December 10, 2019

Some directors smoke. So do their movies.

On December 9, 2019, the Los Angeles Times published a round-table interview with several top Hollywood directors. The article begins with Korean director Bong Joon Ho asking ‘Joker’ director Todd Phillips if he is a chain smoker.

“Todd, you’re a chain smoker?”

“Yeah,” Phillips replied, nodding his head in the affirmative.

“You look like one,” Joon Ho replied.

Seeing the puzzled expressions around him, [Bong] added, “Basically, he looks cool” as explanation...

After admitting to chain-smoking, Phillips noted that his nicotine habit paled in comparison to that of ['Joker' star Joaquin] Phoenix, who “smokes more than Humphrey Bogart.”

“I used to Juul, and I had to stop Juul-ing before I directed because I knew I wouldn’t stop,” interjected [‘Little Women’ director Greta] Gerwig, referring to the vape device. “I knew I’d be talking to an actor and Juul-ing the whole time.”

Observations | According to the Breathe California-UCSF Onscreen Tobacco Database (OTDb), all of director Todd Phillips’ nine top-grossing films since 2003 have included smoking. His latest movie, the R-rated ‘Joker’ (AT&T), includes 141 tobacco incidents and has so far delivered more than five billion tobacco impressions to domestic moviegoers.

• Writer/director Greta Gerwig’s first top-grossing movie (‘Lady Bird,’ A24, R, 2017) included 218 tobacco incidents. The film showed the teen-age character smoking. The film also displays Camel, Marlboro, Newport and Parliament brands. The movie delivered 1.2 billion tobacco impressions in theaters.

• Director Bong Joon Ho’s sci-fi/horror film ‘Snowpiercer' (Weinstein, R, 2014) featured Marlboro Lights as the last cigarettes on Earth. SFM blogged about it. Bong’s current film ‘Parasite’ (R, Neon, 2019) also includes smoking (source).

• Actor Joaquin Phoenix has smoked in all of his top-grossing films since 2002, including ‘Signs’ and the biodrama 'Walk the Line,’ two PG-13 Disney films.

• Actor Humphrey Bogart performed a painful Lucky Strike commercial on The Jack Benny Show in 1953. Benny joked with his studio audience, in advance, about the pressure from American Tobacco, his sole sponsor, to get Bogart to plug the brand. Four years later Bogart was dead from throat cancer.

Most of the films discussed here are rated R. When the R-rating is updated to apply to smoking, producers and directors will be just as free to include smoking in R-rated films as they are now. But it's striking how detached these directors of smoking movies seem when discussing their own nicotine use.

The historical evidence indicates that business calculations, not personal addictions, powered Big Tobacco’s long-time influence in Hollywood. The suits called the shots, not the talent.

Still, tobacco companies have in the past zeroed in on actors’ and directors’ nicotine dependencies to buy brand endorsements and build long-term promotional relationships. That's a story smokers and non-smokers outside of Hollywood need to know.

Peer-reviewed case studies include:

• Lum KL, Polansky JR, Jackler RK, Glantz SA (2008). Signed, sealed and delivered: 'Big tobacco' in Hollywood, 1927-1951. Tobacco Control. 2008;17(5):313-323.

• Hanewinkel R, Polansky JR, Sargent JD (2009). Sean Penn and American Spirits in a Vanity Fair feature: blurring journalism and cigarette advertising. Tobacco Control. 2009;18(4):333-4.