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A Short History of Addiction in Cinema

In the early days of cinema, alcoholism was used either for comic relief by the likes of Laurel And Hardy or Charlie Chaplin or as the cause of the central character’s downfall. But gradually the film industry took a more nuanced and honest look at the phenomenon, with addiction becoming the subject matter rather than a mere plot device. Academy Winning The Lost Weekend (1945) takes a glimpse into the life of a writer struggling with alcoholism, depicting a weekend of binge drinking and deepening frustrations.

Days of Wine and Roses (1962) with Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick is a story of a couple who slowly descend into the chaos of alcoholism, and it features a scene in an AA meeting. Alcoholism as the fuel of a conjugal crisis is also the subject of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966) with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, in which a university professor struggles to appease his disillusioned alcoholic wife.

French cinema has demonstrated a great sensitivity towards the subject with films such as Louis Malle’s The Fire Within (1963), the story of a man who comes out of a rehab clinic and falls back into heavy drinking suicidal feelings.

While alcoholism tends to be taken seriously in films, reflecting alcohol’s status as a socially acceptable drug, narcotics have been treated in a more sensational way. The early films had a propaganda feel to them: in Marijuana (1935) Cocaine Fiends (1935) and Reefer Madness (1936) healthy young men are all but transformed into flesh eating zombies by substance abuse.

Some of the early addiction films did expose relevant social issues like Monkey on my Back (1957) which tells the story of a young man who comes back from WW2 with a morphine addiction. The Man with the Golden Arms (1955), starring Frank Sinatra, highlights the transition between addiction and crime.

In most of these films the addict is a young man and the narration takes the form of moralistic, cautionary tale. One of the first more realistic depictions of drug abuse is Shirley Clarke’s The Connection (1961) which chronicles the life of heroin addicted Jazz musicians in their frantic search for the next hit.

The theme of the junkie looking for his next hit would be continued in 1970s in films like Born to Win (1971) and Panic in Needle Park (1971), where addict scouts the city’s hospitals for fresh needles and gets involved in drug dealing.

The late 1980s and early 1990s saw a shift from the image of drug-addicts-as-street-peddlers towards privileged people descending into addiction.  Clean and Sober (1988) tells the story of a real-estate broker in a rehab clinic, recovering from an addiction that he was plunged into by his “successful” lifestyle.

The 1990s portrayed drugs in a more up-front way and went deeper into the milieu with films like Nil By Mouth (1997), Basketball Diaries (1995) or Gridlock’d (1997). Probably the most celebrated tale of addiction from the 1990’s is Trainspotting (1996), the story of man’s struggle to escape addiction by shaking off his entourage.

The 1990s also gave films like David Cronenberg’s The Naked Lunch (1991) and Terry Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998), films which focus on the spectacle of hallucinations associated with drugs rather than accounts of addiction. The new century continued the trends of the 1990s with Half Nelson (2005) as one of the most notable offerings, where a high school teacher struggles with his heroin addiction while educating youth on morality and history.

Page last reviewed and clinically fact-checked | January 25, 2013