Jewish World Review Oct. 6, 1999 /26 Tishrei, 5760
Consider, for example, the critically acclaimed new film American Beauty. Most of the controversy surrounding this very dark comedy centers on the vivid, lustful fantasies of its central character (Kevin Spacey), a suburban husband and father who has become obsessed with the flirtatious best friend of his teen-age daughter. Even more damaging messages, however, involve the boy next door - a handsome, charismatic, profoundly sensitive high school drug dealer (Wes Bentley), who represents the film's single most sympathetic character. In fact, when this poetic paragon provides pot for his troubled middle-age neighbor, the protagonist undergoes a rapid change for the better, developing new depth, confidence, wisdom and even serenity.
American Beauty hardly stands alone in showing the allegedly liberating impact of marijuana and other drugs.
In the generally wholesome, PG-rated high school comedy Never Been Kissed, the anxious, uptight main character (Drew Barrymore) cuts loose for the first time, dancing seductively and achieving new popularity, under the influence of hashish brownies. Similar baked goods play a similar role in Dick, a satirical look at the Nixon White House.
President Nixon (played by Dan Hedaya) enjoys his only moments of charm and pleasure after the movie's two ditzy, 15-year-old heroines provide him with cookies laced with marijuana. Soviet Chairman Leonid Brezhnev, conveniently visiting the White House, also enjoys this mood-altering snack and begins laughing and backslapping with the American president, as pot makes its unique contribution to world peace.
Marijuana also plays a significant role in Stanley Kubrick's final film, Eyes Wide Shut. Tom Cruise plays an elegant, fabulously wealthy physician who comes home from a holiday party to smoke dope with his gorgeous wife, Nicole Kidman. Under the influence of the weed, they enjoy memorably intense sex - the only sex in the whole dreary, salacious film that is portrayed in a romantic and positive light.
In Outside Providence, a blue-collar kid (Shawn Hatosy) feels out of place in a snooty prep school and uses pot as his only ticket to acceptance. Despite his apparently limited intelligence and perpetually stoned demeanor, he manages to win (and keep) the affection of the prettiest, brightest girl in the school (Amy Smart) by plying her with endless supplies of booze and weed.
The recently released Splendor unfolds before the public with its two main characters daringly consuming some exotic, hallucinogenic tea. The fun-loving twentysomethings comically enter a trancelike state that ultimately leads them to the steamy, wildly satisfying three-way sex that provides the film with its chief focus.
The most striking aspect of all of these recent drug scenes is their utterly gratuitous nature. Purging violence from major motion pictures has proved all but impossible because so many scripts use brutal "action" as essential plot points; you can't strip away the violence without fundamentally altering the motion pictures. Drugs, however, seldom play an indispensable role in the stories Hollywood chooses to tell, and their presence often comes across as something of a jaded afterthought. In the recently released Stir of Echoes, for instance, Illeana Douglas takes a moment to clear her head for a key conversation, mentioning that she and her friend have just enjoyed smoking a "fatty" (bulging marijuana joint). Would this film about a ghostly murder mystery have done a dime's less box office business, or somehow lost dramatic integrity, if this reference had been avoided?
During his service as America's drug czar 10 years ago, Bill Bennett managed to make precisely these arguments with many producers and executives, and the results almost instantly appeared on screen. In place of the good-natured, goofball drug epics of the '70s (does anyone today remember Cheech and Chong?), Hollywood began showing substance abuse, if at all, as dangerous, destructive and criminal.
By 1994, the time of Pulp Fiction with its comedic treatment of Uma Thurman's thrilling, scary but ultimately harmless heroin overdose, this informal restraint had all but collapsed. The drug references now find their way even into material intended for very young audiences (Never Been Kissed), as if the filmmakers felt they must strain to show how hip and "youthful" they really were. Can anyone suggest that such an obvious change of attitude will fail to influence our kids?
In 1998, President Clinton and then-House speaker Newt Gingrich collaborated in finding $1 billion in federal funds (to be matched by another billion from the television industry) to produce and distribute a series of anti-drug TV ads. How many of these 30- and 60-second spots would it take to counteract the influence of one hit movie, seen by millions in theaters, on video and, eventually, on TV?
Hollywood moguls need not wait for harangues from a new Bill Bennett or any other official to clean up their act concerning this crucial matter. After all, there's little controversy when it comes to the importance of discouraging our children from doing drugs. When it comes to sexual morality, parents may disagree over what we reasonably can expect from our kids, but every home in America hopes (and prays) that its youngsters will be spared from the coils of the drug culture.
Parents have no right to demand that Hollywood do their job of child
rearing for them, but there's no reason that Tinseltown must make that
job so much harder than it needs to be. If the entertainment industry
wants to prove that it takes seriously the widespread concern about
troubled youth in every corner of this country, it could begin by
avoiding some of the absolutely unnecessary, utterly irresponsible,
smiling and winking movie references to drugs. We all realize that the
JWR contributor, author and film critic Michael Medved hosts a daily three-hour radio talk show
broadcast in more than 110 cities throughout the United States. His latest book, written together with his wife, is Saving Childhood : Protecting Our Children from the National Assault on Innocence . You may contact him by clicking here.