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Smoking and “Business”

June 2024
5min read

Why, with cigarette smoking under attack everywhere, does everyone still light up on the movie screen?

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.

There have been attempts to create new business, some successful, some not. George Raft repetitiously flipped a coin in Scarface and looked cool and smart. Bogart’s Captain Queeg rolled those little steel balls, and as the picture progressed, you did not even have to see them; they became the sound of Queeg’s mind breaking down. But there are only so many devices that can be manipulated without becoming a distraction. In The Cheyenne Social Club Henry Fonda repeatedly cracked large nuts that looked like pecans but made a loud snap like a finger being broken. This rapidly went from distracting to irritating.

Business in films is part of the legacy of theater, where it is the crutch of nervous neophytes and the cherished tool of veteran scene-stealers. In the hierarchical and authoritarian Hollywood of the thirties and forties, when studio executives controlled every aspect of the image, they often even controlled the most minor bits of physical business and ad-libbing. Meanwhile New York stage actors involved in the Group Theatre and the Actors Studio were leading a movement to gain more control of their performances. “The Method” was about the actor’s deciding for himself the essence of the character, including its tics and habits. A pivotal moment in modern acting was Marion Brando’s portrayal of the volatile and charismatic Stanley Kowalski in the original New York production of A Streetcar Named Desire . Brando used business to achieve his remarkable characterization and to keep it fresh. During a quiet scene with Kim Hunter (“Stel-la!”) , he would delicately pick a piece of imaginary lint off her dress, from a different spot each night. Brando repeated the performance one last time in the movie version and demonstrated that Method acting was ideal for the psychologically informed films that were emerging after World War II. The basic techniques became the core curriculum for almost every serious American actor and actress to emerge thereafter, right up to the present time. And smoking has followed right along. Anne Bancroft’s long, thin cigarettes in The Graduate gave her a cool and debauched air, while Dustin Hoffman in Midnight Cowboy sucked his butts as if they could ward off the cold and hunger; Glint Eastwood’s cowboy cheroots were the most emotional things in his face, while Robert DeNiro in Midnight Run smoked as if he really needed to relax.

So don’t expect screen smokers to be forced out into the parking lot to light up. As long as actors need something to fidget with and directors see dead space in a scene, there will be business. But there is hope that an obsessive actor or director will discover some new bit of business to replace smoking. DeMille, for one, was always looking for something “fresh,” some bit of business he had never seen before. The screenwriter Jesse Lasky, Jr., tells in his memoir Whatever Happened to Hollywood? of his travails in trying to come up with a unique bit of business for the villain Brian Donlevy in Union Pacific . He thought of having him pick his teeth with a bowie knife, bend gold coins in his hands, build houses of cards. “DeMille even took to phoning me in the middle of the night. No hellos. No apologies. Only the cold nocturnal ear-stab of the phone and the rasping voice, slightly nasal, insisting, demanding, ‘What does Donlevy do with his hands?’ . . . Rude possibilities suggested themselves.”

DeMille rejected every suggestion until Lasky chanced upon having Donlevy dip his cigar in a glass of whiskey before lighting it. This improbable shtick finally impressed DeMille and got his writer off the hook, but it never became classic business.

So the search continues. With the end of production on “Seinfeld,” we probably have lost our best hope of a major breakthrough with Jujyfruits, but somewhere in Hollywood some latter-day Lasky or DeMille is sitting up late pondering: pick, bend, crack, scratch, chew, dip, flip, draw, twirl . . . what does he do with his hands?

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