Hollywood and Big Tobacco collide

On a screen that glamorizes smoking, 'The Insider' finds a villain

Who can forget Humphrey Bogart - Bogie - with a cigarette dangling out of his mouth at Rick's Cafe? Or a suave-looking Robert Montgomery plugging Lucky Strikes? More recently, it's been Nicholas Cage or Kate Winslett or Gwyneth Paltrow - almost every Hollywood protagonist, in fact - puffing away.

Now, however, a new movie is out that portrays smoking and the cigarette industry in a different light - one that is creating a rare rift between Hollywood and Big Tobacco.

In "The Insider," a whistle-blower agrees to testify about incriminating research done by a tobacco company on the effects of smoking and tell all on the CBS show "60 Minutes," despite a judge's gag order and, according to the movie, death threats against his family.

The company feels it's being accused of criminal conduct in a "docudrama" - and is considering filing a libel suit. If Brown & Williamson does take action, it will mark an ironic twist in the relationship between tobacco and an industry that has always glamorized smoking, to the point of being almost an unofficial marketer of cigarettes.

To this day, smoking on the big screen remains ubiquitous. For the 1997-98 movie season, the American Lung Association found that tobacco was used in 88 percent of movies and by 74 percent of the leads. ALA concluded this was among the most smoke-filled of the decade. In one of the most alarming trends, tobacco use increased among movies aimed at pre-teens and early teens, the PG rating.

"Tobacco has a pretty significant presence," says Sacramento, Calif.-based Natasha Lumpkin, director of the ALA's annual survey.

In fact, in most movies, tobacco is usually portrayed in a favorable light. "Filmmakers show them as stress relieving, glamorous, and a normal thing that people do," says Ernie Franck, president of the ALA.

Bill Novelli, head of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, has tried to get Hollywood directors to reduce their tobacco use. "They say 'Don't muck with our creative license.' We're real wary about taking these guys on."

So why is Brown & Williamson upset over one movie? Mark Smith, a spokesman for Louisville, Ky.-based Brown & Williamson, says Disney sent its stars on a nationwide tour, where "they have purported that 'The Insider' is a true story when in fact it is fiction."

The end of the movie says it is based on a true story - with added dramatic effects. Some of those dramatic effects have the tobacco company reeling.

The movie is about Jeffrey Wigand, a top researcher at the company. After being fired, he ultimately agrees to testify against Brown & Williamson and talk to "60 Minutes." That much is true. But then the movie shows Mr. Wigand receiving a death threat and finding a bullet in his mailbox.

Brown & Williamson says those threat scenes are total fiction. On its Web site, it has posted an FBI search warrant, which shows the local agents believed Wigand had posted the threats himself so perhaps CBS would continue to provide him with security.

Ken Paulson, executive director of the First Amendment Center in Nashville, Tenn., says films have taken liberty with facts for decades. "The test is whether the embellished material is strictly ornamental or new facts that don't exist. You have to sit down with the entire public record and say, 'Would the public have a different impression after seeing the movie?' "

That's what Brown & Williamson is doing. After the movie opened last weekend, it started surveying moviegoers to see what impact the film had on the company's image.

"We have hired a national polling firm to attempt to find out what damages we have incurred," says Mr. Smith.

One of those surveyed was Luanne Nyberg, who saw the movie in Edina, Minn. At first she thought the survey was from Disney. But, she quickly surmised that it came from the tobacco company when she was asked: Was your impression of the company more favorable or less favorable after seeing the movie?

"I was quite amazed at the survey," says Ms. Nyberg, who worked with former Minnesota Attorney General Hubert Humphrey on his antitobacco litigation.

This would not be the first time the subject of a docudrama sued. After "Missing," a movie about the death of an American in Chile, then-US Ambassador Nathaniel Davis sued because he felt the movie made him appear involved in the death. He lost the lawsuit.

"Movies tend to be not very good vehicles for bringing lawsuits. The public does not want big public entities curtailing artistic license in serious movies," says Bruce Sanford, a libel lawyer in Washington and author of a recent book, "Don't Kill the Messenger."

However, another lawyer who does First Amendment work warns that if a movie portrays a named entity as engaging in criminal conduct, "the word docudrama won't save it." He adds, "I think it would be a hard sell for Disney people to say, 'We did not expect people to take this literally.' " Disney did not return repeated phone calls.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.