‘My Best Friend’s Wedding’
By 1995, smoking in public places was already fairly taboo in U.S. society, so having America’s Sweetheart Julia Roberts play a nicotine fiend only underlined the jittery nervousness lying just beneath her character’s surface. As food critic Julianne, who travels to Chicago for the wedding of a college pal (Dermot Mulroney) — only to discover that her feelings for him aren’t so platonic after all — she’s spinning off in a million directions, telling wild fibs, trying to humiliate the bride-to-be (Cameron Diaz) and, more than anything else, just dying for a cigarette. When she finally sneaks one in her hotel hallway — thanks to an accommodating bellboy played by then-newcomer Paul Giamatti — it’s a pause in the farcical action that the character desperately needs by that point.
When it comes to smoking on the big screen, Bette Davis is the Tiger Woods, the Mozart, the Rembrandt. No other performer could turn a tiny cigarette into a prop loaded with a million subtextual meanings or transform an exhaled plume of smoke into the perfect withering retort. And of all the unfiltered performances she valiantly puffed her way through, the apex of her tobacco intake would have to be “Now, Voyager,” the sublimely heart-breaking three-hanky melodrama about a homely heiress (Davis) who learns to love herself and, in turn, a man (Paul Henreid) who just happens to be married to someone else. Sacrificing their relationship for the good of his daughter, whose caretaker Davis has become, they continue to express their unspoken love by the simple act of Henreid lighting two cigs and handing one to Davis. Bette Davis looked so good smoking, she was probably responsible for leading more people to the vice than even Joe Camel.
Davis’ masculine equivalent at Warner Bros. — in any number of departments, but definitely as a smoker — was tough-guy Humphrey Bogart. And in the beloved “Casablanca,” he inhales, he exhales and he stubs out his butts with the resignation of a man who has lost the great love of his life. Until, of course, she walks back into his gin joint, out of all the gin joints in the world. A vital element to the interplay between Bogie and Ingrid Bergman is the smoking — the way their eyes meet when he gives her a light, the weary release of smoke through his battered nostrils. These two actors do with cigarettes what Astaire and Rogers did on the dance floor, sublimating their passion in a way that audiences could understand and censors couldn’t edit.
Granted, the passing of the years haven’t been particularly kind to the warped gender politics in Vincente Minnelli’s Oscar-winning bonbon; this is, after all, the tale of a louche aristocrat (Louis Jourdan) who suddenly finds himself sexually attracted to the blossoming gamine (Leslie Caron) he has known since her childhood. Still, if you can shut off the Women’s Studies portion of your brain, it’s still a sumptuous and entertaining musical (and a far more watchable Colette adaptation than “Chéri”). “Gigi” also contains one of the most salacious smoking moments ever seen in … well, an MGM musical, to say the least. Part of Gigi’s training to become a courtesan involves her learning how to select a cigar for her man, and so she smells it, and rolls it around in her hand and — look, just trust me on this one. It’s pretty wild.
‘Up in Smoke’
While stoner chic has made a comeback in the oeuvre of Kevin Smith and Judd Apatow, it’s unlikely we’ll ever see a major-studio film as steeped in cannabis as this vehicle for comedy duo Cheech and Chong, who play a pair of potheads who attempt to drive a van made entirely of marijuana from Mexico to Los Angeles. This 1978 hit was bizarrely funny enough even to appeal to audiences that didn’t already go into the theater with, shall we say, a propensity to giggle.