“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.

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