Anti-smokers ought to butt out of movies

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HOLLYWOOD (Variety) – In a Brave New World being proposed by a fellow who obviously embraces the role of censor and enforcer of the rewriting of history, kids of all ages would be able to attend a biographical film about Adolf Hitler. But no one under 17, unless accompanied by an adult, would be allowed to see a similar picture about two of the world leaders most responsible for halting the career of the vegetarian teetotaling Nazi, Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt.

If this self-appointed regulator has his way, many of the most beloved films of all time not set in the ancient world or outer space –“Gone With the Wind,” “Citizen Kane,” “Titanic,” “The Sound of Music,” “Shane,” “Some Like It Hot,” “A Hard Day’s Night,” “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” “Casablanca,” “Rio Bravo,” or just about anything starring Humphrey Bogart or John Wayne, not to mention Bette Davis, Gary Cooper, Frank Sinatra or the Marx brothers — will be automatically slapped with retroactive R ratings.

And if this single-issue crusader actually gets somewhere with his campaign, which already has convinced some people in Hollywood to take him seriously and has received amazingly sympathetic treatment in major publications in the past two weeks, we will soon be seeing a new warning line attached to the Motion Picture Assn. of America’s Restricted rating that would read something like this: Danger — The Smoking You See in This Film Could Be Hazardous to Your Health.

Now that smoking has effectively been banned from all offices, restaurants, sporting venues and public places, with open-air parks looking like the next target, the banner is clearly being taken up for the next frontier of prohibition, for what I’ll call third-hand smoke, stuff you can’t actually inhale or even smell but that evidently can pollute you all the same. The charge is being led by one Stanton Glantz, a UC San Francisco School of Medicine professor, who, through his group Smoke Free Movies, has been taking ads, appearing on talk shows and lobbying industryites on behalf of his idea that smoking should be considered on par with graphic garroting, disembowelment, chainsaw dismemberment, decapitation, torture, machine gun massacres and all other manner of splatter-film violence, along with full-frontal nudity and a cascade of f-words, as far as film ratings are concerned.

If common sense prevailed in such matters, such a proposal would be laughed off or filed away deep in a don’t-bother-to-reply drawer. But zealots gripped by a cause, no matter how nonsensical, won’t go away quietly, so they must be addressed, albeit, one hopes, from a more logical mindset and in a less emotional tone than they employ. Where Glantz and his brethren, including Rob Reiner, who is apparently already trying to snuff out smoking in pictures at Castle Rock, score the most points is in their charge that onscreen smoking glamorizes the habit, that the sight of beautiful young people puffing away will encourage kids to emulate their idols.

It is certainly true that movie stars, from Marlene Dietrich and Lauren Bacall to James Dean and Jean-Paul Belmondo, have always made smoking look cool. But the allure of watching Bogart constantly smoking while smoldering in “Casablanca,” Cooper wilting Dietrich in clouds of smoke in “Morocco” or Wayne lighting up as he bested his enemies in almost anything is undercut by the knowledge that these three most macho of stars actually died from a lifetime of chain-smoking, which presents anyone with a clear-cut choice for making up one’s own mind.

Much more to the point, however, is that there are numerous other activities routinely, and attractively, shown onscreen that are considerably more dangerous statistically than smoking, particularly to younger people. When you roll together all the negative effects of drinking — auto accidents, physical abuse, reckless behavior, irresponsibility, waste of time and lives — they are infinitely more damaging than the effects of smoking, which usually take decades to accumulate into serious illness and even then negatively effect only about one-third of those who do it. But Glantz and cohorts, medical and otherwise, have expressed no outrage at the drinking shown, not only in movies, but still promoted via ads all over the media.

And how about the health hazards posed by obesity, which, according to major studies published last year, now represents a more serious problem in the United States than does anything to do with smoking. By rights, any motion picture showing people eating at McDonald’s or Kentucky Fried Chicken, or chowing down on fatty foods or big desserts should automatically be rated R, since the long-term consequences are dire in a nation where, per a Rand report, three out of five Americans are overweight, a fact that can be empirically confirmed by a quick visit to Disneyland or Las Vegas.

Since we’re not likely to see Budweisers and Big Macs banned from the big screen anytime soon, it’s plausible to ask why the pit bulls of political correctness have decided to demonize smoking and ignore other much less normal aspects of life; to become incensed, for example, by the aggrieved Sissy Spacek’s utterly understandable smoking in the already R-rated “In the Bedroom” or the constant cloud of smoke through which the aristocrats carry on, with absolute cultural and period accuracy, in “Gosford Park,” and turn a blind eye to the precarious driving in the PG-13-rated “The Fast and the Furious” or unsafe sex and wanton violence in countless movies. The reason can only be hatred of the tobacco companies, an attitude legitimized by the courts with their outrageous bequests to people who blame corporations for their own lifetimes of indulgence and lack of personal responsibility, and by the tobacco companies themselves for their history of deceit.

I am personally disgusted when I see a movie like “Saving Private Ryan” or “Pearl Harbor” that rewrites history by showing virtually no one (including FDR in the latter) smoking at a time when cigarettes were actually included in the military’s C rations; so poisonous is the stance toward smoking now that I was actually thrilled to see the habit properly and proportionately represented in “Band of Brothers.” Glantz is so off-base on the issue of the logical, historical and normal depiction of smoking in motion pictures that, when challenged about whether any film showing Churchill or FDR (or so many others) would deserve an R rating, he dismisses such works as “documentary.” In fact, if the anti-smoking adherents are interested in making a documentary promoting their cause, their most logical choice as a director might be Leni Riefenstahl, who at 99 is presumably available and, as the creator of “Triumph of the Will,” might know very well how to propagandize on behalf of a cause — anti-smoking — that was almost as dear to the heart of the fuhrer as it is to them. Glantz also vehemently denies that he’s calling for censorship, which of course is the first tip-off that it is exactly what he’s interested in.

To an industry (and a country) that likes to congratulate itself for its devotion to freedom of expression, it should be apparent that Glantz’s movement, which is obviously gathering some steam, represents anti-democratic social engineering of the first order and should be resisted on principle regardless of one’s personal disposition toward smoking.

By Todd McCarthy, Variety Chief Film Critic – Reuters/Variety

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