Sunday, May 26, 2024

List: The Best Onscreen Smokers

Note: This is in no way an endorsement of smoking or tobacco use. This is for entertainment purposes only

Full disclosure: I used to smoke. It’s not something I’m particularly proud of, but it’s also something I miss every day. This constant longing for nicotine has endeared me to the actors and actresses in films who take to smoking like an artform. Ask any former smoker, and they can tell you who actually smokes or who has never had a cigarette in their lives before lighting up on screen. The 2023 Oscar season featured a number of accomplished smoking performances, including Helen Mirren in Golda, Bradley Cooper in Maestro, and Da’Vine Joy Randolph in The Holdovers. This year is off to a solid start with Kristen Stewart’s on-again-off-again smoker in Love Lies Bleeding. Inspired by Stewart’s tour-de-force smoking ability, I now present to you, the top ten film smokers.

10. Denzel Washington – Best Smoking As A Prop

You could make a strong case as Denzel being the best living actor. One of his greatest achievements is his ability to shift his on-screen persona. But more than anything, Washington uses each piece of his environment to create a character, and that includes cigarettes. Whether it’s the loosey he applies during the early scenes of Malcolm X, the coolly accessorized cigs from Devil in a Blue Dress, or even the climactic poison smoke in Fallen, the smoking serves a purpose. And there is none more purposeful than in his Oscar-winning turn in Training Day. Denzel’s corrupt cop smokes throughout the film, whether in a car, on a rooftop, or in his bedroom counting his money. No one knows how to add to a character with a cigarette quite like Denzel. And don’t you dare wince when he blows smoke in your face.

9. Robert Mitchum – Best Noir Smoker

Mitchum was never seen as the most accomplished of actors, but the guy knew what he did well: film noir. The actor famously went into scenes in Out of the Past unprepared to make the film more spontaneous and tense. Smoking is such a part of Mitchum’s noir pastiche, it’s on the freaking poster! Cigarettes are a touchtone of film noir atmosphere, and no one made it fit better than Mitchum.

8. Marlene Dietrich – Prettiest Smoker

Few people have a face like Marlene Dietrich. Black-and-white photography and proper lighting just makes the woman’s face glow in a way others just don’t. While the act of smoking is much associated with illness and repugnance, Dietrich makes it look like the most natural thing in the world. Even one of her most iconic images features a cigarette, which just looks right. In one of her most famous roles, 1931’s Shanghai Express, she drags and just lets the smoke lazily waft up past her lips, nose, eyes, and hair. It’s like the cigarette is screaming at the audience to note how mind-numbingly gorgeous this woman is. I can’t blame the cigarette for trying to get us to notice.

7. Humphrey Bogart – Smoking as a Companion

Has anyone looked more natural with a cigarette than he? Never did a film go by where Bogie wasn’t supported by his favorite tobacco co-star. That being said, he never made it a part of his performance, but rather a piece of art imitating life. The man lived to smoke and that obviously would translate to his on-screen adventures. His entire film persona wasn’t one of action and adventure, but one of passive complacency. You don’t see much of Bogart mixing it up. You see more of him sitting behind a desk with a whisky and a Lucky Strike. It’s as much a part of him as his iconic voice. It’s not even the first few things you think about his persona. It’s just a part of the package. You want Bogart, you get smoking.

6. Samuel L. Jackson – Cigarettes as the Coolest Accessory

Samuel L. Jackson is one of the most consistently cool-as-hell actors of our time. When he smokes in film, it just makes him seem that much cooler. Whether it’s the down-on-his-luck Mitch Hennessey in The Long Kiss Goodnight, the chain-smoking Mr. Arnold in Jurassic Park, the “where can I put my ash” of Ordell in Jackie Brown, or the smoking-while-playing-guitar melancholy of Lazarus in Black Snake Moan, Jackson makes it look that much cooler. This piece is not supposed to be an endorsement of smoking, but Jackson’s on-screen-smoking charisma makes it tough.

5. Robert De Niro – Smoking as Method

Robert De Niro is famously method. The guys lives his roles. When that character is a smoker, De Niro lives smoking. Whether it’s the 9,000 cigarettes he goes through in Casino, or his cigarettes turning into an actual plot point for Midnight Run, De Niro places his smoking into his roles seamlessly. You’ve seen that “hear an image” meme going around, and nothing is better encapsulated that than De Niro in the above image from Goodfellas. Just look at that guy. He is not faking it. His cheeks are pulled in the whole way. That heater never stood a chance against De Niro’s commitment to the role.

4. Roy Scheider – Best Hands-Free Usage

You know those Oscar categories like Production Design or Makeup/Hairstyling where the best usually means the most? When it comes to the “most” smoking, Scheider comes out victorious just because of his performance in All That Jazz. Not only is it a constant, never-ending stream of cigarettes entering, lighting, ashing, discarding and entering again, no one hangs on to a cigarette while talking like Scheider. His hands are too busy as the thinly-veiled version of Bob Fosse. That performance could have gotten on this list alone, but Scheider also has iconic talk-smoking in Jaws. Not only is he smoking without using his hands, he delivers one of the most iconic lines in cinema with a cigarette hanging out of the corner of his mouth. That’s smoking talent.

3. Audrey Hepburn – Most Regal Smoker

Audrey Hepburn is the peak of regal, classic beauty. You don’t automatically think of her as a smoker, which only enhances her power. But her proclivity for on-screen smoking speaks for itself. Who else has a nearly-18-minute montage of smoking? Even one of her most iconic roles in Breakfast at Tiffany’s features her cigarette hanging out of a long black filter. Smoking has been long-associated with early aging and diminished beauty. But not for Hepburn. One of cinema’s most enduring beauties didn’t let a little thing like constant smoking stop her from aging gracefully.

2. Tony Leung/Maggie Cheung – Sexiest Smoking Couple

This is almost cheating, because this list is meant to encapsulate a career of smoking. That being said, how do you negate the pair of sexiest smokers in the history of film? Leung and Cheung’s searing chemistry is already there, but the lingering smoke seeping in the air in front of Wong Kar-Wai’s camera adds as much to the story as the silence does. I could have just included Leung, as his partnership with Kar-Wai has a long history of smoking, but it felt wrong not pairing Leung and Cheung. They are intrinsically linked through their shared nicotine intake.

1. Brad Pitt – The Smoking GOAT

The greatest on-screen smoker. It probably helps that Pitt has reportedly smoked off-screen for years, but no one makes it look more natural. Thelma & Louise, Sleepers, Kalifornia, Snatch, Killing Them Softly, Fury, Once Upon A Time in Hollywood, and Babylon all feature a cigarette-laden Pitt puffing away. But it was his tour-de-force smoking performance in Fight Club which sets the Oscar-winner apart from the crowd. It’s not just about his memorable chiseled physique and gonzo energy; it’s constantly paired with a smoke. It’s not an accessory, it’s an extension of his body. There’s nowhere and no situation where Pitt doesn’t light up. In a bar, pre-fight, post-fight, while intimidating a city official, even in the freaking bathtub. No one smokes like Brad Pitt and no one ever will.

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