Wednesday, May 27, 2009

THE PLEASURE PRINCIPLE ] Memorable smoking scenes on celluloid


"The scene where Faye Dunaway hires Jack Nicholson," Tesa Celdran tells me, recounting her favorite smoking scene in cinema. "She lights one from a gold case when she already has one going, and stutters." The Dunaway scene is from Chinatown, the Tesa scene takes place at the footbridge at Silverlens. Tesa is wearing some fluid green dress and a major amount of bangles on her right arm. She is holding a glass of wine, but no cigarette. "I already quit," she says. Tesa isn't smoking but you almost see glamorous whirls of smoke from the invisible stick you imagine she holds in her hand.

I was thinking of quitting myself, that's why I thought of asking around for people's favorite smoking scenes, the ones that make you light up. To spark nostalgia, I guess. Smoking in cinema is perhaps the exception to that argument the anti-censorship people always bring up when The Establishment bans a scene from this or that. "Not because the bida massacred innocent people in this film or that, the audiences will be inspired to do the same." Hazardous to your health but when photographed well becomes too glamorous not to watch. Also depends on who is holding the cigarette. The words in between puffs. The context to which it is being held. But I blabber.

Anyway, let's talk about the scenes. Besides it's kind of chic now (to talk about it, not to smoke), what with the Coco Chanel movie coming up, and posters with her smoking have already been banned in some places. For Carlo Tadiar, it's Jessica Lange in Frances. "It wasn't so much a scene as a gesture. She would repeatedly pick the tobacco flakes that stuck to her tongue from her unflitered cigarette. It was simultaneously dirty, sensuous, self-gratifying, and somehow elegant all at the same time." For Lourd de Veyra, it is all of Jean Paul Belmondo in Breathless. For Mario Cornejo, it's Chris Walken and Dennis Hopper in True Romance. It starts when Hopper asks for a cigarette. It is THE SCENE of True Romance. "If it's just ANY scene (that makes me light up)," Lizza Guerrero-Nakpil tells me, "any scene with Daniel Craig, Zachary Quinto, Jason Statam, and my newest find, Rupert Penry-Jones!" If that's how she looks at the question, then that's Brando in A Streetcar Named Desirefor me. But back to topic.

Devi Madrid spells out a scene from The Lover: "Si girl asks for money from lover, and si lover gives her a backhanded smack (si girl falls on her back sa bed)...tapos, si guy (who is in khaki three piece sharp suit, slicked back hair, okay?) fishes out his wallet, throws wad of bills towards girl. guy (haba, malapit na sa smoke section), sits on chiar na nakadekuwatro, fishes out a ciggy, flicks his metal lighter sharply, lights up, inhales deep...and EXHALES!"

A lot more scenes come up from different people: Audrey Hepburn burning a woman's hair from her long cigarette stick in the party scene of Breakfast at Tiffany's, the weight of an abusive history in each drag of Jennifer Jason Leigh's cigarette in Dolores Claiborne. Uma in Pulp Fiction. Russel Crowe in L.A. Confidential. For the movie critic Noel Vera, its Gloria Romero in Dalagang Ilocana (1954): "arguably has the tastiest tobacco-puffing scene in all of Philippine cinema (a rich patron, smacking his lips, declares that the cigars rolled by Gloria Romero are so well packed the smoke clears his lungs)."

Maybe the art director Ricky Villabona needed a drag when he sent this response, about one of the most famous smoking scenes in modern cinema: Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct. But then Ricky doesn't smoke. "But this is a case of the chicken or the egg for me. Do I remember the smoking or do I remember her flashing her pussy? I remember both. Why are both images etched in my mind? One cannot do without the other. The scene wanted to say that Catherine was a bad bad girl, but just lighting up during an interrogation was not enough to say that she was a bad bad girl. So, uncross the legs and show the bush! Then again, couldn't she just have flashed her pussy and done away with the cig? No. That would have been crass and too "direct," if you know what I mean. Having her smoke while flashing it made it cool. Smoking was as important as the exposure of her pussy. She had to look cool about it. I'm actually rambling trying to explain something the director probably did not belabor in his mind. He was most probably ruled by his gut and told her to smoke and expose her pussy because it just looked and felt perfect."

Us Gen-Xers, we only had one idea of perfect: "See, Lainy, this is all we need: a couple smokes, a cup of coffee, good conversation. You, me and five bucks." Ethan Hawke, Reality Bites. And back when we were still falling in love with dirty, angsty young things, we only have one answer.

Leiny (Winona Ryder): "You got it."

Disclaimer: This post does not intend to promote smoking.


  1. Oh my goodness Jerome! Just read this now and feeling very VERY glamorous.

    THANK you thank you thank YOU!