Swim Sunday night poking fun at tobacco use among kids’ cartoon characters.

Being Robot Chicken, it was  a bit demented, but still funny. The skit shows Fred Flintstone, Olive Oyl and Caterpillar from Alice in Wonderland all in a hospital ward dying of lung disease. And the Pink Panther is also shown coughing and wheezing after taking a drag on his cigarette (Remember, the Pink Panther smoked, too.).

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The Pink Panther has emphysema. Fred, who once actually was used by Winston cigarettes as a spokesman, is dying and is forced to use an electronic voice box. I cracked up at one of the comments on the YouTube video of the old Flintstone’s 1961 Winston commercial. A YouTube user said she had no idea there was a Flintstone’s cigarette ad until she saw the Robot Chicken skit.

 

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Popeye smokes in the lung disease ward

Olive Oyl has lung disease from secondhand smoke from Popeye’s pipe and Caterpillar, who famously smoked a hookah in the 1950s Disney cartoon, is dying of lung cancer. In the Disney cartoon, in fact, not only did the Caterpillar smoke, he smoked around children and blew cigarette smoke right into Alice’s face. Alice didn’t cough or wheeze from it in the slightest. Jesus.

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Alice having smoke blown in her face by the Caterpillar in Disney’s “Alice in Wonderland”

Popeye walks into the hospital ward and lights up his pipe, prompting a coughing fit from Olive Oyl. Barnie Rubble makes fun of Fred’s voice, then lights one of his Winstons near Fred’s oxygen tank, blowing them all up.

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It’s demented fun, but the skit makes the point that there was a shocking amount of smoking in kids’ cartoons — Pinocchio, Goofy, Tom and Jerry all smoked. In fact, there continued to be a lot of smoking in kids’ cartoons right up until the early 2000s in Hiyao Miyazaki movies like “Spirited Away.”  For some reason, Miyazaki always seems to include a lot of smoking in most of his anime films.

Here is the Robot Chicken skit:

http://www.adultswim.com/videos/robot-chicken/triple-hot-dog-sandwich-on-wheat/

Flintstones cigarette commercial:

Pink Panther smoking:

Popeye smoking:

The Caterpillar smoking:

 

 

 

Kids and cigarettes and the stories they tell

Amanda and Dinosaur Jr.

There is a very famous photograph from 1990 by a noted photographer named Mary Ellen Mark of a 9-year-old girl wearing make-up, sitting in a tiny backyard plastic pool and smoking cigarettes.

It turns out the girl came from a very rough and troubled background and continues to have troubles today. NPR did a really powerful piece on this girl.

 

The photograph is called “Amanda and her Cousin Amy” and was taken in Valdese, North Carolina.

NPR actually tracked the girl down (Mary Ellen Mark recently passed away). Her name at the time of the photo was Amanda Minton — she now goes by the name Amanda Marie Ellison and she is now 34 years old. It turns out she remembered the photo and remembered the photographer.

From NPR:

In 1990, Mark had been sent to rural North Carolina by Life magazine to cover a school for “problem children.” Ellison was one of those children. “She’s my favourite,” Mark told British Vogue in 1993. “She was so bad she was wonderful, she had a really vulgar mouth, she was brilliant.”

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Amanda Ellison explains how she was smoking at age 9:

Ellison openly concedes she was a “wild” child, but she says she was just emulating the adults in her life, all of whom by her memory were drug-addicted, residing in a low-income housing complex nicknamed “Sin City.” It was around that time that she began to smoke.

“If I couldn’t get [cigarettes], if somebody wouldn’t give them to me, yes, I’d steal a pack of cigarettes and be gone,” she says. “I’d sit in the woods and smoke ’til they were gone.”

People talk a lot about how somehow dope is a “gateway drug” to harder drugs. Well, research has shown the real gateway drug is nicotine. Sure enough, Amanda graduated from cigarettes to harder drugs.She was addicted to hard drugs by the age of 16.

The most heartbreaking part of the story is that Amanda thought the photos of her smoking at 9 would somehow spur someone to come rescue her from her rough existence, but it never happened.

From NPR:

“When she came along and took those photos, I thought, ‘Well, hey, people will see me and this may get me the attention that I want; it may change things for me,’ ” Ellison says. She thought someone would see the images and come rescue her. “I had thought that that might have been the way out. But it wasn’t.”

Amanda has since done actual prison time, but she is trying to get her life together. From NPR:

By her own admission, Ellison’s adulthood is still tumultuous. She has served time in prison and says she is still “surrounded by crazy people and drugs.” But she says her life has improved, and she wishes she could talk again with “that photographer lady.”

“If I had to guess,” Ellison says, “I would say she would be, I don’t know, overwhelmed with joy that I have made it this far.”

Amanda’s photo and her story made me think of another photo. It was actually taken on a beach way back in 1969 and shows about a 10- or 11-year-old girl smoking a cigarette. The photo is called “Priscilla” and it was taken by a photographer named Joseph Szabo.

Dinosaur Jr. used that photo on their “Green Mind” album cover from 1991 — an album I really wore the crap out of back in the day. Even 24 years ago, that album cover bothered me, and I wondered who that girl was and what her parents — or whatever her loved ones — thought of her smoking so young. That photo always haunted me. It felt so painful. Someone so young doing so much damage to themselves. Now, like Amanda, I wonder what her story was and what became of her. She would be about 56 or 57 today.