Cancer Shtick

Is smoking in movies really responsible for the murder of millions?


It goes without saying that cancer isn't funny.

Which should make us appreciate all the more the latest literary achievement of Joe Eszterhas, the notorious screenwriter of such enjoyably trashy flicks as Basic Instinct and Showgirls and the recent presidential penis novel, American Rhapsody.

Now the man who scripted filmdom's most memorable leg-crossing scene has not only announced that he was diagnosed 18 months ago with throat cancer, he has penned one of the most deftly drawn and (unintentionally) hilarious examples yet of a self-aggrandizing Hollywood player.

Eszterhas, it turns out, is not simply partly to blame for rotten fare such as the 1993 Jean Claude Van Damme stinker Nowhere to Run. No, he and his pals in La-La Land are "accomplice[s] to the murders of untold numbers of human beings." While intensely personal, Eszterhas' public act of contrition perfectly captures the delusion that underwrites virtually all attacks on popular culture: that audience members have no minds of their own.

"I've written 14 movies," explains Eszterhas in a New York Times op-ed titled "Hollywood's Responsibility for Smoking Deaths." "My characters smoke in many of them, and they look cool and glamorous doing it….what [I and my colleagues in Hollywood] are doing by showing larger-than-life movie stars smoking onscreen is glamorizing smoking….A cigarette in the hands of a Hollywood star onscreen is a gun aimed at a 12- or 14-year-old. The gun will go off when that kid is an adult. We in Hollywood know the gun will go off."

Eszterhas, who declares that "smoking should be as illegal as heroin," is of course absolutely correct that smoking is a massive health risk. And he is surely to be pitied for suffering a cancer that has led to the removal of much of his larnyx.

Yet his urgent claim that Hollywood is the motive force in what he considers the nation's bad moral hygiene is not only laughable but contemptible: It transforms consumers of popular culture--you and me, that is--from active, thinking individuals into passive, drooling automatons. As one like-minded source has put it, " It's simple: if stars make responsible choices, young people will copy them."

"My hands are bloody; so are Hollywood's. My cancer has caused me to attempt to cleanse mine. I don't wish my fate upon anyone in Hollywood, but I beg that Hollywood stop imposing it upon millions of others," pleads Eszterhas.

Here's a news flash to the genius behind Flashdance: The entertainment industry is incapable of imposing anything upon audiences. Despite the claims of its creators and its detractors, Hollywood hardly wields such omnipotent powers to shape human behavior, whether for good or ill. People actively process what they consume and make decisions for themselves.

Indeed, if people actually aped what they read, viewed, and listened to, then violent crime rates by kids, ostensibly the most impressionable audience segment, would have soared over the past 30 years--a period in which popular culture inarguably became more violent and graphic. But the rates are in fact lower than they were in 1973, when the federal government first started collecting such data. Something similar is going on with sex, too, despite increasingly provocative movies, music, and television shows.

As for smoking, Eszterhas may want to check out the annual National Institute on Drug Abuse's annual Monitoring the Future Study, which tracks tobacco use rates among kids. He'd find that over the course of his screenwriting career, smoking among kids has generally stayed the same, rising and falling a bit, even as representations of smoking allegedly increased. More interestingly, he'd find that ever-larger percentages of kids have perceived "great risk" in smoking a pack or more of cigarettes a day (roughly three-quarters of 12th graders believe that, the highest figure recorded since 1975, the first year of the survey). People start smoking and keep smoking (or not) for all sorts of reasons. But the fact remains that it is a choice made by an individual, not one foisted on them by movie stars.

Basic Instinct is no more responsible for kids smoking than the seamy 1978 labor film F.I.S.T (another Eszterhas product) was for the subsequent decline in union membership. Hollywood and Eszterhas may have a lot to answer for--Sliver immediately comes to mind--but the slaughter of innocents is not among their sins.