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Getting High At The Movies

by John Connolly


Drugs have always been on the silver screen. From the 1916 film ‘The Mystery Of The Leaping Fish’ with the hilariously named drug quaffing detective Coke Ennyday, to the revenge nightmare of ‘Dead Man’s Shoes’, we have always been subjected to actors chancing their hand at convincing Joe public they are up in smoke.

Unless you’ve actually partaken in the practice, and even if you have, it must surely be one of the most difficult tasks to persuade punters you are only acting. Pre war drug films were nearly always anti-drug propaganda, the greatest example being 1936 film ‘Reefer Madness’. Designed to show the American public the dangers of smoking Marijuana, the characters in the film smoke one joint, and it makes them behave strangely. They dance, giggle and then it becomes more sinister as a string of horrific episodes happen to them all. By the end of the film the entire cast are either dead, or insane and the evil weed has ruined all their lives. Nowadays this film is marketed as a comedy, whereas in the 1930's it was a powerful horror.

Post War Hollywood continued to treat us to comedy efforts about the perils of marijuana and it wasn’t until the hard hitting ‘The Man With The Golden Arm’ that Hollywood finally treated us to a more realistic portrayal of drug use. Frankie Machine, played by Frank Sinatra, is a skilled card dealer and one-time heroin addict. When he returns home from jail, he struggles to find a new livelihood and to avoid slipping back into addiction. The hysteria of drug addict Frank going cold turkey is outstanding and one of Sinatra’s best performances.

The 60’s was of course the generation that broke taboos and started to glamorise drug use. There were still the odd scare-monger films about the perils of the new drug LSD, but the rise of the independent film maker meant a more experimental approach. The first stab at capturing the magic of this new drug came with the Jack Nicolson penned and Roger Corman directed ‘The Trip’. The Trip featured Peter Fonda as a commercial director Paul Groves who is going through a bitter divorce.  He decides to take an LSD trip to get in better touch with himself and his feelings. He gets the drug from dealer Dennis Hopper and has friend Bruce Dern guide him through his drug induced state. The film was almost immediately banned and stayed that way in the UK for many years.

I got the chance to see it at Bluecoat Chambers during our generations very own summer of love in 1989. The film was a hoot, corny dialogue but a few decent effects gave you the impression you were indeed ‘tripping’ (along with Doughboy, I was!). The film was best remembered by me for a scene in which drug dealer Dennis Hopper skinned up with one hand whilst on the phone. Of course this performance was blown out of the water as the Fonda, Hopper and Nicolson teamed up again for the ground breaking Easy Rider.

Easy Rider not only kicked down the doors in Hollywood for free thinking directors, it was also the first film to feature a sound track that was almost as important as the film itself and of course gratuitous drug use. Drugs were everywhere in Easy Rider, from smugglers Hopper and Fonda snorting the cocaine with their Mexican dealers to Phil Spector snorting at the hand off outside the airport. There were countless joints smoked by Hopper, Fonda and various other characters (most notably Jack Nicolson). The scene in which Hopper, Fonda, Karen Black and Toni Basil drop acid at the New Orleans Mardi Gras is as real as it gets. The footage is of four people, tripping their collective heads off in a grave yard. You can feel the paranoia jump off the screen and grab you like the fear itself.

After Easy Rider, all bets were off. It was open season as far as drugs were concerned and the 70’s saw some excellent acting from the likes of Al Pacino in ‘The Panic In Needle Park’, James Fox in ‘Performance’ and of course the merry pranksters Cheech and Chong in ‘Up In Smoke’. There was still the odd comedy effort like 'Avenging Disco Godfather', a Blaxploitation film about a retired cop who becomes a DJ/celebrity at the Blueberry Hill disco - he's the "Disco Godfather!" All is well until his nephew flips out on a strange new drug that's sweeping the streets, called "angel dust," or PCP. Disco Godfather vows "to personally come down on the suckers that's producing this shit!"

The 80’s saw even more gritty and bizarre depictions explode onto the screen. Once again we had Pacino lording it up, this time as a Cuban refugee who chases down the American dream in the cult classic ‘Scarface’. Forget about chopping lines with a razor, by the end of the film, Tony Montana’s chopping them with his hand! We again had 60’s stalwart Dennis Hopper as the psychotic Frank Booth in David Lynch's 'Blue Velvet'. One of the most disturbing characters of all time, Booth takes an unnamed inhalant, possibly nitrous oxide or amyl nitrite before performing acts of unmitigated evil. One of my favourite films of the 80’s is Gus Van Sants ‘Drugstore Cowboy’. Matt Dillon plays the ultra superstitious Bobby in this smack-heads Bonnie and Clyde . His gang knock off drugstores to feed their habits. The great performances include William Burroughs as a junky priest. The film also features a very young Heather Graham, who over doses on Dilaudid.

Like Hopper and Pacino, Graham pops up with another classic druggie performance a decade later in Boogie Nights. This time she plays the uber porn star Roller Girl, coked off her skates in a brilliant scene with Julianne Moore’s character Amber Waves. The all too real scene involves the girls yaking on about how they’re going to change their lives and how great both of them are, Graham ends up asking Moore ‘will you be my mommy?’ Classic neurotic coke fiend behaviour, we've all been there when the sun comes up talking scatter gun shite.

Of course no list of 90’s drug films would be complete without Pulp Fiction, Trainspotting and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas . In a career rescuing role, John Travolta’s character Vincent Vega cranks up smack (the one that’s a ‘fucking madman’) in glorious technicolour. Uma Thurman, who has been snorting coke all night (I said GODDAMN!), mistakes his smack for coke and overdoses. Fantastic cinema, even if, like the Exorcist, the countless lampooning pisstakes have watered down its shock value. Trainspotting came across as Carry-On film, the actors were great but it wasn't as dark as the book. Fear and Loathing saw Johnny Depp excel as Hunter Thompson with side kick Benicio Del Toro helping him gobble up two bags of grass...pellets of mescaline...five sheets of high-powered blotter acid...a salt shaker half-full of cocaine...a whole galaxy of multicoloured uppers, downers, screamers, laughers. Also a quart of tequila, a quart of rum, a case of beer...a pint of raw ether...and two dozen amyls.

The millennium saw Johnny Depp continue his stella work from Fear and Loathing by playing legendary drug smuggler George Jung in ‘Blow’ and the Heroin addicted detective Frederick Abberline (a nod towards Coke Annyday perhaps?) on the hunt for Jack the Ripper in ‘From Hell’ (also staring Heather Graham). Requiem for a Dream has so far been the most serious film of the millennium as far s drug use goes, I won’t bore you with the details but I can guarantee you one thing, you’ll know you seen a film when you watch this…


Five Other Great Drug Performances 

1. Lance on LSD in Apocalypse Now

2. Harvey Keitel on everything in Bad Lieutenant

3. Mannie on ecstasy in Go

4. Jim on smack in Basketball Diaries

5. Spider Mike on Methamphetamine in Spun


Five Terrible T.V. Drug Performances 

1. Carlton on speed in the Fresh Prince of Bel Air

2. Jesse Spano on caffine tablets in Saved By The Bell

3. Zammo on China White in Grange Hill

4. The fella who done Picture Box on smack in Brookside

5. Kimberley on crack in Different Strokes...hang on, she wasn't acting!





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