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Alcoholism in the Movies

The movie business thrives off of depicting drama and chaos, which makes it no surprise that alcohol and alcoholism are heavily portrayed themes in many modern and classic films. Alcoholism is the only disease that provides intense entertainment to the viewer, which is one reason it is employed in such a high volume of films. Alcoholics active in their disease tend to make for theatrical characters, they have lowered inhibitions which can provide grounds for shocking or memorable lines, they manipulate other characters in extravagant ways, and can cause serious social and physical harm. These behaviors are destructive in reality; however, they make for an amusing story and can set the stage for an unexpected and exciting turn of events.   Alcoholics depicted in movies can be separated into four main types: tragic hero, rebellious free spirit, demonized addict, and the comedic user.

The Tragic Hero

The tragic hero style of alcoholic is a likeable character that the viewer’s consistently route for. This hero struggles with the ramifications of his or her addiction while finding difficulty in adjusting to society’s norms. Drugstore Cowboy is a classic example of this genre of alcoholic in which Mat Dillon plays an opiate addict who robs pharmacies to support his habit. Dillon’s character is intelligent, attractive, and identifiable; the audience is forced to care deeply for this misguided individual. Other examples of tragic heroes can be seen in Leaving Las Vegas, Less Than Zero, Trainspotting and Requiem for a Dream.

The Rebellious Free Spirit

Rebellious free spirit is the alcoholic that consumes substances against the standards of society which gives this character the image of being an outsider or an individual. He or she typically uses drugs in a more recreational manner than addictive and the drugs are shown to have beneficial effects in this person’s life. Easy Rider is an example of this style of alcoholic; the movie incorporates casual marijuana and LSD use as tools in the two main characters quest for freedom from the bondage of society.

The Demonized Addict

The demonized addict is the most stigmatized and stereotypical possible portrayal of an alcoholic in a film. The demonized addict character is usually under the influence of both drugs and rage, which lead to devastating consequences. The movies that employ this form of addict are usually attempting to fascinate their audience through the calamities of the alcoholic. Some of the movies that fit this description have political agendas, such as Reefer Madness, made in 1936. This film was a cautionary tale that connected habitual marijuana use to homicidal actions. Other examples of movies surrounding demonized addicts include Blue Velvet, Jungle Fever, and Bad Lieutenant.

The Comedic User

When a character’s alcoholism is used for humor, this falls under the category of a comedic user. Movies that revolve around a comedic user have a tendency to heavily glamorize addiction while at the same time showing no real consequences of use. The original Cheech and Chong film Up In Smoke is a prime example of this. The drug use is instrumental in the majority of the jokes made throughout the comedy, the drug use is glamorized, effects are exaggerated, while ramifications are minimized. Other examples of comedic users can be seen in Pineapple Express, Blazing Saddles, and Old School.

This wide array of alcoholic characters utilized in feature length films is troubling because movies are an incredibly effective form of communication that has the ability to influence decision making, especially when it comes to the impressionable youth audience. If one has never consumed alcohol before, the knowledge of the effects of use may be partly derived from films. Movies such as the classic Animal House and the more recent blockbuster Beer Fest, illustrate alcohol use as a rite of passage and a sign of masculinity.

Likable and attractive characters often drink alcohol in movies with no ill effects, which sends an inappropriate message to those in their formative years. Movies tend to portray drinkers as more attractive, more aggressive, more sexually active, and wealthier than those who abstain.[1] The movies that depict alcohol in a positive light outnumber the cautionary tales ten to one.[2] If a young person looks up to a character as a role model, they could emulate the alcohol consumption of the character on a totally subconscious level.

Advertisements for particular brands of alcohol are in most of the movies that include its use and have a more pronounced effect on the viewer than a typical commercial would. When a viewer is aware he or she is watching an advertisement, he or she is more likely to be skeptical of the product. A viewer who sees a lead character in a movie drinking a certain brand of beer is in a more receptive mind state for the commercial to influence. Clint Eastwood’s character in Grand Torino constant ingestion of Pabst Blue Ribbon is an example of an alcohol brand name being successfully incorporated into a story. The sale of Blue Ribbon went up by 25% shortly after the Grand Torino’s release which highlights the fact that these covert advertisements have the potential to be profoundly effective.[3]

Alcoholism is represented in some movies as a pathetic state of hopelessness. In contrast to the rewarding element of drinking in most movies, these consist of alcoholics that are broken, wretched characters. The fact that movies tend to have either have a heroic or a demonic alcoholic character creates a black and white representation of alcohol and alcoholism, upholding the bum with a brown paper bag covered drink stereotype of alcoholism while sensationalizing alcohol use in the normal population as an exhilarating, freeing experience.




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Filed under: Addiction, Latest News · Tags: Addiction, addiction in film, addiction in the movies, Alcohol Abuse, Alcohol Addiction, alcoholics in film, alcoholism, alcoholism entertainment industry, alcoholism in film

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