American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
This stamp honoring Bette Davis was issued by the U. S. Postal Service on Sept. 18. The portrait by Michael Deas was inspired by a still photo from "All About Eve." Notice anything missing? Before you even read this far, you were thinking, Where's her cigarette? Yes reader, the cigarette in the original photo has been eliminated. We are all familiar, I am sure, with the countless children and teenagers who have been lured into the clutches of tobacco by stamp collecting, which seems so innocent, yet can have such tragic outcomes. But isn't this is carrying the anti-smoking campaign one step over the line?
Depriving Bette Davis of her cigarette reminds me of Soviet revisionism, when disgraced party officials disappeared from official photographs. Might as well strip away the toupees of Fred Astaire and James Stewart. I was first alerted to this travesty by a reader, Wendell Openshaw of San Diego, who wrote me: "Do you share my revulsion for this attempt to revise history and distort a great screen persona for political purposes? It is political correctness and revisionist history run amok. Next it will be John Wayne holding a bouquet instead of a Winchester!"
The great Chicago photographer Victor Skrebneski took one of the most famous portraits of Davis. I showed him the stamp. His response: "I have been with Bette for years and I have never seen her without a cigarette! No cigarette! Who is this impostor?" I imagine Davis might not object to a portrait of her without a cigarette, because she posed for many. But to have a cigarette removed from one of her most famous poses! What she did to Joan Crawford in "What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?" wouldn't even compare to what ever would have happened to the artist Michael Deas.
Look, I hate smoking. It took my parents from me, my father with lung cancer, my mother with emphysema. They both liked Luckies. When my dad's cancer was diagnosed, they played it safe and switched to Winstons. When my mother was breathing oxygen through a tube, she'd take out the tube, turn off the oxygen, and light up. I avoid smokers. It isn't allowed in our house. When I see someone smoking, it feels like I'm watching them bleed themselves, one drip at a time.
So we've got that established. On the other hand, I have never objected to smoking in the movies, especially when it is necessary to establish a period or a personality. I simply ask the movies to observe that, these days, you rarely see someone smoking except standing outside a building, on a battleground, in a cops' hangout, in a crack house, in rehab, places like that. In an ordinary context, giving a character a cigarette is saying either (1) this is a moron, or (2) this person will die. Smoking no longer even works to add a touch of color to an action hero. Does Jason Bourne smoke? I haven't seen James Bond with a cigarette since Pierce Brosnan took over the role in 1995. Daniel Craig smoked cigars in "Casino Royale" (2007), but the producers cut them out. (Craig: "I can blow someone's head off but I can't light a good cigar.")
Two of the most wonderful props in film noir were cigarettes and hats. They added interest to a close up or a two-shot. "Casablanca" without cigarettes would seem to be standing around looking for something to do. These days men don't smoke and don't wear hats. When they lower their heads, their eyes aren't shaded. Cinematographers have lost invaluable compositional tools. The coil of smoke rising around the face of a beautiful women added allure and mystery. Remember Marlene Dietrich. She was smoking when she said, "It took more than one man to change my name to Shanghai Lily."
Everybody smoked cigarettes in the movies. Even Katharine Hepburn. Even Loretta Young. Ronald Reagan posed for Chesterfield ads. On the radio, it wasn't "The Jack Benny Program," it was "The Lucky Strike Program with Jack Benny," although in that PBS documentary you only see him smoking cigars. Robert Mitchum smoked so much, he told me, that when the camera was rolling on "Out of the Past," Kirk Douglas offered him a pack and asked, "Cigarette?" And Mitchum, realizing he'd carried a cigarette into the scene, held up his fingers and replied, "Smoking." His improvisation saved the take. They kept it in the movie.
If virtually all actresses smoked, Bette Davis smoked more than virtually all actresses. When she appeared on the Tonight Show the night after she co-hosted the Oscars, she walked onstage, shook Johnny's hand, sat down, pulled out her Vantages, and lit up. Tumultuous applause. I would guess it is impossible for an impressionist to do Bette Davis without using a cigarette. Remember Paul Henried lighting two cigarettes and giving her one? Read this quote from the first paragraph of Wiki's entry on Davis: Her forthright manner, clipped vocal style and ubiquitous cigarette contributed to a public persona which has often been imitated and satirized. Ubiquitous.
I think some smoking is okay even in contemporary stories, if only to acknowledge it exists. Movies can't rewrite reality. The MPAA cautiously mentions smoking in their descriptions of movie ratings (even if it's Alice's caterpillar and his hookah). If, by the time you're old enough to sit through a movie, you haven't heard that smoking is bad for you, you don't need a movie rating, you need a foster home.
And yet, and yet...I could not do without that moment in "The Sweet Smell of Success," where Burt Lancaster plays the big-shot Broadway columnist T. J. Hunsaker, and Tony Curtis is the desperate press agent Sidney Falco, trying to get an item into T.J.'s column. Hunsaker holds a cigarette in his fingers and, without looking, says "Match me, Sidney." A relationship defined in two words. That still leaves "Cigarette me." I predict it will turn up as dialog within 12 months.
See a gallery of reader-submitted variations on the Bette Davis stamp here.
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