Lighting Up The Silver Screen

In Hollywood, it seems that no one is truly immune to the overwhelming influence of Big Tobacco. The more I think about it, the more it seems that Big Tobacco actually owns Hollywood and therefore 90% of the films that come out blatantly advertise tobacco in some way, even to this day… Especially the most popular movies. I think we can all assume that embracing tobacco will actually give your film and your career some kind of turbo boost. The interesting thing is, even after prominent filmmakers such as the Coen brothers have obtained worldwide success, million dollar budgets and complete creative control these filmmakers still insist on flooding their films with tobacco.

Top level directors & actors alike just can’t ever seem to say “NO” to that Big Tobacco money, even after they themselves are millionaires and don’t need any product placements at all. The fact that big name directors continue to pepper their films with hundreds of tobacco incidents is indeed one of the biggest arguments as to why I believe filmmakers like the Coen brothers are truly “in bed” with Big Tobacco in some way. When looking at their entire catalog, this tobacco thing seems to go way beyond simple product placement deals for each individual film.

Let’s face it… At this point in their careers, the Coen brothers don’t need money from Big Tobacco to get their next movie made. Quentin Tarantino & Martin Scorcese sure as hell don’t need the money. Steven Spielberg sure as fuck don’t need the money. All of the top directors of today don’t actually need to show tobacco onscreen unless it truly serves the story. But which story are these directors truly serving? I mean tobacco use is truly everywhere in Hollywood, especially on the silver screen. Somebody is obviously working for Big Tobacco and it don’t take a weatherman to know which way the shit blows.

The sharpest directors seem to have figured out this dirty little secret early on and therefore flooded their early films with tobacco, maybe even before anyone ever agreed to pay them for it. For first time feature filmmakers Joel & Ethan Coen, embedding tobacco products might have seemed like second nature from the start. By my count, the Coen brothers embedded nearly 200 instances of tobacco into their first film. They obviously had no trouble integrating those elements into the story, Blood Simple (1984) clearly featured brands like Camel cigarettes & Zippo ligters.

FUN FACT #9 – WITH A NAME LIKE ASH

Actor Bruce Campbell is probably best known for his role as “Ash” in Sam Raimi’s cult film The Evil Dead (1981) where he attaches a chainsaw to his severed hand, but on a few occasions old Bruce decided to lend the Coen brothers a hand instead. Not only did Campbell star in Crimewave (1985) which the Coens co-wrote with Raimi, he grabbed small roles in The Hudsucker Proxy (1994) and Intolerable Cruelty (2003) as well. In Hudsucker, old Bruce even has a hand for cartooning and smoking Lucky Strike brand cigarettes. Way to go, Ash!

Similarly, the infamous filmmaker Martin Scorcese’s freshman effort Who’s That Knocking At My Door? (1961) definitely contained lots of cigarettes in artful black & white. Scorcese is another one of the biggest names on the planet and yet his feature films are all just astounding in terms of the amount of tobacco actually being depicted. Damn near every single one of old Marty’s films is completely littered with tobacco products. Scorcese might even be able to overtake the Coen brothers by sheer numbers and I could have just as easily written this book about him instead, however I think the Coen brothers still do something a little better than old Marty — and that something better is weaving tobacco products so carefully into the storyline that it becomes indespensible.

Nonetheless, everywhere you look in Hollywood you will see tobacco products sharing the limelight with the other big name celebrities and popular films. An absolutely insanely popular film such as The Godfather (1972) by Francis Ford Coppola contains quite a few tobacco incidents, obviously. Martin Scorcese’s early film Mean Streets (1973) definitely contains countless cigarettes & smokey bars. Quentin Tarantino’s “independent” first film Reservoir Dogs (1992) contains several of the primary actors smoking cigarettes. Even the first film by Kevin Smith, a low-budget comedy entitled Clerks (1990), depicts quite a few people coming into the small convenience store and generally asking for a pack of cigarettes. This one is interesting because I heard that Kevin Smith financed the low-budget movie himself; he wasn’t beholden to Big Tobacco or anyone else to depict smoking in his first film. He probably just had a hunch — much like the Coen brothers and everyone else — that embedding tobacco into his film might take him far in Hollywood. Guess what, he was right.

Another one of my personal favorite filmmakers Paul Thomas Anderson titled his early short film “Cigarettes & Coffee” so I’m guessing he had very little trouble getting financing for his first few motion pictures. It seems that Anderson actually grew up among the Hollywood elite so he might have known early on about using tobacco product placement as a way to move into feature films. Anderson’s short film “Cigarettes & Coffee” is not to be confused with the series of short films entitled “Coffee & Cigarettes” by Jim Jarmusch. I’ll give you one guess what all of these films are really about. Maybe Jim Jarmusch is really just Paul Thomas Anderson with a wig on.

Similarly, Jason Reitman (son of legendary filmmaker Ivan Reitman) chose “Thank You for Smoking” as the book to inspire his first feature film. In just two hours, Reitman was able to portray a tobacco lobbyist rather warmly and actually make you sympathize with his struggle. If Big Tobacco has anything to say about it, I’m sure little Jason will have a nice long career directing feature films just like his father.

As a matter of fact, let’s take a look at an interesting scene from Jason Reitman’s film Thank You for Smoking (2005) where the tobacco lobbyist main character (played by actor Aaron Eckhart) travels out to Hollywood to meet with the head of the largest talent agency (played by actor Rob Lowe) in an attempt to have cigarettes used onscreen by famous celebrity actors…


ROB LOWE: Mr. Naler is here to see if we can’t get cigarettes into the hands of somebody other than the usual RAVs.

AARON ECKHART: RAVs?

ROB LOWE: Russians, Arabs, and Villians.

AARON ECKHART: Oh, well, yes, that is why I’m here.

ROB LOWE: Good, I think we can help.

* * *

AARON ECKHART: What we need is a smoking role model, a real winner.

ROB LOWE: Indiana Jones meets Jerry McGuire.

AARON ECKHART: Right, on two packs a day.

* * *

ROB LOWE: Sony has a futuristic sci-fi movie they’re looking to make: Message from Sector Six. All takes place in a space station. They’re actually looking for some co-financing.

AARON ECKHART: Cigarettes in space?

ROB LOWE: It’s the final frontier, Nick.

AARON ECKHART: But wouldn’t they blow up in an all-oxygen environment?

ROB LOWE: Probably. But it’s an easy fix… One line of dialogue… Thank god we invented the, you know, whatever device. Brad Pitt, Catherine Zeta Jones. They’ve just finished ravishing each other bodies for the first time. They lie naked, suspended in air underneath the heavens. Pitt lights up. He starts blowing smoke rings all around Catherine’s naked flawless body as the galaxies go whizzing by over the glass domed ceiling… Now tell me that doesn’t work for you.

AARON ECKHART: I’d see that movie.

ROB LOWE: I’d buy the goddamn DVD… You know, if the Academy didn’t send them to me for free. You know, you guys oughta think about designing a cigarette to be released simultaneously with the movie.

AARON ECKHART: Sector Sixes.

ROB LOWE: No one’s ever done it with a cigarette.

AARON ECKHART: Wow.


This “fictional” conversation seems to echo what has been happening in Hollywood for decades. There are many reports about how Hollywood & Big Tobacco made exclusive partnerships just like this. [ Citation: How Tobacco Built A Relationship With Hollywood ]

It’s sad to say but even some of the most popular movies of the last few decades have warmly contained tobacco products too. An inspired film such as Goodfellas (1990) directed by Martin Scorcese contains hundreds of tobacco incidents, for example. Quentin Tarantino’s critically-acclaimed Pulp Fiction (1994) contains hundreds and hundreds of tobacco incidents and other substances, for example. Tarantino is another popular director and again, I could have just as easily written the book about him instead of the Coen brothers but again, I still think the Coens have one paramount skill that trumps all other filmmakers. I can really only think of one other mainstream director that might take the turkey…

Probably the most famous film director on the planet is none other than Steven Spielberg, or Estefan Spielbergio as I like to call him. Many of Spielberg’s most popular movies contain blatant tobacco use such as Jaws (1975), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), 1941 (1979), ET (1982), the Indiana Jones trilogy (1981/1984/1989), The Color Purple (1985), Empire of the Sun (1987), Schindler’s List (1993), and Saving Private Ryan (1998) just to name a few. The scary part is that some of Stevie’s old movies have gone on to gross nearly a billion dollars worldwide by themselves. The popularity of these films and ultimately the amount of tobacco impressions being generated is truly astounding. And these aren’t peaceful or inspiring documentaries that could unite all of mankind either, they are basically works of fiction just like all of the Coen brothers’ wacky movies.

Anyways, as all of these talented directors found enormous success in Hollywood, you might think that the tobacco use in their films would level out or maybe even disappear altogether. Yeah right, think again. So then, do the most recent film releases by these same directors still contain that much smoking? You bet your fuckin ass they do. These days, we are seeing much more tobacco than ever before…

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) by Martin Scorcese contains countless incidents of tobacco, drugs, alcohol, prostitution, etc, etc. All the debauchery here seems to drown own any mild effects of tobacco. The fictional whatever period film by Quentin Tarantino called The Hateful Eight (2015) contains alot of tobacco smoking in classic formats like cigars and pipes. In this film, the violence is so graphic that the tobacco is obviously the last thing on your mind. Either way, I’m betting that none of these particular films can hold a candle to the Coen brothers’ more recent pictures such as Inside Llewyn Davis which contains over 500 tobacco incidents & the latest movie Hail Caesar! which contains over 650 tobacco incidents. And all of these tobacco incidents were woven into the plot just as carefully as can be. Eat my dust, Speilbergio!

And let’s not forget about the most popular films of the entire galaxy, movies like The Shawshank Redemption (1994) and Forrest Gump (1994). Blatant tobacco use appears throughout film Forrest Gump by lovable characters like Jenny & Lieutenant Dan. Forget the adult viewers, how many teens & young adults have seen Forrest Gump? I’ve also heard that younger children are just absolutely mesmerized by the movie Forrest Gump, for some reason. Some movies are just so inspiring that ultimately viewers have to watch them just to see what all the hype is about. After all, the film won best picture at the Academy Awards that year.

FUN FACT #10 – ROGER DEAKINS

The gifted cinematographer who filmed many of the Coen brothers’ films, Roger Deakins, also filmed other infamous movies such as biopic Sid & Nancy (1986) and The Shawshank Redemption (1994), two movies which happen to treat cigarettes like best pals. These days, Roger works on mega-blockbusters like the James Bond movie Skyfall (2012) but another more recent film shot by Roger that gives tobacco a nice starring role was Sicario (2015). In this violent picture, the lead actress goes from bumming a cigarette to a pack-a-day habit. Good ol’ Deak also shot Hail, Caesar! (2015) which comes in second place for most tobacco crammed into a Coen brothers’ movie. As a director of photography, you could say Roger Deakins truly has an eye for tobacco.

In truth The Shawshank Redemption (1994) might be one of the most widely-seen films on the planet, and just happens to be littered with cigarettes. This infamous prison movie seen by billions of people even features inmates casually trading cigarettes like currency. Above all, tobacco use seems almost cavallier under the weight of being locked in prison combined with the other horrific acts which were beautifully depicted in this movie. Nonetheless, Shawshank is said to be one of the greatest films of all times. Even with all of its candid tobacco use woven into the story, the film tops many critics’ top ten lists and I’m guessing that the film has been viewed by 80% of the English-speaking universe. So how many people around the world actually saw The Shawshank Redemption? Tens of billions, without a doubt. This particular movie also continues to generate viewer impressions of tobacco every single day because it still plays on television so much. Eventually, The Shawshank Redemption (1994) will have its own cable channel where it just plays in a loop forever and ever.

Ultimately these extremely talented writers and directors such as the Coen brothers even seem to be developing new ways of portraying tobacco as something so commonplace or harmless when compared to other things. Not to mention, progressing technology has led us into an age where movies appear in ultra high definition and everything is crystal clear onscreen — sometimes even in glorious 3D — so there is no more mistaking these tobacco-related items for anything else.

It may be no accident but movies which happen to contain the most subtle or influential appearances by tobacco always seem to rise above the din in old Hollywoodland. As the Coen brothers and many other filmmakers have obviously discovered, embedding tobacco use into your film might actually turn you into a golden statue set amongst the Hollywood hills, so to speak.

Looking at the best & brightest films generated over the last few decades, it’s not hard to see how deep Big Tobacco’s rabbit hole probably goes in Hollywood. When looking at the Academy Awards each year, obviously more of the best picture winners contain smoking than ones that don’t. So how much extra exposure does a film typically receive by winning an Oscar? Who knows, but just think about the small amounts of influence that is consistently piling up on movie audiences around the world when every movie contains blatant tobacco use. Take a look at the last 30 years of so called “best” pictures…

YEAR BEST PICTURE WINNER SMOKING?  
1970 Patton YES George C Scott smokes a pipe?
1971 The French Connection YES Roy Scheider smokes cigarettes.
1972 The Godfather YES Al Pacino, James Caan & many others smoke cigarettes.
1973 The Sting YES Paul Newman smokes cigars, even on the movie poster.
1974 The Godfather II YES Al Pacino & Robert DeNiro smoke cigarettes.
1975 One Flew Over Cuckoo’s Nest YES Jack Nicholson & many patients smoke cigarettes.
1976 Rocky YES Sylvester Stallone smokes cigarettes & Uncle Pauly smokes cigars.
1977 Annie Hall YES A pediatrician smokes a cigarette within the first 3 minutes. Way to go, Woody!
1978 The Deer Hunter YES Dozens of people smoke cigarettes.
1979 Kramer vs. Kramer YES Merryl Streep smokes cigarettes.
1980 Ordinary People    
1981 Chariots of Fire    
1982 Ghandi    
1983 Terms of Endearment    
1984 Amadeus NO Cigarettes hadn’t been invented yet.
1985 Out of Africa YES Merryl Streep smokes cigarettes.
1986 Platoon YES Charlie Sheen, Tom Berenger & many others smoke cigarettes.
1987 The Last Emperor    
1988 Rain Man YES Tom Cruise smokes cigarettes.
1989 Driving Miss Daisy    
1990 Dances with Wolves YES Kevin Costner smokes peace pipes & the title card has a pipe on it.
1991 Silence of the Lambs NO A few ashtrays appear but no smokers.
1992 Unforgiven    
1993 Schindler’s List YES Liam Neeson smokes cigarettes.
1994 Forrest Gump YES Lieutenant Dan smokes cigars.
1995 Braveheart NO Cigarettes hadn’t been invented yet.
1996 The English Patient YES Kristin Scott Thomas, Colin Firth & many others smoke cigarettes.
1997 Titanic YES Leo Dicaprio, Kate Winslet, Billy Zane & others smoke cigarettes.
1998 Shakespeare in Love    
1999 American Beauty YES Teenagers Mena Suvari & Thora Birch smoke cigarettes.
2000 Gladiator    
2001 A Beautiful Mind YES Ed Harris smokes cigarettes.
2002 Chicago YES Richard Gere, Catherine Zeta Jones, Queen Latifah & others smoke.
2003 Lord of the Rings: Return of King YES Ian McKellen & Viggo Mortensen smoke pipes.
2004 Million Dollar Baby NO Actually contains some “No Smoking” signs. Way to go, Clint!
2005 Crash YES Don Cheadle & many others smoke cigarettes.
2006 The Departed YES Jack Nicholson, Leonardo DiCaprio & many others smoke cigarettes.
2007 No Country for Old Men YES A woman smokes & many ashtrays appear. (Film by Coen Brothers)
2008 Slumdog Millionaire YES Many people smoke cigarettes.
2009 The Hurt Locker YES Jeremy Renner smokes cigarettes.
2010 The King’s Speech YES Colin Firth & Geoffrey Rush smoke cigarettes.
2011 The Artist YES John Goodman, Jean Dujardin & others smoke cigarettes.
2012 Argo YES Ben Affleck, John Goodman, Brian Cranston & others smoke cigarettes.
2013 12 Years a Slave YES Paul Giamatti & others smoke cigars.
2014 Birdman YES Michael Keaton, Naomi Watts, Ed Norton, Emma Stone & others smoke.
2015 Spotlight YES Many people smoke cigarettes.
2016 Moonlight YES Many of the primary actors smoke cigarettes.

Do you see any patterns developing here? For over a hundred years, Hollywood has been diabolically constructing an onscreen culture around smoking and other uses of tobacco. Above all, many of these so called cultural elements perpetuated by Hollywood films were previously non-existent such as the cigarette after sex thing. Sadly, many of the classic films that happen to warmly portray tobacco always seem to find a way to live on much longer than their own creators themselves. Many of these Oscar-winning films are even being archived into vaults of preservation such as the Library of Congress, so someone is definitely bent on these movies hanging around awhile.

This gives a whole new meaning to the term “timeless classic.” To think that these tobacco-ridden feature films might be viewed throughout future generations. Quite possibly a hundred years from now, a fifteen year old teenage boy will be watching these same movies by the Coen brothers and witnessing all of the same influential appearances of tobacco. Hopefully, the kid can still buy a pack of cigarettes by then and all of these valiant efforts made by the Coens weren’t for nothing.

Maybe if we actually counted up the number of tobacco incidents generated by all notable directors that would really tell us something. The Coen brothers probably ain’t the only bullseye my mind was aiming for after all, but my insanely tedious style of tobacco incident logging might be the quickest way of discovering who else is truly in bed with Big Tobacco. Numbers sure don’t lie and it should be quite easy to recognize by counting up tobacco incidents which popular filmmakers sold their soul for a couple bucks and a carton of cigarettes.

Either way, I’m betting that the Coens rank right up there with the industry’s other big players. Another interesting study would be to remove every element of tobacco from these films and see what’s left. At the very least maybe it could prove that a movie can still be realistic or have some kind of entertainment value without the assistance of tobacco products. For some of the Coen brothers’ films, it would be a seriously short movie left over.

In Hollywood, smoking cigarettes seems to be like getting your hand stamped at the door. It seems that great minds like Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock, and Charlie Chaplin were all brought up under the umbrella of Big Tobacco. Even the latest generations of directors: Clint Eastwood, The Coen brothers, Sam Raimi, David Lynch, Oliver Stone, Quentin Tarantino, Martin Scorcese, Steven Spielberg, Woody Allen, Wes Anderson, Paul Thomas Anderson, James Cameron, Robert Zemeckis, Ridley & Tony Scott — the list of popular filmmakers who have a “thing” for tobacco goes on and on and on. I could spend all day calling out other famous movies, directors, and actors but I think you get the point. I think everyone in Hollywood knows the quick path to success.

Heck, I think there are even a couple of other brothers (much like the Coens) that are highly suspect as well. Just look closely at Ridley & Tony Scott’s production logo animations for their company “Scott Free” … In one version, you see a man moving down a dark corridor with a lantern glowing red in the darkness before he changes into a bird. In a later version of this same animation for “Scott Free” the same man has a glowing red cigarette instead of the glowing red lantern before he changes into a bird. To me, that says it all.

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