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Shooting Stars

Harry Shapiro

Drugs, Hollywood, and the Movies

(Serpent's Tail)

One Toke Over the Line

That’s the whole game, baby - nobody’s got control.
— Rush, 1991


Harry Shapiro, author of the acclaimed history of drugs and music, Waiting for the Man, and a bestselling biography of Jimi Hendrix, has written an extremely entertaining and informative history of the relationship between cinema and drugs, and their role both on and off the screen.


The fifteen chapters of Shooting Stars: Drugs, Hollywood and the Movies cover the film industry in the US and UK from the birth of cinema to the present, examining the image of drugs in what he describes as “drug movies.” One of the problems inherent in this project is how to define its focus. In his useful introduction, Shapiro explains that he chose to focus on films where illegal drugs or drugs themes are “the motivating forces driving the film,” and where, “the film has seemingly tapped into the drug sensibilities of the target audience, e.g. 2001.” This means that he covers a wide range of movies—from silent films of the 1910s to’40s morality tales, 70s blaxploitation films and 90s youth culture movies like Trainspotting, Go and Human Traffic. He even adds an appendix on US anti-drugs movies shown in schools.


This relatively arbitrary but necessary definition of his focus is mirrored in his decision to isolate illegal drugs from a wider analysis of the image of alcohol and prescription drugs on and off the screen. Shapiro himself points out that if he included these in his study, the book would have been at least twice the length, but he doesn’t fully acknowledge the problem of drawing these distinctions. The reader has to run with him in these decisions.


The early chapters on silent films in the context of the opium wars, the influx of Chinese immigrants into the US and the emergence of anti-drug laws, and his chapter on 70s blaxploitation movies and the competing responses of different parts of the black community, are particularly good. Other chapters are a little too descriptive. Shapiro has obviously watched hundreds of movies (as his filmography demonstrates), but he writes overly detailed plot summaries, even of the more well-known films, which detract from his arguments, burying them in needlessly lengthy description.


One of the most interesting things about this well-written and well-paced book is that it proves difficult for Shapiro to maintain a clear distinction between drugs on and off the screen. It sounds simple enough, but in his accounts of the movie industry and its products, the distinction between the two becomes, at times, very slippery. This goes to the heart of what this book is really about. Shapiro explores the relationship, or perceived relationship, between the movies and wider society.


At one level, he explores changes in UK and US film censorship in the context of changing attitudes to drugs. For example, film certification bodies have consistently been concerned about films that represent drug-taking as enjoyable, or in any way positive, even in the short-term. These bodies see cinema as having a social responsibility to its viewers, and film as directly affecting people’s actions. This attitude is often at odds with the opposite view of cinema, which sees film, and Hollywood in particular, as a dream factory where fantasies are played out in collective acts of wish fulfilment. Shapiro charts these different attitudes to drugs in cinema in engaging and explorative ways.


He also discusses the hypocritical and often inconsistent attitude to Hollywood actors and drugs. The family entertainment side of Hollywood means certain actors must maintain a squeaky-clean image. Others, however, benefit from the bad boy reputations built through drug use, especially if they survive into middle age. It seems to be more difficult to remain on top in Hollywood as a bad girl. Interestingly, Julia Phillips, the ‘80s producer whose monster cocaine habit is infamous, said she began taking the drug to boost her confidence and therefore her career in the uber-macho world of Hollywood producers.


One of the weaknesses of this otherwise very readable history is Shapiro’s decision not to look at the metaphorical function of illegal drugs in movies. He is altogether too literal. Drugs onscreen equals drugs off screen, whereas, very often, illegal drug taking is a metaphor for wider social, ethical and political themes. He touches on this in the early chapter on opium and Chinese immigration, but he might have pushed his arguments further, to a more detailed discussion of drugs as a symbol of demonised immigrants. The bodies of the addicts/victims sometimes appear as metaphors for a more general body politic seen as being “polluted” by illegal aliens.


One of the signs of a good book is its ability to leave you wanting more, and this is certainly the case with Shooting Stars. For example, I wanted to read more about Science Fiction films as coded explorations of anxieties about the effects of drugs. Shapiro has taken on a huge topic and he has had to draw some pretty arbitrary lines in the sand to make it viable. This means he has produced a snapshot that raises more questions than it answers, but it is a thoroughly readable and illuminating snapshot indeed.

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