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Is the MPAA Just Blowing Smoke?

Some folks in Hollywood have already seen the need to be more socially responsible. Who can forget the 2002 confession of Basic Instinct screenwriter Joe Eszterhas, who said while battling throat cancer, "A cigarette in the hands of a Hollywood star is a gun aimed at a 12- or 14-year-old. What we are doing by glamorizing smoking is unconscionable. … I want to do everything I can to undo the damage I have done with my own big-screen words and images."

Lest anyone accuse Eszterhas of overreacting, research out of Dartmouth has found that seeing smoking in movies nearly triples the likelihood that a 10- to 14-year-old will try cigarettes.

Traditionally, the MPAA has only factored underage smoking into the ratings equation. Now it says it will ask, Is the smoking pervasive? Does the film glamorize smoking? and Is there an historical or other mitigating context? Sounds good, but here's where I cock an eyebrow: MPAA chairman Dan Glickman said this decision emerged from his organization's 40-year mission to provide parents with educational tools, and that "it is a system designed to evolve alongside modern parental concerns." Let's be clear about something: parental concerns don't drive changes to the rating system. Never have. What does is pressure, be it from Capitol Hill, special interest groups or (more often) Hollywood itself.

In the tumultuous 1960s, the ratings board replaced the more restrictive Hays Production Code, which guided film content from the 1930s through the 1950s. Were parents complaining about the old Code being outdated? No. Hollywood wanted the freedom to roll with cultural changes without any threat of censorship, which led to G, PG and R labels. As for the NC-17, whose idea was that? Was it moms and dads needing an alternative to X? Hardly. Filmmakers didn't like the stigma of the X rating, so they lobbied for a euphemism. And don't get me started on whether families or studio bean-counters are better served by the PG-13.

So while I'm glad to hear everyone making the connection between what our children see onscreen and how it influences their attitudes and behavior, Hollywood isn't making any painful sacrifices for the public good by targeting cigarettes. No one but the tobacco companies benefits from actors lighting up and inspiring children to follow suit. Honestly, what movie ever ruled the box office opening weekend because it featured chain-smoking? I'll be more impressed when the motion picture industry and its lobbying arm—the MPAA—recognize the public health hazard of, let's say, explicit violence packaged for its own visceral reward. Will we see changes in that arena? Not likely. Although it feeds a different kind of cancer threatening children and our culture, that vice draws huge crowds and generates big bucks.

Envelope-pushing auteur Robert Rodriguez was shocked when Grindhouse, a brutal double-feature he directed with Quentin Tarantino, cruised to an R rating without a fight. Perhaps hoping for a little extra publicity from a battle to avoid an NC-17, Rodriguez said, "We were disappointed that we didn't have any trouble."

Indeed, the same MPAA patting itself on the back for cracking down on tobacco seems to be getting softer on violence. Just ask Tony Scott. On the DVD commentary for his thriller Déjà Vu the director describes cuts he was asked to make to secure a PG-13, concluding, "If this movie had been released even five years ago, it would've been tougher. It would've been an R-rated movie. Things are getting a little more lenient in terms of, um, the MPAA's not quite as tough as they used to be."

If Glickman and the MPAA really want to put families first, they have more work to do after the smoke clears.

Published May 2007