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The much hyped season finale of the US cable TV smash hit “Sex and the City” featured the return of smoking by the leading lady.
Iconic, independent woman Carrie Bradshaw smoked throughout the first few seasons but managed to quit during the third. The series won a 2001 PRISM award for accurate depiction of a nicotine addiction.
Her downfall in the finale came while she was in Paris, where “everybody smokes”. It’s hard to miss the glorification of smoking in this episode. Not only is her Marlboro Lights pack prominently displayed for long periods, but Carrie’s enjoyment of her first smoke can only be described as radiant.
There is a remarkable sequence when her boyfriend, played by Mikhail Barishnikov, tells Carrie what his ex-wife thought of her. Carrie has just retrieved a cigarette from her purse when Barishnikov says, “She found you…” and here’s where the timing is key: just as the flame touches Carries cigarette and she begins puffing, we hear the lines, “beautiful smart and chic”. Barishnikov later takes a puff of the cigarette, and even, as he’s getting into a cab, tells her, “I like the smoking. It’s very sexy”.
Sarah Jessica Parker, who plays Carrie, has said she didn’t want to do the smoking scenes, but the writer, Michael Patrick King, apparently insisted. “I told Michael Patrick, I said, oh, please, don’t—must she smoke again?… But he writes great stories and it’s hard once you read one not to see his point.”
Parker dutifully smoked, and soon became hooked once again herself. “I would say I had to smoke for work and then I slipped.”
We hear of this addiction-through-acting process quite often. An actor is given a role in which the character must smoke, according to the writer and/or director. After the show is over, a little something of the role remains with the actor, a nicotinic memento—he or she is still smoking. So what can an actor do?
In the case of “Sex and the City”, Ms Parker might have chatted with William B Davis, the “cigarette smoking man” of the wildly successful series, “The X-Files”. Davis, the arch villain of the series, was almost never seen without addictively sucking on a cigarette. Smoking was an integral part of his persona, reflecting his sickness and despair. He was even known derogatorily as “cancer man”. While I think it’s a mistake to excuse smoking by villains—villains always have great power along with other attractive qualities that can be associated with smoking—it seemed to work for this particular character.
So how did ex-smoker Davis deal with the requirements of his role? Being well aware of nicotine’s potential from his own experience, he demonstrated his screen character’s serious nicotine addiction by smoking herbal, not tobacco cigarettes. After all, it’s well accepted that actors don’t have to drink alcohol or shoot heroin for their roles.
He also used something known in the entertainment trade as “acting”.
Directors and writers: please, have a heart—be kind to your actors. Don’t addict them. There are alternatives to the smoking cliché, and when smoking is absolutely necessary, there are even alternatives to tobacco.
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