Hollywood explores drug culture

Movies like 'Traffic' and 'Requiem' show lives ruined by addiction

— If Hollywood had a message in the last year, it could be found in the 1970s-era rock 'n' roll movie "Almost Famous."

"Don't take drugs!" pleads Frances McDormand as a nervous mother who drops off her 15-year-old son at a Black Sabbath concert.


AP Photo

Actress Erika Christensen, left, snorts drugs as Topher Grace works on a laptop computer in a scene from "Traffic." Hollywood, with a subculture traditionally know for its excesses, released several films in 2000, including "Traffic," which explore the drug culture.

"Don't take drugs! Don't take drugs!" mocks a chorus of concertgoers.

From gritty dramas like "Traffic" and "Requiem for a Dream" to thoughtful comedies like "Wonder Boys" and "Almost Famous," some of the better films of 2000 touched on lives and careers ruined by addiction. All of those films received Golden Globe nominations and could fare equally well at the Academy Awards.

Many filmmakers say Hollywood has begun escalating its own war on drugs. What's seen on screen, however, can sometimes seems at odds with a subculture traditionally know for bacchanalian excess.

Federal drug-enforcement officials note that Hollywood has a checkered history in depicting drugs' consequences.

"But it looks to us like they're trying hard to do a better job showing an accurate portrayal of the damage drug abuse does," said Bob Weiner, spokesman for the White House office of National Drug Control Policy.

"There were some positive messages about the need for family involvement and positive work of drug enforcement agents," he added. "There's less ambiguity now. With movies like 'Trainspotting,' I had trouble telling whether the message was pro or con."

Dealing with reality

Film-industry analysts say substance abuse is no longer considered glamorous.

"It's kind of out of style, and that makes it time to capitalize on the anti-drug message," said Robert Bucksbaum of Reel Source Inc., a firm that tracks the box office.

No one making a movie wants to be preachy, but many say they have weathered too much damage from drug abuse to stay silent.

"I don't know a single person who hasn't smoked pot or tried some sort of drug," said Stephen Gaghan, the "Traffic" screenwriter. "At some point, it becomes hypocritical not to address it."

Gaghan said he initially named a character after a friend as an inside joke but then changed it when he found out the friend had died of a heroin overdose.

"There's a lot of personal experience in this one," Gaghan said. "I hope it seems truthful."

Benicio Del Toro, who plays a Mexican drug officer who finds he has unwittingly aided a cartel in "Traffic," said he wanted to create "a conversation piece" about how the U.S. war on drugs doesn't solve the problem of addiction.

"People (in Hollywood) are starting to know the power they have in cutting (drug use) down somewhat," he said. "We can show the bigger picture of the problem."

The balance between entertaining and lecturing, however, can be precarious. "Requiem for a Dream," for example, presented such an unrelentingly grim portrait of four junkies that it was hard for mainstream audiences to endure.

"It's a difficult movie, and my only worry is that not enough people will get to see it," said "Requiem" star Ellen Burstyn, who plays an aging housewife destroyed by a diet-pill addiction.

"People will go to great lengths to avoid reality, and over the years our addictions have changed and become much more lethal," Burstyn said. "I think that if movies like this encourage people to stay in their reality, we will have done a service."

Taking it seriously

Cautionary tales frequently have come from Hollywood � including gritty dramas like "Lost Weekend" (alcoholism), "The Man with the Golden Arm" (heroin) and "Less Than Zero" (cocaine), and sometimes silly propaganda like "Reefer Madness."

Those movies typically show drug users coming to no good. "Blow," scheduled for April release and based on a true story, ends with Johnny Depp's character doing hard time after flying high for years as the top coke smuggler for Colombia's Medellin cartel � a one-man, $35-billion-a-year conduit.

Even comedies like "Arthur" and the "Cheech & Chong" movies depict their alcohol- and marijuana-dependent protagonists as hopeless bumblers who can't function in regular life.

The high-caliber of filmmaking dedicated to recent movies dealing with addiction illustrates how important anti-drug messages have become in the entertainment industry.

Filmmakers say the star power and big budgets allocated to such movies is a sign that Hollywood is taking its ability to fight drugs more seriously than ever.

"Drugs are a big problem in any society, including Hollywood, and the presence of the problem is not to be denied," said "Wonder Boys" director Curtis Hanson.

"Wonder Boys" plays like a farce, with Michael Douglas as a dope-smoking professor whose professional and personal lives spin out of control over the course of a weekend.

"His character avoids dealing with very important issues, and self-medication that he indulges in allows him to not come to grips with it," Hanson said. "When he comes to realize that, he can make some hard choices and is better for it."

The message is especially poignant, he said, considering the movie co-stars Robert Downey Jr., whose career has been sidetracked yet again by a drug arrest.

Downey, also a Golden Globe nominee for a series of guest spots on the Fox comedy "Ally McBeal," is someone many people can relate to, Hanson said.

Television, too, has tried to show the ravages of drug abuse. "The West Wing," which won a record-setting nine Emmys in September, has tackled the subject of substance abuse with the character of White House Chief of Staff Leo McGarry, who has battled pills and alcohol.

"It's finally coming out of the closet as a health problem, not a criminal problem," said the show's creator, Aaron Sorkin. "I think that as people become more aware of that about addiction, they find there are interesting ways to tell stories about it."


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