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Force of Habit

Where there's smoke, there's Hollywood. The portrayal of smoking on-screen goes on, much to the dismay of activists who are locked in battle with the tobacco industry.

September 05, 1996|ELAINE DUTKA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

What are you going to do, arrest me for smoking?

--Sharon Stone's character in 1992's "Basic Instinct."

*

Joel Schumacher first lighted up at age 9 and, as a reformed four-pack-a-day smoker, has little patience for the habit. In the mid-1980s, smoking was so prevalent while he was shooting "Flatliners," "St. Elmo's Fire" and "Lost Boys," the director says, that he "almost developed black lung disease."

These days, Schumacher discourages smoking on the set unless cigarettes are part of the story line. Yet his 1994 adaptation of John Grisham's "The Client" opens with a scene in which a 10-year-old teaches an 8-year-old how to inhale.

Balancing social responsibility and artistic license is an industrywide challenge--one to which television has responded more effectively than feature filmmakers, according to a study being released today by the American Lung Assn. Though President Clinton's recent crackdown on the sale and advertising of tobacco seeks to reduce cigarette use among minors, it doesn't address what many consider to be one of the more enticing forms of exposure: the portrayal of smoking on the screen.

Cigarette ads were banned from TV in 1971, and network Standards and Practices departments have stringent guidelines about tobacco use in programming. Still, smoking occurred in 15% of the 230 television episodes reviewed during the last year by the lung association, although almost never by a main character.

Movies are another story. The depiction of smoking declined in the decades after the 1964 Surgeon General report, corresponding to a real-world decline in smoking by adult Americans from 42.4% in 1965 to 25.5% in 1994. But data compiled by a UC San Francisco professor of medicine shows it's still greatly exaggerated on the big screen.

"Movies bear more resemblance to tobacco advertising than they do to reality," said Dr. Stanton Glantz, whose 1994 study analyzed cigarette smoking in randomly selected films released between 1960 and 1991. "Kids come away thinking that the habit is widely accepted, practiced by people in positions of power when it's actually minority behavior concentrated among the less-educated and the poor. Though on-camera smoking seems to be on the rise, the current system insulates the studios and affords them deniability."

Since 1990, studios have refused to accept payment for the on-screen use of tobacco, leaving the portrayal of smoking exclusively in the hands of filmmakers. Some insiders insist that an under-the-table form of product placement is going on nevertheless--a charge difficult to prove and denied by the tobacco industry.

In period movies such as "Mulholland Falls" and "Kansas City," not to mention film-noirish projects such as "The Last Seduction" and "The Usual Suspects," smoking is part and parcel of the action just as it was in the 1930s and 1940s when stars such as Humphrey Bogart, Barbara Stanwyck and Bette Davis held an ever-present cigarette. And with even less justification, modern stories rely too heavily on cigarettes to develop character and advance the plot, anti-cigarette advocates say.

In "Pulp Fiction," John Travolta impressed Uma Thurman by rolling his own cigarettes, while two of the leads in the environmentally conscious "A River Runs Through It" smoked. Ted Danson puffed his way through the PG-rated "Getting Even With Dad" as do three of the five main characters in the 20-something romantic comedy "She's the One." "The Good Son" showed Macaulay Culkin lighting up . . . and even Randy Quaid's Amish bowler inhaled by the end of "Kingpin."

Inserting the smoking scene into "The Client" was a tough call, Schumacher said, but in the end he opted to be true to John Grisham's bestseller. "Warner Bros. never brought up the issue but, then, no studio ever has," he said. (Warner Bros. declined to comment.)

Tom Lauria, a spokesman for the Washington, D.C.-based Tobacco Institute, said he "denounces any effort to dictate to Hollywood the content of its work," likening such efforts to the establishment of the Hays Code of the 1930s.

"Feature films depict a variety of activities but I take umbrage at the fact that, on TV, only villains smoke," he said. "Being a nice person and smoking a cigarette aren't mutually exclusive, so why invent new stereotypes? Just as we shouldn't encourage drinking, smoking or other adult behavior on programs with wide youth audiences, we shouldn't reduce society's portrayal in media to a sandbox."

Even so, having Sandra Bullock smoke in this summer's "A Time to Kill" was "unfortunate," Schumacher acknowledged. As shot, the film included a scene in which her character--a former smoker--reveals to Matthew McConaughey that she was puffing on clove cigarettes, purchased in a health food store. When the movie came in at four hours, however, that segment was cut.

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