Smoking is so uncommon these days that whenever I see someone lighting up I say to myself, “Wow, look at that.” And yet smoking persists in movies, particularly in films depicting any kind of teenaged, criminal or anti-social milieu. When I was in high school smoking projected a kind of stand-alone studliness and a James Dean-like existential machismo, which everyone of my age bought into and which I felt was absolutely essential. I more or less began quitting in the ’70s. Relapses followed, and I also dabbled whenever I visited Europe. A stupid instinct but my life has been full of that. About ten or twelve years ago I began posting the occasional piece about smoking in movies, etc. I had Yul Brynner on my mind after writing yesterday about Exodus, and I was moved this morning when I looked again at this testimonial, recorded just before his death from lung cancer.
I wrote the following seven and a half years ago (i.e, April 2007 piece):
“Smoking can look marginally cool depending on how skilled or preternaturally cool the actor is, but it becomes extremely tedious and off-putting when done to excess. Cigarette smoking used to be extremely cool but no longer, and that goes for actors in movies especially.
“The only people I know in real life who smoke are (a) young and courting a kind of contrarian identity, (b) older with vaguely self-destructive attitudes, and in some cases beset by addiction problems, (c) serious “party” people with unmistakable self-destructive compulsions and tendencies, and (d) life’s chronic losers — riffraff, low-lifes, scuzzballs.
“The point is that all the above associations seem to kick in every time sometime lights up in a film, and it’s gotten so that I don’t want to watch characters in movies smoke at all. Unless it’s a period film or unless they look extremely cool doing it (a la Robert Mitchum in Out of the Past or Jean Paul Belmondo in Breathless), but very few actors have that ability.
“I smoked for years and years but I don’t any more, and I don’t like the way cigarettes smell unless I’m in Europe. (It’s different over there). Smoking isn’t exactly outright suicide but it’s the next thing to it, and every time someone lights up in a movie it half-pisses me off and makes me think negatively about the film in general, especially if this or that actor smokes all through the movie and looks and acts like a lowlife.
“Criminals in movies are always smoking because of (b), (c) and (d), but I think it’s way too easy for an actor to use smoking as a piece of business. It’s tedious and repellent. It makes me want to see the actor get shot or at least beaten up.
“I think the sun has really set on the sexiness of smoking in movies, and I’m starting to think that actors who light up all the time in front of the camera are second-raters.
“People should be free to do anything they want of a self-destructive nature — cigarettes, booze, compulsive eating, coke, heroin — as long as they don’t hurt anyone else doing it. And actors should be free to do anything they want that will make a performance connect. But smoking has lost its coolness, and actors who lean on it repeatedly or compulsively are boring, and I’m starting to say ‘the hell with them’ when they pull one out and strike a match.
“Deep down I guess I’m acknowledging that I wouldn’t be surprised if I live a slightly shorter life because of my smoking in the ’70s and ’80s, and I’m kind of angry about that possibility.”