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Cool Personified: Smokey Allure of the Big Screen : Society: Mirroring movies, the nation smoked for most of this century. Then health issues came to the fore. So why are young people smoking again?

July 11, 1993|Tom Christie | Tom Christie is a contributing editor and columnist for Buzz magazine.

The recent decision by the City Council to ban smoking in all Los Angeles restaurants is just the latest pull in a centuries-long tug of war. We've come a long way (baby), from King James I's 1604 "Counterblaste to Tobacco" to a 1926 cigarette ad featuring a nonsmoking female model begging her male companion to "Blow some my way," to an official and peremptory "Blow it outside, bub."

But sensible smokers--oxymoron noted--will applaud rather than grouse at the new restrictions. After all, profiteering motives of the mass producers aside, the cigarette was never intended as the proletariat death stick it has become--any more than opera was meant to have large electronic subtitles, or jazz was meant to be fused. It was meant for the sophisticated few, it was meant to be cool. Perhaps, the only means for smoking to regain its proper place in the world, its coolness, is its partial prohibition.

On the day of the ban, Rothman, Benson & Hedges of Canada introduced a new cigarette that comes with special snippers and storage tubes to snip off and store half-smoked butts. Due to high tobacco prices and tough anti-smoking measures, heavy-smoking Canadians had already begun to reuse their cigarettes. But snippers! That's cool.

On the night of the ban, I rented the English film "Enchanted April," set in the years after World War I. In it, a man furtively smoking indoors sees an old and proper woman coming and quickly stubs his cigarette into a potted plant. It's too late: She smells the smoke. "I don't approve of smoking indoors, Mr. Wilkins," she says, reproaching. "I didn't think you would," says Wilkins, reproached.

Meanwhile, the young and stunning Lady Caroline Denster lounges on the terrace, cigarette floating laconically between first and second extraordinarily delicate fingers. Never mind the Lady Bracknellesque old woman, the future of smoking clearly lies with the alluring Lady Caroline: Soon enough she'll bring a cigarette to her lips indoors, and all the Western world will light up.

That's entertainment and that, in fact, is history--sometimes they are the same. The Hollywood and European film's relationship to smoking was as both recorder and influencer. There were, of course, strong sociological forces behind the tremendous rise in smoking during this century--when the per capita consumption of cigarettes for adults went from 54 in 1900 to a high of 4,345 in 1963--including wars (GIs and Rosies the Riveter) and women's liberation (a cigarette was considered by many to be a sign of freedom). But nothing had as powerful an effect as the mass media.

The movie screen alone is alive with the memorable imagery of smoking. While early moviegoers learned only "bad" women smoked, following generations learned to inhale from the likes of Marlene Dietrich, Garbo and Claudette Colbert. In 1934, women felt liberated when First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt lit up in public. But even that could not match the effect of the most famous smoking scene, in the 1942 "Now Voyager," when Paul Henreid lit two cigarettes at once, then passed one to Bette Davis.

The message was clear: Cigarettes weren't just sexy, they were sex. ("So Round, So Firm, So Fully Packed, So Free and Easy on the Draw," moaned one Lucky Strike ad.) And the next generation of stars--Montegomery Clift, Marlon Brando, James Dean, Jean-Paul Belmondo and Sean Connery's James Bond--proved it. Then it was rock stars, with lit cigarettes dangling from their loose, oversized lips or stuck like incense in the strings of their Fenders. Cigarettes and sex hardly counted as vices anymore, and soon every girl behind the perfume counter at Wal-Mart had a nasty nicotine habit and an even nastier imagination.

What was good for Wal-Mart clearly wasn't so good for Fred Segal, and as the Lady Carolines of our world turned to fitness, egged on by some nasty figures on lung cancer, they began to turn against the smoking tides. Hollywood followed. In 1970, "On a Clear Day You Can See Forever" opened with Barbra Streisand seeking psychiatric advice to quit smoking. Several older stars, including Kirk Douglas, Cliff Robertson and Carol Channing were featured in a magazine article, "How I Quit Smoking." Betty Grable, herself a smoker who in younger, better days had appeared in a war-time ad saying, "With the boys . . . it's Chesterfield," died of lung cancer. The cool had gone cold--at least with the older set.

But the young, of course, are irrepressible--and far more needing of coolness. And so, like clockwork, along come Mickey Rourke, Christian Slater and Alec Baldwin; Jennifer Jason Leigh, Bridget Fonda and "La Femme Nikita," Guns N' Roses, L7 and Nirvana to light up another generation--"Smells Like Teen Spirit," as the song goes. While all other categories of smokers decreases annually, the young continue to smoke with abandon, especially the less-educated, females (who feel more confident smoking, studies show) and the cafe au grunge crowd.

Still, as I found out the morning after the vote at my local coffeehouse--which on a good day affords the air quality of San Bernardino in September--even my expectations were wrong. I mentioned the ban to the woman behind the counter and rather than ridicule it she almost squealed with excitement. "It passed?" she said. I nodded, and she immediately turned to a young Bohemian exotic with a burning cigarette and said, "Hey Jane, there's no smoking in here!" I pointed out that it wouldn't take effect for a month.

Later, through the window, I found myself watching the alluring Jane, now at an outside table, another cigarette floating almost laconically between her not-so-delicate fingers. She looked confident. And I realized: I'm on the inside looking out. I'm able to breathe and I feel like I'm watching a Godard film. Now, you can't get much cooler than that. I almost want to go outside and light up.

Nah.

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