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Jewish World Review August 14, 2002/ 6 Elul, 5762

Kathleen Parker

Kathleen Parker
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Consumer Reports

What has soft-core pornographer Eszterhas been smoking? | Fans of revelation can appreciate screenwriter Joe Eszterhas' sudden understanding that smoking, which probably led to his throat cancer, is a bad idea. One can also appreciate his desire to stay alive, to watch his four sons grow up, and to repent for what he sees as his role in promoting smoking through his films.

But Eszterhas' claim that he has blood on his hands and has been "an accomplice to the murders of untold numbers of human beings" by creating characters that smoke is a tad over the top. The former militant smoker wrote of his revelation last week in a New York Times op-ed piece as part of a promise he says he made with G-d.

"I am admitting this," he wrote, "only because I have made a deal with G-d. Spare me, I said, and I will try to stop others from committing the same crimes I did."

Eszterhas, infamous for his soft-porn movies - including "Basic Instinct" (wherein Sharon Stone is shown smoking during her most famous scene), "Showgirls" and "Flashdance" - is urging Hollywood to break the habit of showing characters lighting up.

"I say to my colleagues in Hollywood: what we are doing by showing larger-than-life movie stars smoking on screen is glamorizing smoking. What we are doing glamorizing smoking is unconscionable."

I'm all for Hollywood seeking enlightenment. We deserve better films than many of those penned by Eszterhas, though, to be fair, he's responsible for some I liked: "Music Box," "Betrayed," "Jagged Edge." And while smoking is dangerous to health - and cigarettes may be appealing held between certain lips - characters smoking cigarettes on the big screen is hardly the worst of Hollywood's sins.

Let's see. Between the woman in "Basic Instinct" ice-picking her lover to death during sexual intercourse and the pantyless woman crossing her legs while smoking a cigarette, which is more offensive? Which more likely to be imitated? And by whom, young girls?

First, one might hope that young women impressionable enough to want to imitate fictional movie characters aren't watching "Basic Instinct." If they are, the cigarette is the least of our worries. I'm far more concerned about the brutality of the imagery on our collective psyche and spirit than I am that someone might think Sharon Stone looks cool smoking a cigarette.

But Eszterhas is Pentecostal about his conversion, which is to say, he teeters dangerously close to the line that separates self-flagellation from self-importance. You just know that the nice folks back in the Middle Ages wished more than anything that the self-flagellators flogging their naked bodies to thwart the Black Plague would put their clothes back on and go home.

I don't wish to diminish Eszterhas' good intentions or minimize his certain suffering. Cancer is a religious experience for many, and Eszterhas has been suffering for 18 months. He's lost much of his larynx and has difficulty speaking. Still, Eszterhas is an unlikely moral mentor. And cigarettes, though clearly harmful to smokers' health, are weak sisters on the roster of Hollywood villains.

While Eszterhas is seeking atonement and proselytizing to Hollywood, he might do better to apply his considerable talent, if not influence, to fixing what's really wrong with movies. With few exceptions, they're just bad. Either unnecessarily violent, profane and promiscuous or dumber than dumb, they alternately debase and insult the viewer.

Meanwhile, if we are to presume that moviegoers are at risk of imitating what they see on-screen, the sensory assault of watching a larger-than-life actor being disemboweled or raped or, for heaven's sake, eaten is beyond defense.

But the fact is, millions of people safely go to movies and walk away without giving a thought to becoming murderers, prostitutes or drug dealers. Or to take up smoking. Besides, for my $7.50, some characters need to smoke. What would Margot in "The Royal Tenenbaums" have been without her cigarettes? Having watched that delightfully droll film, do female viewers now want to don a fur coat, wear heavy black eye liner and chain-smoke? Well, yes, but we don't necessarily.

Instead, we make our own decisions, for good or bad, and face our own consequences. Just like Joe Eszterhas.

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