When President Reagan recently lent the prestige of his office to a national campaign against drug use, he accused the entertainment industry of winking too often at the dangers of dope. “Musicians that young people like…make no secret of the fact that they are users,” Reagan told a Newsweek interviewer. “[And] I must say this, that the theater—well, motion-picture industry—has started down a road they’d been on before once, with alcohol abuse. I can remember when it was rather commonplace in films…to portray drunk scenes and so forth as being very humorous. And the motion-picture industry decided some time ago that that wasn’t right for them to do…and they stopped. And yet, recently, there have been some pictures in which there was a gratuitous scene in there just for a laugh [about] drug use, that it made it look kind of attractive and funny, not dangerous and sad.”
Not surprisingly no one in Hollywood leapt to the fore to admit that they, personally, promoted drugs in their films or music, but there were some who endorsed the President’s point of view. “I absolutely agree with him,” says Rick Dees, the nationally syndicated deejay. “I’m around musicians all the time and a lot of them are users.” Says Bob Gale, co-producer of Back to the Future, “I think there’s some truth to Reagan’s charges. There’s no clear glorification [in movies]. But, conversely, there’s no clear stigma attached either—no one saying clearly, ‘Hey, taking drugs is real bad for you.’ I guess you could say ‘If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.’ ”
But many in and around show business argue that they are not guilty as charged—and some add that Reagan’s accusation only diverts attention from the real causes of drug abuse, which perhaps only the government can substantively obliterate. “It’s easy to point to movies, but I would like to see a little documentation,” says Sheila Benson, a movie critic for the Los Angeles Times. “Just look at recent movies. In The Big Chill, the Bill Hurt character who takes drugs is a pitiful figure; in St. Elmo’s Fire, Demi Moore is a girl out of step, drugs are what bring her down. I don’t see the glorification of drug taking in any of these movies.” Says Los Angeles Herald critic Peter Rainer, “Hollywood is more a reflection of society than a catalyst, if you’re talking about drugs. Reagan has the power [to bring about real change]—not [studio chief] Barry Diller.” Oliver Stone, who wrote Scarface, in which Al Pacino starred as a paranoid coke dealer, questions the President’s own morality: “In a world where he equates the Contras with the Founding Fathers, how can he point a finger at Hollywood?” Stone’s criticism was echoed by musician Frank Zappa, who castigated a presidential plan to uncover drug use in the Washington bureaucracy by instituting urine testing of some federal employees. Said Zappa: “By Christmas, if everybody jumps on this bandwagon, the Reagan Administration is going to be looking for funding for the piss police.”
Danny Goldberg, a record exec and the organizer of Rock Against Drugs, which this month received a $50,000 grant from the state of California to produce antidrug public service spots, says that Reagan’s comments might have been true in the past. “The President’s concept is coming from the late ’60s when all segments of society were romanticizing drugs,” says Goldberg, who insists that things have changed. Years ago it was acceptable for Eric Clapton to sing “When your day is done and you wanna run…cocaine,” or for Jackson Browne to record a version of the classic Cocaine that included sniffing noises at the end of the song. Nowadays, says Goldberg, the trend is to write antidrug songs, like Bob Seger’s American Storm, Huey Lewis’ Want a New Drug and Glenn Frey’s Smuggler’s Blues. “For well over a decade the rock music community’s dominant comments have been almost exclusively antidrug,” says Goldberg.
Susan Newman, the daughter of actor Paul Newman and an antidrug activist since her 28-year-old brother, Scott, died from mixing alcohol and Valium in 1978, contends that many of the pro-drug messages in today’s films are almost subliminal but still important. Among other things, “Movies should eliminate one-liners,” says Newman. “For example, there’s a throwaway line in A Chorus Line about taking Valium, and a scene in About Last Night where a woman has a disappointment and wants to smoke a joint. Such scenes flash by but they legitimize it.” Perhaps a more fundamental problem isn’t in movies but in the example celebrities set in real life. “Even if the star gets arrested and goes to jail for a little while,” she says, “the young people see him later in a red Ferrari, with the gorgeous girl on the arm, still making movies, still in the limelight. So the message gets across—’How bad could it be? It’s hip to do drugs.’ ”