Audrey Hepburn did it. So did Humphrey Bogart, Bette Davis, Nicole Kidman and, famously, Olivia Newton-John. But you’ll never see another movie star smoke on screen if the anti-smoking lobby has its way.
Critics of the tobacco industry want Hollywood to treat on-screen smoking the same way it treats indecent language and nudity – with an R rating from the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA).
It’s a change that would effectively ban smoking from many movies, since an R rating hurts a movie at the box office, and producers regularly demand that directors deliver a crowd-friendly rating.
Congress is listening to the activists: On Tuesday, the Senate Commerce Committee invited anti-smoking witnesses to testify on Capitol Hill.
“When are we going to treat smoking as seriously as we treat the word ‘f – – – ‘?” Dr. Stan Glantz asked the panel. Glantz, a leading tobacco-industry opponent, is a professor of medicine at the University of California.
“If you use the F-word once in a sexual context, you get an R rating.”
Glantz’s salty language wasn’t appreciated by Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.), who reminded the professor of the Senate’s standards of decorum.
But while Glantz apologized for using the word, he said he used it to make a point.
“I did it quite deliberately,” he said. “The use of the word will get you an R rating. It doesn’t kill you.”
Glantz and other anti-smoking activists say that giving an R rating to movies that contain smoking would prevent 200,000 children a year from lighting up. They argue that 390,000 children develop a tobacco habit because of what they see on the big screen.
Though there is no legislation pending that would force the MPAA to modify its ratings system, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said the movie industry has to step up or it might face such a law.
MPAA chairman Jack Valenti testified in defense of the current system.
“I am opposed to smoking on the screen and off,” he told the Senate panel.
“But if the director feels it’s essential to the time and place, or a quick way to identify a character’s traits, it’s his right to tell the story as he sees fit.”
It’s hard to imagine countless classic movies without those smoking scenes, say experts.
“Cigarettes can instantly convey what a character is like,” says Martin Grove, on-line columnist for the Hollywood Reporter.
“Think of Lauren Bacall in a ’40s movie like ‘The Big Sleep.’ When she lights up, it shows that she’s a liberated woman, and you don’t want to fool around with her.”
Cigarettes can indicate elegance – like a tuxedoed Fred Astaire pulling a smoke from a shiny case in one of his ’30s musicals – or desperation, like in “Casablanca,” when Humphrey Bogart’s ashtray fills with butts as he tries to drink away thoughts of Ingrid Bergman.
But according to the anti-smoking lobby, it’s not art that Hollywood is after in these scenes, but cash.
At the Senate hearing, Glantz suggested that “product placement” money was changing hands somewhere, even though that would violate the national accord reached by the states and the tobacco industry on advertising.
“If they’re getting paid, then they are corrupt,” Glantz said. “If they’re doing it for free, then they’re stupid.”
Valenti said that was ridiculous.
“I have been unable to unearth one jot of evidence of product placement with cigarettes,” he said.
“The MPAA doesn’t want to make smoking one of the triggers for a film rating or to add a T for tobacco designation because that would open the door for everyone’s pet causes.
“Alcohol abuse, murder by gun, unsafe driving, smoking, obesity . . . To start talking about things that kill people, the rating system isn’t capable of bearing that burden.”
This is going waaaaay too far!