Waiting to Exhale – a Brief History of Smoking in the Movies

Blowing smoke has been cool, culturally relevant, sexy, and just plain irritating.


You’ve been there a thousand times: a scene in a movie, two people, some dialogue … and then somebody takes out a cigarette. The scene, whatever it is, should take only so long. But the dialogue pauses for the actor to light up, inhale, exhale. We wait. The scene and its dialogue resume, but then another cycle of pausing, sucking, blowing out, squinting in the smoke begins. Now is the time you start thinking about something you hadn’t before: what that character must smell like. We have the leisure to ponder that irrelevance because we’re waiting, killing moments as the actor fills the backlit air with smoke, daring someone to cough. What’s this film about again? Why are we waiting?

Movie smoking is nothing new, God knows, but abusing minutes of screen time on the activity, like sand in the gears of the story, is. Consider the hours you could have back, the recent overlong movies that could be pruned by 10% or 20%. Because it is a matter of time — time wasted. Watching someone smoke in this deliberate way means the narrative stops dead. Think about the accumulated minutes you’ve spent waiting for characters to get done with their smoke diet in just this year’s leading offenders, which include House of Gucci, Passing, Nightmare Alley, Being the Ricardos, The Souvenir Part II, Red Rocket, The Harder They Fall, The Tender Bar, and The French Dispatch. The nearly eight hours of Get Back could’ve been shorn of maybe a full eighth of that length, had the endless shots of lighting up and puffing been trimmed or cut out.

For me, the breaking point was The Souvenir Part II — hardly a single scene passes without being stalled for fag ignition. But soon it became a running joke, the only humor in the movie. Whenever the filmmaker cut to pivotal supporting player Ariane Labed, dozens of times, she’d have a butt in her hand and had to interrupt her dialogue to pull on it. It came to feel like an endless SNL skit, with Kate McKinnon doing a distended hyper-spoof as a clueless French actress.

We’re not talking about the occasional smoke, or lit cigarettes that idle and don’t pause the story. Characters, like real people, sometimes smoke. We’re talking about the stylistic overuse of the action to degrees that are a distracting drag (sorry) on a film’s narrative experience. Never mind that the cigarettes on a modern film set are more often than not herbal props, for the well-being of everyone involved. (Even devout smokers would get sick doing 15 or 20 takes of one of these smoking scenes.) They could be puffing on old newspapers for all we care, as the smoky seconds tick by, which is what matters. The time-chew is less important on smoke-filled TV shows (Mad Men, Stranger Things, Mindhunter, True Detective, The Walking Dead, etc.), because we expect TV shows to waste our time, don’t we? In a movie, it’s a system delay, an irritant not unlike an inhaled particle nagging at lung tissue.

On film, we don’t commonly watch people eat in this way. Think about having to contemplate, say, Jennifer Lawrence sitting and eating a meal during a scene, waiting for her to chew and swallow…. We sometimes have to wait for someone to heartily quaff vodka out of a bottle, but that’s usually in movies about alcoholism. (Sipping a cocktail never slows a movie down.) It’s smoking that gets this indulgent elbow room. What’s worse, this smoking MO is false on its face — people don’t really smoke like this. Many of the recent smoke-a-thons are period films, set in eras when a lot more people smoked — indoors, in offices, everywhere — than they do today. Setting a film in the ’40s or ’50s is a license to have your characters constantly fuming like exhaust pipes; contemporary filmmakers, in a real-world culture that’s not nearly as smoke-focused as it used to be, tend to go overboard in an attempt at period authenticity.

But it’s bullshit. I grew up with smoking parents and relatives and neighbors who all lived through WWII and the postwar decades, and I never saw anyone stop a conversation in order to take a drag. The butts waited, held aloft. Hapless, compulsive chain-smokers aside, people from the mid-20th century didn’t live with a constantly burning cigarette in their hand: They’d light one, let it burn, finish it, then get on with what they were doing. Sometimes they’d forget it, and it’d burn down to the filter in an ashtray. Not everyone was Dean Martin.

In the history of movies, smoking came and went. It’s infrequent in silent films; in the American ’20s, cigarettes were still a budding industry. It wasn’t until the ’30s that things accelerated, after Edward Bernays’s infamous “Torches of Freedom” advertising campaign for the American Tobacco Company, which targeted the taboo of women smoking in public. It worked in the streets, but still, watch a ’30s film — the fast-talking characters puff once and then often throw the butt away (like John Wayne always did, on film at least). Because the black and white photography of backlit smoke had a kind of mysterious glamour to it, some filmmakers indulged, but not commonly: The long, dialogue-free close-up of Marlene Dietrich smoking in the train corridor in Josef von Sternberg’s Shanghai Express (1932) is famous now because its slow, pensive, poetic intent was a rarity. Greta Garbo, on the other hand, almost never smoked on film, and glammed up plenty.

Besides, in black and white you’re not invited to contemplate the actors’ breath. Anyway, World War II was the paradigm shift — smoking became almost a sign of duty. Cigarettes were standard-issue for GIs, and after the war it’s been noted that returning servicemen (and maybe everyone else, too) would immediately distrust a man who didn’t smoke because it meant he didn’t serve. After the war, smoking was wall to wall, but it still didn’t bog down the movies’ dialogue-dense storytelling. Humphrey Bogart would take a drag at the beginning of a scene and then just hold the thing, consumed with attention to the dialogue and his co-stars. “I bet they’re asleep in New York,” he mutters hauntedly in Casablanca (1942) through a scrim of eye-watering smoke. In the moments of smoking we remember best, the act has significance — a suggestion of weary bitterness, a hopeless protest against the darkness.

Even in a film as smoke-packed as Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past (1947), the prodigious burning of tobacco seems to signify the characters’ postwar cynicism, and it never slows business down. When one scene opens with Kirk Douglas offering Robert Mitchum a smoke while he’s already holding one, Mitchum just shruggingly says, “Already smoking” — an ad-lib, because he’d walked onto the set with one burning. Still, the film is 97 minutes long, and you’d be hard-pressed to find surplus seconds wasted in its heady nexus of dialogue, gazes, gestures, and shadows.

Of course, most of these actors, like the rest of America, smoked, and cancer deaths were climbing, which eventually made movie smoking feel a good deal less glamorous. Once you get into the ’60s and ’70s, smoking, while still menacingly prevalent in the population, began to disappear in American movies. (Not, of course, in French films; watching those New Wave films today can scorch your esophagus.) As the war generation aged out, the infrequent incidents of smoking on film started to indicate other things: low-classness, desperation, stupidity, decadence. The new generation, even if they smoked, no longer tolerated their parents’ notion that smoking was glamorous and suave. You hardly ever saw Paul Newman, Robert Redford, Gene Hackman, Barbra Streisand, Jack Nicholson, et al., smoke on film, and many of the era’s hits — The Godfather (1972), Cabaret (1972), Chinatown (1974) — were period films but ones in which smoking characters smoked only occasionally, and used cigarettes much as my parents did: as incidental accouterments that never dominated their behavior. It wasn’t important, and didn’t take up screen time. When Dustin Hoffman’s Carl Bernstein over-smoked in All the President’s Men (1976), it was employed as a factual character trait that rubbed Redford’s Bob Woodward wrong. But there were still plenty of scenes in that 100%-talking-story film where Hoffman was too busy to smoke, and no moments when Redford had to wait to hear a sentence finished. (Incidentally, the ’70s was when smoking in movie theaters began to be outlawed, a historical development memorably addressed by John Waters in a notoriously cheeky, heavy-dragging no-smoking announcement he made for art house theaters such as  L.A’.s Nuart and Baltimore’s Charles Theater, as thanks for their midnight showings of Pink Flamingos.)

But over the past 30 years or so, smoking on film has been on a steady rise, largely, it seems, as a rebellion against the ways in which the culture has successfully canceled the habit in public places and turned ardent smokers into pariahs. (Characters in films by Quentin Tarantino and Wes Anderson smoke, it seems, because they’re not supposed to.) How oddly old-fashioned Bruce Willis’s laboriously streetwise-tough-guy smoking in Die Hard (1988) seemed even at the time; his character, John McClane, more or less kicked the habit after that, as the four sequels ran through the next quarter-century of anti-smoking wokeness.

The conflict was palpable in Jason Reitman’s Thank You for Smoking (2005), the Christopher Buckley–derived farce that strains to plumb the depths of a tobacco lobbyist’s moral vacuum, and to do so without a single cigarette in sight. Was this, in a climate of mainstream contempt for smoking, a smart tobacco lobbyist’s decision? Did the filmmakers decide that showing a single act of smoking would quash our interest in the characters? You’d think such a hypocritical move would have triggered whirlwinds of cognitive dissonance for Reitman and Co., just as we’d suppose a rational lobbyist’s daily job would—could that have been the film’s under-the-table strategy?

Generally, in the new century’s films about contemporary Americans, only lowlifes — gangsters, prostitutes, rumpots, junkies, abusive parents, evil executives — have commonly smoked in films, as if moral turpitude, in characters we either hate or kinda love, is required in order to maintain an ardor for Marlboros in the face of near-universal opprobrium. (In other countries, smoking means other things — in Chinese life and film, it signifies middle-class affluence, while in films from the ex-Soviet states, it can routinely be scanned as an indicator of misery and poverty. In France, c’est la vie, still.) The sequestering of smoking as vice hasn’t changed so much, just the frequency of it and the amount of time it consumes. Characters in period films about the 20th century are, as we’ve seen, exempt from censure, and these films—nostalgic for the days when you could light up in a boardroom, in an elevator, and at the dinner table—have been thick on the ground. Our films have slowed down in so many ways: distending in length, drowsily doped on wordless eye-to-eye gaze contests, receding into unnecessary traumatic backstories, frittering time away on dialogue-free “mood” shots and brooding. Smoking is just another time-killing integer in the mix, an over-used prop for actors and a dreary atmospheric note for directors. Despite cinematographers’ concerted efforts, cigarette smoke, in color HD, isn’t even very visually evocative anymore.

But it may all come down to this: Usually, a film character’s smoking doesn’t really say anything about the character, or the story. The imaginative historical reading of Bogart and Mitchum aside — the cigarettes of film noir are resonant in hindsight, like so much about the genre — it’s just a habit, a pose, a pollutant, and it doesn’t distinguish anybody. We all know smokers in real life, and they’re all different, and none of them are any cooler than the rest of us. That is, if “cool” is still a vital point of reference for you. It doesn’t take some inherent coolness to smoke, any more than it takes gym-ripened biceps to fire a gun. Anyone can do it, and doing it reveals nothing about you except that you may be helpless in the grip of nicotine’s rush. My mother, Joan Lenore Atkinson, nee McInerney (1930–2012), was a dedicated smoker from when she was a teenager until she quit, at 47, and if you knew her, you knew she was the least cool person ever to watch Matlock reruns. And I never saw her pose with her Kents, or drag-exhale in the middle of a conversation.

This “cool” thing is nagging, because of course vaping has the advantage of possibly arresting a few million cases of lung cancer, but it remains terminally uncool and is therefore rarely seen in movies and on TV. In fact, vaping as of now is only used cinematically as a behavior that suggests the character’s embarrassed inability to quit smoking, and therefore a weary degree of disappointment in the self and in the way life is shaping up. (Think Mare of Easttown.) There’s an undertow of anxiety with vaping that may prevent it from ever being converted into a fashionably filmable action — plus, there’s no smoke to backlight.

Maybe vaping’s fuddy-duddiness could be transformed with an old-fashioned Bernays marketing assault, but we shouldn’t hold our proverbial breath. As of 2019, a mere 14% of the population — down from around a full half in the mid-century — still smoked cigarettes, so it seems likely that no demographic is as impassioned about movie smoking today as the filmmakers themselves. They, my mother would say in her later smokeless years, should get over themselves.  ❖

Michael Atkinson has been writing for the Village Voice since 1994. His latest book is the new edition of his BFI tract on David Lynch’s Blue Velvet.





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