Tobacco as a Character
When a cigarette appears in a film for the purpose of comedy, I guess I can understand that. For example, it’s funny to see a doctor from yesteryear smoking at their desk whilst delivering a patient’s terrible medical news — because you know doctors really did that stuff back in the day. In a period movie, that is mildly funny. And the Coen brothers really do love them some period movies.
“We tend to do period stuff,” says Ethan, “because it helps make it one step removed from boring everyday reality.” [ Excerpt from an interview by Jonathan Romney, The Guardian, 19 May 2000 ]
But even inside of the Coen brothers’ so called period films, tobacco products like cigarettes always seems to leave the background and find a way to become a main character appearing at center stage; almost playing a bigger role than the celebrity actors themselves. Go back and look, I’m sure you will find that the Coen brothers’ films have many more characters delicately woven into the story than you probably realized at first glance. Truly the one thing in nearly every Coen brothers’ movie that commands the most screen time is NOT the Steve Buscemis, the Frances McDormands, or the John Torturros of the world. I have now realized that there are far far bigger celebrities in Hollywood than George Clooney, John Goodman, or Jeff Bridges. And that world renowned celebrity is named… tobacco.
Now you might think I’m reading too deeply into the meaning of tobacco use inside the Coen brothers’ movies but trust me, I’m not just blowing smoke up your ass…
When looking at the 17 films of the Coen brothers very closely, it’s seriously hard to overlook the hundreds of tobacco-related items that have been purposely inserted. It’s also hard to argue that tobacco use was inserted strictly for the purpose of comedy or natural background texture, especially when tobacco isn’t being funny and doesn’t remain in the background. The more that you look at their entire catalog of films, the more difficult it might be to even envision the Coens’ repertoire without cigarettes dangling off lips or smoke constantly lingering in the air of their films because Joel & Ethan have done such a fantastic job embedding this stuff. This precise realization might be the exact reason why my brain has chosen the Coen brothers on which to assert my sticky assumptions; because their movies always seem to give tobacco far more than its proper due.
“Frequently you’ll shoot something over and over because you’re looking for a small detail. It can be nothing more than an insert, but you’ll have to sit through hours of dailies with a room full of people wondering why you shot an hour of a hand holding a coffee cup.” [ Excerpt from an interview with Joel Coen by Kristine McKenna, Playboy, November 2001 ]
Hmmm. I don’t remember any coffee cup appearing so delicately in any of the Coen brothers’ movies. I bet Joel probably meant to say a hand holding a cigarette but maybe he didn’t wanna blow his cover as a kind of cheerleader for Big Tobacco. Oh wait a minute, actually there was a coffee cup that appeared in the first few minutes of The Hudsucker Proxy (1994) — you know that ring-shaped coffee stain on the newspaper encircles the answer to your problem kind of thing. I remember now. But then again Hudsucker was truly the Coen brothers’ flagship when it comes to displaying hundreds upon hundreds of tobacco products… So I guess I can see why a coffee cup might also seem so darned important.
The Coen brothers fifth film called The Hudsucker Proxy, or as I like to call it Duh, Sucker, was actually filmed in Wilmington, North Carolina. Funny that a movie absolutely chocked full of cigars & cigarettes was filmed just down the road from Winston-Salem, the tobacco epicenter of the entire world. After a budget of around $30 MILLION, the movie only generated around $3 MILLION at the box office which is a truly scary case in which most directors would probably never work again, but not the Coen brothers. Yeah we just lost $27 MILLION but our next film could be Oscar-worthy, wink wink.
In one of their most popular films to date, the Coen brothers actually wrote a bowler named “Smokey” into the original screenplay for The Big Lebowski (1998). Of all the names in the world they could have possibly chosen, they landed on Smokey. Do you still think it’s all a tremendous coincidence or are the Coens so eager to put the idea of smoking into viewers’ heads that they would actually name a character Smokey? Well, yes, obviously. In the final film, not only is the name “Smokey” seen clearly on the man’s bowling shirt at least ten times, the name itself is mentioned over a dozen times in only a few short minutes. Smokey’s scene is actually a funny turning point in the movie, so in some ways you never really even think about the name “Smokey” as ever being related to cigarette smoking… At least, I never did. You never think too deeply about his name after you hear it the first time. And that’s probably exactly the point, isn’t it? Like all character actors in each and every Coen picture, this guy really did light up the screen for the short time he was on it. Get it? Light up the screen. Yeah.
Ultimately the Coen brothers are able to make this tobacco-related shit seem so commonplace that these subtle & even somewhat unsubtle references can go by all the time and we as viewers never even think twice. With something like this, it’s as if the Coen brothers are playing a big joke on everyone. For a moment, I even debated counting these occurances of the name “Smokey” as actual tobacco incidents since the name itself is kind of smoking related but not in this particular context. After all, it’s just a name right? Yeah right. At the very least I wanted to mention curious references such as this in my detailed spreadsheets because these kinds of subtle tobacco-related coincidences are everywhere within the Coen brothers’ universe.
The Big Lebowski (1998) is also bookended with another interesting character, this time with slightly more depth than ol’ Smokey but not too much. I’d say the Coen brothers got this one just right, considering people mock dialog and dress up like characters from this movie at festivals several times a year. This other fella I’m talking about is often referred to as “The Cowboy” and was played by the infamous actor Sam Elliott. With his cowboy hat and handlebar mustache however, the cowboy character also resembles the Marlboro Man in a way. Coincidentally, actor Sam Elliott even played a retired Marlboro Man in the film Thank You for Smoking (2005) so obviously he embodies the character, so to speak.
In The Big Lebowski, Elliott’s raspy yet totally familiar voice narrates the film’s opening by warmly and masculinely introducing audiences to “The Dude” and also closes the movie with “that about wraps her up.” Besides the bookends, I think you only see this friendly cowboy character one other short time during the movie so it is definitely a strange digression of sorts. Just as odd & peculiar (like all things Coen) this cowboy character doesn’t smoke cigarettes though, he prefers ‘a good sasparilla’ instead. To me, it’s like the Coens know exactly where to draw the line with this one. Had they made the cowboy character smoke cigarettes, well, that would have been far too obvious, right? Sasparilla… Come on, who drinks that shit?! I’m sure it’a all an inside joke to the Coen brothers now. And after all the stoners and college kids around the world saw this film, it was an inside joke to them as well.
Supposedly some fans of The Big Lebowski movie actually started the Lebowski Fest traveling festival but I wouldn’t be surprised if these were just more double agents funded by Big Tobacco in order to keep the candle burning on tobacco awareness. For those that don’t know, the Lebowski Fest is an “unofficial” tribute to the Coens’ film The Big Lebowski (1998) where fans come together and celebrate everything about the movie. I’ve been to two of them myself although I didn’t dress up in costumes either time but I will admit, it was a pretty fun time meeting & hanging out with other fans of the movie. But now that I think about it, at the bowling events of the festivals that I attended, smoking was totally allowed inside the bowling alleys and people obviously didn’t hesitate to light up. At the deepest end of the rabbit hole, this whole operation is probably just a traveling roadshow for Big Tobacco all done under the umbrella of one wacky movie by the Coen brothers.
Usually the two-day events feature a screening of The Big Lebowski along with open bowling at a bowling alley with “White Russian” alcoholic beverages served (the Dude’s signature drink from the movie) and a ‘come as your favorite character from the movie’ costume contest which I find to be the most brilliant part of the whole operation. After all, when people dress up like “The Dude” (who was played by actor Jeff Bridges) the costume just isn’t complete without the Pendleton sweater and that hand-rolled wacky-tobacky cigarette. And when people dress up like “Walter Sobchek” (played by actor John Goodman) the costume just isn’t complete without the yellow safety glasses, hunting vest & cargo shorts, and that pack of Marlboro cigarettes with a Zippo lighter. If you’ve ever seen the photos from past Lebowski Fests you will see that multiples of each character’s costume often show up to these events, and sometimes even the celebrity actors themselves will make appearances. As I mentioned, the movie has reached a universal cult status unlike any other. The characters have become almost legendary.
For instance, when lead actor Jeff Bridges (who plays “The Dude” in The Big Lebowski) went to throw out the first pitch at a Cub’s baseball game in Chicago, instead of throwing the ball towards home plate, Jeff Bridges actually rolled it on the ground like a bowling ball — obviously as a nod to his most famous character, the Dude.
If you look carefully at each individual film by the Coen brothers, it should become obvious to anyone that the Coen brothers seem to work extremely hard in the name of tobacco above all other things. So called tobacco incidents in the Coens’ films range from very subtle right up to completely obvious — smokers often times being famous celebrities and smoking in a nice big juicy closeup at center screen.
Listen, I’m not just talking about a few cigarettes or ashtrays either. As you’ve seen from my graphs earlier and you will see all too clearly in my detailed spreadsheets in the films section, many of the Coen brothers’ films have well over 200 tobacco incidents. Yes, 200 tobacco incidents! Could that possibly be an accident? Some Coen films even have over 600 tobacco incidents. The magnum opus “Hudsucker” has over 750 tobacco incidents. That’s an average of over 7 hits of tobacco per minute, every minute. It really is astonishing when you do the math. Seriously, you would truly have to be a genius to create a believable and entertaining story in which to cram that much tobacco without it feeling strictly like a commercial… And the Coen brothers have done exactly that, time and time again.
Ultimately it must have been someone’s full time job on every set — if not the Coen brothers themselves — to keep cartons of cigarettes & Zippo lighters handy for all of the actors. Not to mention the amount of time it would take for someone to constantly monitor the actors’ cigarette lengths for continuity reasons. When it comes to films being viewed around the world by millions of impressionable brains, why would anyone be that concerned about realism related to tobacco? To me, it seems like the Coen brothers really are just trying to find any “vehicles” on which to embed their favorite tobacco products.
For instance, the Coen brothers might have chosen the novel No Country for Old Men — not for its dangerous characters or violent plot — but for its random tobacco use inserted throughout the original book. If the Coens insert some of the same tobacco products into the movie version, well they’re just staying true to the book, right? Yeah, right.
Throughout the Coen brothers’ 30+ year tenure, there have also been two other curious remakes of earlier works: The Ladykillers & True Grit. The extremely curious part is that both original films contain many many instances of tobacco. Hell, even the original source novel for True Grit contained instances of tobacco in print much like No Country for Old Men so really no one can argue the Coens are making it up during those films, but it’s awful convenient is all I’m saying. Just like shit that slides downhill but I’m guessing the Coen brothers chose to simply “reimagine” these two individual stories and build them into modern feature films just to perpetuate the use of tobacco depicted by each character and maybe even add in a few new characters of their own.
The Ladykillers is a remake of the 1955 film starring actors Alec Guinness & Peter Sellers. In the original film, several of the primary gang members smoked cigarettes while plotting against an old woman. Coincidentally around the same era the original movie came out, I believe there was some intriguing article or book entitled “The Lady Killers” which explained the tremendous health risks to women smokers and how cigarettes were heavily marketed to women in the 1950s, so perhaps the movie was created to take some attention away from the original namesake. Maybe the Coens had the same idea. Either way, their remake (or reimagining as it has been called) of The Ladykillers was also about a gang of misfits who try to fool an old woman. The Coen brothers’ version of The Ladykillers starred the infamous Tom Hanks along with J.K. Simmons & Marlon Wayons and other wacky characters. Trust me, the Coen brothers never seem to run out of parlor tricks.
[ insert animated gif of the general character’s cigarette retracting into his mouth ]
In The Ladykillers (2004) the old woman is always hollering “…ain’t no smoking in this house!” so the Coen brothers decided to give one character a particular skill for getting away with it. This bad-ass character named “The General” who is always seen smoking in the house just happens to have the uncanny ability to quickly retract a lit cigarette into his mouth and hide it for the duration of the old woman’s random inspections. After a few moments of harboring his lit cigarette inside his mouth without any smoke being released, he would easily eject the cigarette back out onto his lips and resume smoking it. That’s quite a skill. And it’s funny, right? Yeah real funny until that one time when The General was attempting to kill the old woman and got hisself killed instead… While hiding his lit cigarette inside his mouth like he always does, unfortunately this time the battle-hardened zen-like General got frightened by a cuckoo clock, done swallowed his cigarette & burned hisself, done drank a glass of water with the old woman’s dentures in it, done choked on the dentures, then done fell down the stairs, done broke his neck and done died.
Similarly the original film True Grit (1969) starring one of the most infamous smokers of all, John Wayne, obviously contained some tobacco smoking as well so I’m sure the Coen brothers knew that tobacco would surely be required for the remake. However, the Coen brothers decided to add a few additional little peculiar things to their re-imagined version of the story such as how the young teenage girl that the movie centers around can produce a hand-rolled cigarette faster & better than the experienced hero Rooster Cogburn. Hmmm, I don’t remember that from the original version, or the book for that matter. This time around, the Coens actually chose to mix children & smoking directly in a kind of subtle way. Like I said, the Coens are just the bees knees when it comes to creating warm & fuzzy little tobacco-related episodes like this. As you saw earlier, the Coens’ version of True Grit generated nearly 2 BILLION viewer impressions of tobacco, far more than any other Coen flick during the last decade.
Looking at the other Coen brothers’ movies, well that’s a whole nother story. Reading some of the Coen brothers’ original screenplays, it’s obvious that some cigarettes weren’t actually written in from the beginning. For example in the screenplay for Raising Arizona, the Coen brothers originally wrote: A doctor is pointing a pencil at various parts of a schematic picture of the female reproductive system…’ But in the final film starring celebrity actors Nicolas Cage & Holly Hunter, what actually happened was: A doctor points a cigar at the schematic picture of a womb. A cigar, NOT a pencil. In the final movie, a colorful paint palette ashtray which a kid might love to play with also sits on the desk nearby. As I mentioned earlier, these kind of subtle changes to wholesome storylines are everywhere inside the Coen brothers’ universe. Sometimes it’s a joke, sometimes it ain’t. I’m guessing it’s never a coincidence, though.
Similarly, there are a thousand different types of plantation fields the Coens could have chosen for the opening scene of O’ Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) in which to have the three main characters run through as they are escaping the prison’s chain gang. And although the screenplay written by the Coen brothers did in fact mention “A WHEAT FIELD” for this particular setting, what actually appears in the final film more closely resembles — you guessed it — a tobacco field.
“The guiltiest feel free of guilt.”
[A curious line from Joel Coen’s book The Drunken Driver Has the Right of Way (2001)]
Obviously it’s not too hard to speculate when the Coens’ decision to insert the actual tobacco products was actually made. If tobacco products can’t find a way into the storyline, they always find a way into the actual production and into the actor’s hand, into the editing room when cutting the movie, and ultimately into the final film. Seriously, add up all of the time during the Coen brothers’ 17 films where a smoker or tobacco incident is present onscreen, to me it feels like a viewer definitely spends more time in the presence of tobacco products than not. To think about the actual daily production of certain films, some actors probably had to breathe pure oxygen in their rooms at night to recover from exceeding the recommended daily allowance on smoke inhalation.
“I smoked like a fiend throughout the movie; non-filtered Chesterfields.”
[Direct quote from Billy Bob Thorton on the dvd commentary for The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001)]
Let’s forget all of the cigarettes and cigars for a moment, just the amount of ashtrays alone which can be found within the Coen brothers’ 17 movies has been absolutely appalling to me. I mean, un-fucking-believable, seriously. From the first film Blood Simple (1984) all the way to the very latest film Hail Caesar! (2015), every single one of the Coens’ movies has many many fancy ashtrays casually placed around — basically all makes & models of ashtrays have been represented at one time or another. The Coen brothers might actually have an “ashtray guy” that probably owns all colors, shapes, & sizes to be rented & placed on the film sets. Maybe Joel & Ethan themselves are the biggest collectors of ashtrays in the country. In The Hudsucker Proxy (1994) ashtrays are absolutely everywhere; from big black canister ashtrays to really small clear glass ashtrays. In the black & white film noir The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001) the barber character actually retrieves his $10,000 of ransom money from the empty space inside one of those big black canister ashtrays. You know kids, that empty space inside the big cylinder just below the removable metal ashtray portion that sits on top with a nice little handle. Seriously, who else thinks about this kind of stuff that intimately besides the Coen brothers? During the shooting of some films by the Coen brothers, finding & placing ashtrays must have been a full time job.
Besides being experts as set design or at least overseeing the set design for their own films, I think the Coen brothers have another extremely important skill which elevates them above many other directors in Hollywood. The Coen brothers ability to cast amazing characters has been referred to as “nothing less than perfect.” . With all of the memorable characters presented in their films — cigarettes and actors alike — the Coen brothers are expert casting agents. Sadly, the Coens’ primary goal seems to be to forming the perfect pair between talented young actors and a cigarette. The Coen brothers are simply experts at finding the most memorable character actors who will also perform the so called tobacco incident to their exact liking.
Take Scarlett Johansson, a glowing young actress and now herself a household name. In her first film with the Coen brothers, The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001), teenage Scarlett only mentions sneaking a cigarette while her father is away on business and you don’t actually see her light up onscreen. That is, not until she smokes several times in the Coen brothers’ latest picture Hail Caesar! (2016) one of those being immediately after an extravagant water ballet sequence that probably took several weeks to choreograph. As soon as Scarlett Johansson finishes up the her onscreen role as a gorgeous mermaid in the extravagant water ballet — you know that beyond tired ‘film within a film’ thing — she awkwardly hops her mermaid costume over and sits down in her actor’s chair where she lights up a cigarette like it’s her only supply of oxygen since coming out of the water. Think of all the young teenage girls who might want to appear as beautiful as Scarlett does in Hail Caesar! (2016). Well, in some ways they can’t imitate her without also clutching that cigarette.
Supposedly mega-superstar actor George Clooney worked in tobacco fields growing up and started smoking in his late 20s but then quit after his uncle died from lung cancer. Clooney doesn’t smoke in his first three pictures with the Coen brothers: O’ Brother Where Art Thou? (2000), Intolerable Cruelty (2003) & Burn After Reading (2008) but alas poor George finally submits to tobacco in the Coens’ latest film Hail Caesar! (2016) after joining a league of communists in the golden age of Hollywood. Way to go George, you made my shitlist!
So, even the world-renowned actor George Clooney eventually came around to the alluring siren of cigarettes after somehow boldly refusing them throughout his entire career. And now that he’s a billionaire, now that he’s a household name around the planet, now that he’s married to some turbo-hot supermodel, who did big George finally break down and agree to smoke a couple cigarettes for? Why his old pals who just happen to be world-famous movie directors — the Coen brothers of course. Hey, nobody in Hollywood wants to disappoint the world’s most beloved filmmaking duo. Many of the young unknown actors that have worked with the Coen brothers over the years have ultimately attained very successful careers spanning several decades, so you can’t argue that using tobacco onscreen ever held them back in any way. Obviously the most famous actors know exactly what they’re supposed to be doing when the camera is rolling.
As Alfred Hitchcock has said: “Actors are cattle.”
As an actor auditioning for Blood Simple (1984), actor M. Emmet Walsh did receive an interesting question from the Coen brothers. “They asked me could I blow a smoke ring…” [Citation: What it’s like to audition for the Coen Brothers ] I’m not exactly sure what Walsh’s answer was but I’m guessing he declined about having any smoke ring-blowing skills. It doesn’t really matter though, the Coens easily made it appear as if Walsh’s character was indeed blowing smoke rings in the final movie entitled Blood Simple. About 8 minutes into the film, three smoke rings roll into a closeup of another actor from Walsh’s implied direction offscreen. Using the magic of film editing and a so-called reversal shot, the Coen brothers were able to make it appear as if Walsh himself was blowing the smoke rings toward another actor. Not that it matters, but it could just have easily been Joel or Ethan who actually blew the smoke rings on set that day.
However, from a different angle, someone could argue that the Coen brothers are essentially grooming young actors (and viewers, for that matter) to not only smoke but where, when, why, and how to smoke as well. You know, how to be real glamorous about it. That’s why alot of teens started smoking in high school or in the first place, wasn’t it? People wanted to be in with certain cool groups or whatever so they started smoking. In Hollywood, I guess it’s no different. Hollywood is just a bigger high school with more powerful cliques. Either way, I’m sure that once lonely teens around the world started seeing their favorite movie stars smoking cigarettes onscreen, well, that also played some kind of role in their decision to start smoking. And once they started smoking for a short time, why, many obviously became desperately hooked for life.
* * *
Let take another look at the Coen brothers’ most recent feature film. I had already begun writing this piece when I finally saw the Coen brothers’ latest film Hail Caesar! (2015) but I already knew deep in my gut I was going to be exposed to massive amounts of smoking just as I had been in the last few films by the Coen bros. I mean, I knew I was in for a real tasty tobacco treat but I truly had no idea about the extreme depths that Joel & Ethan would go to honor their tobacco overlords.
At only one and a half minutes into the start of Hail Caesar! (2015), Josh Brolin sits in a confessional booth and confesses to a Catholic priest…
“I lied to Connie, uh to my wife. I promised her I’d quit smoking. She thinks it’s bad for me. And I’m trying but… I snuck a couple of cigarettes. Maybe three. It’s so hard. But I’m trying.”
Sure enough… The fucking opening scene of the newest Coen brothers’ movie. 2015 bitches. Knock knock and guess who? My old pal and your new favorite… Buh, Buh Buh, Big Tobacco!
She thinks it’s bad for me. Meaning it really isn’t that bad for you, right dickweed? Yeah right. Subtle. Very subtle. I’m telling you, the Coen brothers’ tenacity for embedding tobacco is truly mind blowing and downright diabolical after 30 years of practice. Watching that opening scene in Hail Caesar! (2015) I felt like all of my stupid theories about the Coen brothers & Big Tobacco were suddenly carved into stone. I only wish my book could have been released just before this film — people could have read all of this filthy dirty information and then watching Hail Caesar! (2016) they would have surely gotten a good chuckle during the many subtle moments like the one above which ultimately pay tribute to Big Tobacco.
Seconds later, the priest absolves Josh Brolin’s character by saying: “It’s not that bad…”
Dude, could the message be any clearer? During the rest of the movie, Josh Brolin comes into close proximity with many other habitual cigarette smokers and does his best not to crumble under the stress or smoke hisself too many cigarettes. Hail Caesar! (2016) even contains several stunning choreographed dance numbers which are obviously throwbacks to Hollywood’s golden years. You can always count on the Coen brothers though: the crooning sailors dance around a bar full of ashtrays & like I said earlier, Scarlett Johansson smokes after the water ballet sequence. And a bunch of others. And a bunch of others.
As I mentioned, many actors would do just about anything — including taking up smoking — to appear in a Coen brothers’ film. Aside from the whole tobacco thing, the Coens really do have a profound way of elevating the actor above anything else in the movie. With the extremely careful use of dialog, background & wardrobe colors, and just absolutely spot-on casting, every actor in every single scene made by the Coen brothers seems to give a truly memorable character performance, no matter how long or short they actually appear onscreen. Some actors appear to be so sexy onscreen while smoking cigarettes that certain scenes from their films could be extracted and dropped right into television commercials just for tobacco. Smoking or not, I’m betting that every single actor puts their appearance from a Coen brothers’ movie at the front of their demo reel because it showcases their onscreen talent as an actor better than any other mainstream director can.
Trust me, the subtle integration of tobacco just never ends for the Coen brothers — they are the absolute masters of embedding tobacco products so that audiences barely even notice or only notice on purely subconscious levels. And above all, these 17 films by the Coens really do seem to take on completely different meanings when viewed with that special filter of searching for tobacco.