Poetry, Prose, Essays and Other Works by Rob San Miguel, a Professional Nobody.

Search This Blog


Some poems contain words that are acceptable to open-minded adult readers only

31 October 2011

Smoking in Films

A cigarette may seem like the easiest acting tool available to any actor, and smoking a joint adds a layer to your character, right?  Absolutely not.  In fact, if your director tells you that your character smokes, proceed with caution.  You are putting yourself in front of a firing squad of critics. Not all diabolical, amoral, addicted, insecure or suicidal characters smoke.  In fact, they do not need to.  It is far more frightening not to be under the influence of a chemical substance.  So, think twice before you let your character smoke. A wrong move can ruin all your great effort in building a believable layered character.  

In real life, a smoker can spot a fake smoker.  Similarly, a self-respecting critic can spot an actor who did not do his homework.  An actor, a director and a scriptwriter should consider many factors when they want a film character to smoke.  A smoker’s specific set of gestures is as personal as a person’s finger print.  We all place our cigarettes at different parts of our fingers, and which two fingers.  We have different ways of lighting, and when to inhale and when to exhale.  We also move our heads differently when we inhale and blow the first puff.  We also have different ways and time when to put out a cigarette.  Some people put out their cigarettes when they are just half-way through; others wait until they already tasted the filter.  If an actor (hopefully through the guidance of a meticulous director) really knows his character, he will not just hold a cigarette and carelessly smoke. He will create a set of gestures and specific time frame even for a brief smoking scene.  To smokers, the way they think is connected to the way they smoke.  Smoking sometimes is the physical evidence of a smoker’s thinking process. 

Some of the best thespians in the world know that the cigarette is an extension of a character's personality, and so they know how to work the lighted dynamite.  Other mediocre actors foolishly hide behind the smoke of a cigarette to conceal their present lack of mastery in acting, but the cigarette is an unforgiving acting demon.  It can highlight an actor inadequacy as much as it can magnify an actor’s genius. 

There have been many films that feature some of the best smoking scenes in world cinema.  Now, this article is in no way promoting cigarette smoking. This is more of a quick analysis of an acting technique, that is often misused.

Consider Robert De Niro’s smoking scene in Martin Scorsese “GoodFellas.”  He put his cigarette in his mouth thrice in this pivotal scene. The first time, he was feeling more than thinking. The second time, an idea started brewing in his head. From the time he inhaled the cigarette, to the time he let the smoke oozed from his mouth, not too much, and then to the third time he inhaled again, he had already made his decision.  Now of course, De Niro, being an acting genius, complimented this smoking with specific subtle and precise movements of the eyes, the lips, and the right time to move his shoulders. The effect was a performance that revealed so much about how the mind of his character worked.  In lay man’s terms, engaging.  What was his character’s decision, well you have to watch “GoodFellas.”

In  Rodrigo Garcia’s “Things You Can Tell by Just Looking at Her,” Glenn Close played Dr. Keener, a lonely middle-aged doctor.  Close used her character’s smoking as a way of unraveling to the audience her character’s true self and fears. Calista Flockhart played Dr. Keener’s tarot reader, Christine. As Christine read Dr. Keener’s cards, Close smoking gestures changed and each one was perfectly timed. At the beginning when Christine described Dr. Keener as a “good pretender and self-confident” Close held her cigarette a certain way.  The hand was more open and facing the camera.  Once Christine said that Dr. Keener was not satisfied, Close made her first inhalation. Now any smoker will tell you that smoking is one of the most satisfying and unsatisfying activities in the world. It is never enough no matter how much you inhale.  Close chose to inhale at the precise moment Calista’s character mentioned the phrase “You’re not satisfied.” Then after her first inhalation, Close held her cigarette differently. Her hand was more folded.  When Christine said that Dr. Keener had “regrets,” Close put her cigarette down. Like De Niro, Close did not inhale and exhale randomly.  Close even inhaled quite slowly the second time around.   We already know what Dr. Keener was thinking.  Close chose to remain still and let her face do the talking.  Of course, this kind of acting exercise is just another day’s work in the office of Miss Glenn Close.

One of my favorite film smokers of all time is Bridget Gregory; deliciously played by Linda Fiorentino in John Dahl’s “The Last Seduction.” Fiorentino smoked perfectly in this film and all her smoking gestures were on the dot. It was second nature to her character.  Like all smokers, her cigarette was her eleventh finger. She did not have to put down her cigarette even when driving, unless she was verifying the size of a man’s appendage.  Putting your cig down in that case is understandable I suppose.  Fiorentino’s character lighted her cigarette quickly and inhaled and blew her smoke hurriedly.  Her smoking gestures were fast but not sloppy.  Given that Fiorentino has been a smoker for many years, on and off, it is understandable that she’s more adept at smoking.  However, Fiorentino’s smoking gestures in this film was so specific that even smokers that I know do not smoke like Bridget.   Most importantly, it is hard to imagine Bridget not smoking at all.  That is the beauty of Fiorentino’s performance; she made it convincing that Bridget was an unapologetic chain smoker and a sociopathic femme-fatale, even though the two do not really correlate.   Believe me, I have known many sociopaths who are clean as a whistle and who has never smoked a joint.

So, the next time you watch a movie where the lead character smokes, pay attention. Will you be convinced?  (By Rob San Miguel)

*Originally published in “The Chair,” entitled “Are You Sure You Want to Smoke, King and Queen of the Box Office?”

NOTE: The other contributing writers and members of this blog does not necessarily share the opinions of the writer of this article.


1. Goodfellas (1990) Directed by Martin Scorsese. Property of Irwin Winkler / Warner Bros.
2. Things You Can Tell by Just Looking at Her (2000) Directed by Rodrigo Garcia. Property of United Artist / Showtime / Produced by Jon Avnet, Lisa Lindstrom and Marsha Oglesby.
3. The Last Seduction (1994) Directed by John Dahl. Property of ITC Entertainment

No comments:

Post a Comment


Click banner to go to the site