Hollywood High

Whether glamorizing or demonizing them, American movies crave drugs

| July/August 2001


Ever since Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper took that acid road trip in Easy Rider, we’ve been hooked. While drugs debuted in the movies long before the 1960s, no other film would so thoroughly reflect and influence a generation’s attitude about getting high. Thirty-odd years later, public attitudes toward pyschedelics, marijuana, and cocaine have varied, but drug films just keep coming, and we probably won’t OD on them anytime soon.

Discuss Hollywood and drugs at the Film forum in Café Utne: cafe.utne.com
In the past year alone, drugs have played a leading role in four critically acclaimed productions. The most prominent was the drug trade saga Traffic, which picked up four Academy Awards. In creating one of the most exquisitely shot films in recent memory, Steven Soderbergh rightfully earned his Oscar for best director. But let’s be honest: Traffic’s anti-drug-war message is hardly groundbreaking. The British TV miniseries on which the film is based, Traffik, attacked the drug war with equal zeal 11 years earlier.

In reality, Hollywood has seldom had anything original to say about drugs, frequently bowing to self-censorship and direct political influence from Washington. In 1936 our nation’s first drug czar, Harry J. Aslinger, was directing a full-scale assault on marijuana, resulting in the now notorious cult classic Reefer Madness. Linking pot smoking with instantaneous insanity, the film depicts innocent teenagers who are turned into bloodthirsty maniacs by the evil weed. (A year later, marijuana would by outlawed by Congress.) That same year also marked the premiere of Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times, in which one farcical scene shows the Tramp unknowingly snorting and eating a saltshaker full of cocaine. In some ways, Reefer Madness and Modern Times foreshadow the dual tracks of how drugs would be treated in American movies for decades to come: either sending the protagonists into abysmal despair or leaving audiences rolling in the aisles.

Take, for example, last year’s Requiem for a Dream. Though it may be the most horrific depiction of heroin (and amphetamine) addiction ever made, the film still follows standard drug film conventions—including the clichéd withdrawal scene—which dates back to Hollywood’s first famous brush with a hypodermic needle, Frank Sinatra’s 1955 classic, The Man with the Golden Arm. On the amphetamine front, check out 1967’s Valley of the Dolls, a lethal mix of show business, ambitious women, and prescription drugs.

In the leave-’em-laughing camp, drug use is just for kicks. From Cheech and Chong’s Up in Smoke (1978) to the Coen Brothers’ The Big Lebowski (1998), Hollywood regularly sends up the dopey antics of drug users so we can laugh with them. Pot remains the drug of choice , but LSD had its day (Pink Floyd: The Wall, 1982), and now ecstasy is on the rise with the mainstream explosion of rave culture (Human Traffic, 1999).



Whether drugs are demonized or glamorized, rarely does a drug film offer much insight into this national obsession. The most enlightening perspectives in recent years have come from documentaries. Robert Zemeckis’ On Smoking, Drinking, and Drugging in the Twentieth Century (1999), includes a fascinating account of the evolving cultural perceptions behind specific drugs in America; his exploration of America’s race-based drug stereotypes alone is worth the price of admission. And Grass (1999), directed by Ron Mann and narrated by Woody Harrelson, may be the most comprehensive film on the history of marijuana and the drug war—and a powerful boost to legalization efforts.

But if you still crave the pure Hollywood stuff, you won’t have to worry about going through withdrawal. You can find your fix at a theater near you.



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