James Dean, Marilyn Manson and the Hollywood myth

Website - 11 September 2005

Ever since the days of James Dean puffing on filter tips, observers have always assumed that Hollywood promotes, perpetuates and even glorifies smoking throughout the world. However, recent research suggests the exact opposite to this embedded myth. It is evidence that this popular argument is as the icons who smoked in swanky convertibles.

You could expect such findings to come from biased groups. But, dramatically and ironically, the research is courtesy of the American College of Chest Physicians – and it was published in their annual journal ‘Chest’. Their conclusions are based on all top ten U.S. Box Office movies made after 1990.

According to ‘Chest’, one in five lead characters were smokers (roughly the proportion of smokers in America). Around half of these were from lower socio-economic backgrounds, and the number of “bad guy” smokers outnumbers the “good guys” by 2:1.

Let’s look at some examples. In the film ‘Blade’, the evil vampire, played by Stephen Dorff, smokes, while the film’s hero, Wesley Snipes’ character Eric Brooks, does not. In the blockbuster ‘Face/Off’, Nicholas Cage plays both the good guy, Sean Archer, and the bad guy, Castor Troy, but only Troy smokes. In ‘Mission Impossible’, the villain, Jim Phelps, played by Jon Voigt, smokes, while Tom Cruise’s character, the clean-living hero Ethan Hunt, is never seen with a cigarette.

Dr Karan Omidvari, who led the research team, commented: “Most investigators have concluded that smoking is portrayed as glamorous and positive, but our study shows that the exact opposite is true. Some studies have also found that movies influence minority groups to smoke. We have contradicted these findings as well.” So rent a film, kick back and light up - secure in the knowledge that it wasn’t the silver screen that bought that Marlboro packet.

You can see where they’re coming from. I smoke, and I don’t blame art for my habit. One of my reservations lies in the study’s conclusion. Are people only influenced by the “good guys” in films? Surely some “bad” traits, such as rebellion or risk-taking have appeal with many young people. This glossy new study seems as subjective and parochial as the contrary research it criticises.

To find out if would-be smokers really are influenced by film would require a deep, cogent psychological study, on many people rather than movies themselves. We find ourselves returning to the debates over whether movies, video games or Marilyn Manson directly prompt violence and killing.

Marilyn Manson bore the must of the prejudiced U.S. media following the Columbine shootings of 1999. Critics hung blame on Manson for allegedly “inspiring” acts of violence with his dark lyrics and music. In his defence, he said, “The first few people on earth needed no books, movies, games or music to inspire cold-blooded murder.”

In a “free country” where most media facilities are owned by government sycophants, Hollywood serves to instill an alternative truth. Books, games and music serve the same purpose. If America is “one commercial away from anarchy”, are they only one blockbuster away from complete subservience? And which is most important?