Hollywood has traditionally been a place for people to escape the stress of their everyday lives and escape, if only for a couple of hours, into a celluloid word of fantasy. The first true “Golden Age” of Hollywood occurred during the Great Depression, when individuals flocked to theaters to see big budget musicals that helped them escape their own financial problems.
As the years passed, the film industry became grittier – and started tackling subject matter that was either taboo, or once considered too intense for general film audiences. Drug addiction was one of the themes that began to emerge in 1970’s Hollywood – where young directors like Coppola, Scorsese and Cimino showed the world – with intimate detail — what the daily life of the drug addict looked like.
What was once the subject of over-the-top public service films would soon become the stuff Oscars are made of – attracting the best actors and actresses, all of whom wanted to sink their teeth into the complex portrayal of an individual lost in a sea of drug addiction.
Drug Addiction Portrayals in the Movies
Reefer Madness (1936)
Although most people view it as little more than camp/high-comedy, it is important to remember that Reefer Madness was released as a PSA at a time – not unlike today – when parents felt as if they were losing control of the children – and seeing them fall into the clutches of forces beyond their control. The movie charted the story of a good boy from a nice family who sees his life tumble out of control after trying “the evil weed” just once. To drive home their point, filmmakers used wild music, over-acting and distorted camera angles to illustrate the perceived affects of marijuana. Watching Reefer Madness one has to wonder if anyone involved with the film ever used the drug themselves.
Drug Topic: Marijuana Addiction
Midnight Cowboy (1969)
Still the only X-Rated film that has won a Best Picture at the Academy Awards, Midnight Cowboy was a groundbreaking film upon its release for a number of reasons. Obviously, there was the frank depiction of homosexual “hustler” life in the inner city (New York) but also many allusions to heroin addiction in the 1970’s and what living on the streets was like for addicts and prostitutes alike.
Drug Topic: Heroin Addiction
The Boost (1988)
Although the film was not particularly well-received upon its release – and since then has been panned as unrealistic and overacted, The Boost is still an important film in that it is one of the few that addresses drug addiction among the “Yuppie elite” and how quickly an established upper-class life can unravel as a result of drug use.
Drug Topic: Cocaine Addiction
Based on a British TV mini-series of the same name, Traffic took a unique approach to depicting the global world of drugs on the silver screen. By splitting the story up into several interwoven tales, Traffic used a large, all-star cast to show just how many different types of people see their lives impacted by drugs. From the upscale drug lord housewife unaware of how her husband makes his living, to the United States government “Drug Czar” who risks losing his teenage daughter to addiction, Traffic presented its stories using voices and personalities that illustrate the scope of the drug problem in the country.
Requiem for a Dream (2000)
One of the most stark and unflinching portrayals of drug addiction every seen on came, Darren Aronofsky’s 2000 masterpiece traces the lives of four up-and-coming young people who see their lives shattered by substance abuse. The black humor and unglamorous portrayal of drug addiction helped every day people relate to the film – as it provided an understanding that this is a problem that can strike anyone at anytime.
Drug Topic: Various
As the 21st Century rolls on, we continue to see changes in societal attitudes towards drug use. Some things have become perceived as more dangerous (prescription drugs) while other issues (marijuana) are now on the verge of breaking through to complete legalization and mainstream acceptance. Hollywood is nothing else if not a cipher – a relay to the world of what America is thinking about any given topic of the day. Expect the depiction of drug addiction in the movies to change right along with our society. With over 14 million Americans currently suffering from drug addiction, there will continue to be a market for these films.
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