Smoking and “Business”


There was a “Nightline” a while back during which Jeff Greenfield delivered a puzzled examination of smoking in the movies. The gist of it was that while smoking has declined in real life in the last thirty years, characters in movies smoke as much as they did in the hevdav of Bogart and Bette Davis. There has even been a study of this, showing the percentage of smokers among characters by age group. (But how do they tell if Christian Slater’s character is twenty-nine or thirty-one in a given movie?)


It seems that for a while tobacco companies paid to have their products and logos appear on-screen, but they claim they no longer do this. Greenfield’s interviewees postulated that smoking was an image thing, a way to look tough, sophisticated, in control. There were also suspicions that the tobacco business still exerts some hidden influence on movies.

They were half right. It really is a matter of business —the theatrical term. “An incidental action performed by an actor on the stage to fill a pause between lines or to provide interesting detail,” says my American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language . Cecil B. DeMille put it thus: “Business is what actors do that I can photograph! Not what they think or feel!” (Cecil exclaimed a lot!) And there has never been a better business for an actor than smoking.

Movies are framed like photographs, and in a midrange shot of one or two characters from the waist up, the hands are almost always in the frame. But movies move, and it is the problem of what to do with the hands that leads to most business. Business has to be small and look casual, and it occurs mostly during dialogue. It accounts for the majority of drinks that are consumed by characters (which have no purpose in the plot). In the classic period it was the bottle of nameless brown liquor of which an inch was poured into a glass. Why not a beer? Why no ice? Because that would require a trip to the kitchen, fumbling for a bottle opener, et cetera when the story demanded the characters stay right in that drawing room, seedy hotel room, editor’s office. If ice was used (upscale settings), it came from one of those magical Hollywood ice buckets that were always full. The point was to give the actor some business without taking any screen time. And if he looked hard-boiled for drinking it straight, so much the better. It’s the same reason that, in our own more health-conscious era, the characters on “The Cosby Show” and “Seinfeld” are always reaching for those individual bottles of juice or flavored seltzer or whatever. Those things are expensive, and most of us buy drinks in liters or half-gallons, but there is something about the twisting of the cap that actors find comforting. The question is, Do so many of the scenes in these television shows take place in the kitchen because that’s where the refrigerator is?

The advantage of smoking is that it can take place anywhere. All the implements can he carried in pocket or purse, and the familiar manipulations of smoking are now so ingrained in movie watchers as to he expected. The purpose of a cigarette is to keep the impatient part of the filmgoer’s hram occupied while the problemsolving part does some necessary listening. As two characters speak, usually to delineate some vital and compressed plot information, one character gets to keep his hands busy: fish out the pack, jog one out of the opening, lip it, offer the pack to the other, flick the lighter. Any brief halt in this process, combined with an arched eyebrow, drives home a dialogue point. Character takes a deep drag, says something pithy, and then very often stubs the thing out. It has served its purpose, and we move on to the next scene and most likely some action. So the cinema cigarette has just done for the viewer what a real cigarette does for a smoker: created a pause, a stop, a break.

Smoke rising through a shaft of light adds a sort of atmosphere that making a sandwich, say, simply can’t match.

Sometimes, though, a cigarette is more than just a smoke. When Rick sits alone in the bar in Casablanca , it is only with a firm grip on his two supports, a cigarette and a drink, that the shield drops and the pain becomes clearly visible in his eyes. This is not business; this is character revelation, an acting moment. The smoke rising through a shaft of light adds a sort of atmosphere that making a sandwich or leafing through a Popular Mechanics just cannot match.