Monday, 13 June 2011

If you want a modern actor to smoke convincingly - hire a smoker!

I hate it when actors smoke in TV dramas these days. From the moment they light up, I can’t pay any attention to the dialogue until I’ve figured out whether they know what to do with a cigarette. 90% of the time, they don’t.

I was a 40-a day man for decades, so I’m an absolute expert. 

Here are the rules for non-smoking actors called upon to smoke, whether in a period piece or crime drama:

RULE ONE: Smokers never pay any attention to the cigarette they’re holding: they don’t stare at it or fondle it, any more than they would the old chap whilst urinating.

RULE TWO: Unless playing a Russian or a turn-of-the-century royal or an American gangster (see the Bogart illustration above), the cigarette is normally held between the knuckles of the first and second finger of the right hand. It is permissible to hold it between your thumb and the tip of the first finger for the final few drags, but only when it has been smoked down to the filter – and no one ever does that on TV. 

RULE THREE: The cigarette is held about nine inches to a foot in front of the stomach, whether standing or sitting. Any closer – or held straight down by your side - and smoke will drizzle up into your eyes, making you shout “Oh, bugger!” Any further away and it’ll drizzle up into another actor’s eyes (which might lead to fisticuffs), and it’d mean holding your arm in an awkward position. Women are permitted to hold the cigarette nine inches to a foot from their face equidistant from the nose and the ear: men aren’t, unless the character they’re playing is gay, or they’re sitting in a deep armchair or sofa, when it can’t be helped.

RULE FOUR: No smoker ever – ever! – stubs a cigarette out after two or three drags. This is sacrilege. They used to do this a lot in old Hollywood movies for dramatic effect, or to signal agitation or world-weariness, but fags were cheap back then: they cost a small fortune in modern Britain.

RULE FIVE: Don’t have characters light up in No-Smoking areas: this will distract every viewer. Smokers and ex-smokers have been so cowed by ‘Elf ‘n’ Safety Nazis and the idiots who affect to believe in secondary smoking or who pretend they or their offspring suffer from asthma in order to make the smoker feel even worse than they do anyway, that we break into a guilty sweat, waiting for some self-righteous gauleiter to enter the scene and demand that the offending item be extinguished at once. As for non-smoking members of the audience, they’ll spend the next ten minutes breathing heavily in an indignant strop.

RULE SIX: When smoking, you do no draw the smoke into your mouth, keep you lips closed, wait a second and then expel vast clouds of it through your nostrils or out the sides of your mouth. This must be a horrible thing for a non-smoker to have to do, and the viewer just sits there waiting for the actor to have a coughing fit, or to start blinking the smoke out of their eyes. Smokers invariably draw the smoke cleanly and lustily deep into their lungs before expelling it forcefully through semi-pursed lips.  No smoker wants their head wreathed in tobacco smoke: their aim is to project used smoke as far away from them as possible (preferably towards a non-smoker). Because much of the smoke has been absorbed by the body, the smoke coming out looks much thinner than it was going in. There is no way of covering up the fact that the smoke exiting an actor’s face has not been properly inhaled, and this is annoying.

(Cigarette smoking came into its own in Film Noir, because the smoke provided such fascinating visual effects against dramatically dark backgrounds: in modern TV drama it just wafts around to no purpose, except to break the viewer’s concentration.)

RULE SEVEN: If a smoker has managed to reach the age of, say, thirty, it meansthey know how to stub out a cigarette -  otherwise, they’d have burned to death long ago due to carelessness. Smokers do not extinguish a cigarette in an ashtray without looking at it as they do so – otherwise, the fingers of their right hand would be a mass of scar tissue. Neither do they throw a cigarette on the ground near them without using their shoe to grind it out. (Most smokers feel guilty enough about their anti-social habit without causing unnecessary danger to others.)

As smoking dies out, the problem, of course, is ignorance about how to do it convincingly. Actors are also terrified of developing lung cancer if they inhale. And ex-smokers must be aware of how easy it would be to start up again. (A similar problem arises when young actors and actresses are asked to portray upper middle class people or aristocrats: many of them don’t have a clue.)

RULE EIGHT: If a role requires an actor to smoke onscreen, hire a smoker (or ex-smoker, if they agree to inhale). Then I wouldn’t have to keep winding back to watch scenes again. 


  1. Agreed. 100 percent. And nicely observed.

    But it's not just smoking.

    There's sex. Sex on the screen isn't remotely like sex at home.

    And it's not just sex.

    Fighting. On screen, everyone seems pretty useful in a fight and astonishingly resilient. In real life fights, as someone I can't remember who said, only one punch is ever thrown, whoever throws the first punch wins.

    Walking. I used to sit on otherwise drab Sunday afternoons watching black and white films with my mother. There'd be some beautifully dressed, perfectly made up and coiffed screen idol elegantly posed with an 18-inch cigarette holder. Then she'd spoil it all by getting up and walking like a charwoman with lumbago. Maybe actresses have got better at walking since the '50s but they still don't walk naturally.

    And talking. People don't talk fluently, and alternate in conversation with perfect balance for half an hour at a time. They mumble and gesture helplessly while trying to express themselves and failing. They interrupt. They repeat themselves. They lose the thread. They blow their nose.

    Groups of people standing together rarely form a perfectly framed picture capturing the landscape in the background that ultimately determines their motivation.

    And music. How many people can afford a 76-piece orchestra in the next room while celebrating their birthday? How many of them suddenly break into song and then into perfectly choreographed dance? Can you twiddle a cane, tap, smile and sing all at the same time without your top hat falling off and without being distracted by Ginger Rogers whirling around you at 100 mph like a Dervish in 22 yards of scarlet silk? I can, of course, and it's a daily event chez nous, but how common an experience is that?

    Wilfrid Hyde White famously apart, on-screen eating habits are even more awful than real life. And then there are the mastication noises and the sluicing and gulping of hot tea. That's actually better on screen than in real life because the noise is drowned out by the orchestra (q.v.).

    And lighting. Generally, everything is perfectly lit on screen. In real life, our lighting arrangements are a disgrace. There's barely a room in my house with an uplight that favours my left profile.

    And so it goes, on.

    Screen life is mannered. All of it. Not just the smoking.
    Tuesday, June 14, 2011 - 12:07 AM

  2. DM, there are so many interesting points here, I’ll cover them in a separate post.

    Briefly, though, I think most screen conventions – music, fighting and speech in particular – are justified, if only because music heightens one’s responses. But whereas films usually improve things like speech and fighting – and music heightens ones responses – they actually disimprove smoking, i.e. the actors do it worse than current or ex-smokers would, which is what’s irritating about it. You want to get up on screen and show them how to do it. I saw “All the President’s Men” the other night yet again, and the only thing in the whole film that didn’t work was Dustin Hoffman’s cigarette smoking – lit it wrong, held it wrong, stuck it in his mouth wrong, didn’t inhale: it was an annoying distraction after a while, and I just wished someone would walk on set and put him out of his misery by confiscating the packet.
    Tuesday, June 21, 2011 - 11:09 AM

  3. Irritating screen conventions. Here are some of mine:

    Cigarette smoking. Any modern production set in the 30s and 40s seems to require incessant smoking - even in the most innapropriate contexts - in order to establish a period feel. And, as you say, modern actors can't smoke. Modern actresses should study Bette Davies - she turned smoking into an art form. Also, please avoid the use of cigarette holders. That requires a specialized technique. In my book, the greatest smoking film of all time is Fritz Lang's "M" - everybody smokes and the the range of smoking paraphernalia is amazing. The only non-smoker in the film is the brilliant Peter Lorre.

    Cigar smoking. This must be avoided by modern actors at all costs because they simply haven't the foggiest idea [George Peppard springs to mind]. A perfectly good war film ["The Big Red One", unfortunate title] was spoilt by having a young actor having a cigar continuously clamped between his teeth [during the assault on Omaha Beach he even finds time to stop and relight his stoogie while still in the water]. Great cigar actors are fat actors - Welles, Greenstreet, Edward G. Robinson, Laughton, James Gandolfini [and Rumpole of the Bailey].

    Bedroom Scenes. In American films of the fifties all actors [male/female] automatically donned dressing gowns immediately they got out of bed.In current American films all males seem to go to bed in their underwear [Tony Soprano is the chief culprit]. Elaborate female coiffures are always intact on arising. Also, when couples wake up they kiss and breathe into each others faces without going through the toothpaste/mouth wash routine first. Everybody has "metal" breath in the morning and it makes me cringe.

    Hangovers. In film, hangovers of monumental proportions only last for half-an-hour and are cured by coffee or bromo-seltzer and there are never any physical tell-tale signs. [see the pin-headed Nicholas Page in "Leaving Las Vegas" or the whole cast of Mad Men].

    Modern Technology. Computers and Mobile telephones are the scourge of modern cinema. How many more hours must I watch people tapping away on their PCs and the lingering zoom into their screens. Or the natural flow of action being interrupted by recourse to the mobile [one of the primary stars of the otherwise excellent "The Wire" was this technology. Beware of the modern tendency to elevate the tactic above the strategy. They are necessary but irritating contraptions which are now full-blown conventions. A writer in the Spectator a few weeks ago labelled them "the deus ex technologia" - a lazy way of speeding up the action and covering up a weak plots. Where would all these ghastly "Bourne", "Mission Impossible" or "Ocean's 11" franchises be without them.

    Triple Whammy Explosions. How many more films are going to feature these meaningless pyrotechnic sequences with human bodies in the foreground hurtling through the air? They are called "Triple" because if a script doesn't have at least three of them Hollywood producers apparantly are not interested. The subject of car chases is not even worth mentioning.

    Music. Huge subject. I mention only the requirement past and present that American films about The War of Independence or The Civil War require toe-curling, portentous music; British films from the 60s require thin, reedy contributions from Johnny Dankworth; British spy films or TV series require large splodges of choral music; and many films about WW2 require at least a few bars of "The Horst Wessel Lied" to establish credibility. As a matter of interest, did you know that the German title of the film "The Horse Whisperers" was "The Horst Wesselers"? I only found out the other day.
    Wednesday, June 22, 2011 - 10:50 AM