Hollywood’s drug thing is no secret. You know the names of some of the biggest users—they make more headlines than actual movies. You know the names of the tragic casualties. You probably don’t know the names of those who think they have their addictions under control. Maybe some of them will kick the habit; maybe they won’t. Any way you cut it, the Hollywood drug connection makes for a deadly cocktail: the collision of narcissistic personalities, insecurities as massive as the salaries, huge expectations and pressures, and self-destructive behavior coupled with media enablers and people on the payroll paid to look the other way while a habit spirals out of control.
The industry’s lust for drugs goes hand in hand with its jones to make films about drugs. We’re not talking about the goofy gotta-score-a-joint comedies that first made household names of Seth Rogen, James Franco, Method Man and Cheech and Chong. We’re talking about movies that put drugs front and center. Of course, few movies portray drugs as dangerous, seductive and transformative the way, say, Drugstore Cowboy, Less Than Zero, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas or Trainspotting do. Most movies that revolve around drugs—especially those taking on the insanity of the so-called War on Drugs—are all labout narcs, cops and undercover agents out to make the big, career-crowning bust. Either way, audiences tend to have less of a yen for drug flicks than Hollywood moviemakers do.
For every insane cocaine-fueled classic like Goodfellas and Scarface comes a star-studded letdown like Blow or American Gangster. For every critically acclaimed box-office killer like The French Connection or Traffic there is a hallucinatory, deeply melancholy beautiful loser like Requiem for a Dream and The Panic in Needle Park. For every worthy Sicario are a dozen terrific but little seen things like The Insider.
This week, Bryan Cranston leads the sub-Scorsese thriller The Infiltrator, playing a real-life Federal agent in the 1980s who could have easily lost his life and those of his family bringing down Medellin drug cartel kingpin Pablo Escobar. Escobar himself has already been portrayed by Wagner Moura in Narcos, by Benicio Del Toro in Escobar: Paradise Lost, by Clifton Collins in Blow and even by Adrian Grenier playing Vincent Chase on Entourage in the fictional biopic Medellin. Next year, Javier Bardem plays el pardrino in Escobar and Jake Gyllenhaal will star in The Man Who Made It Snow as a Jewish smuggler who invaded the Colombian crime cartel and made Escobar millions. Tom Cruise in the biographical thriller Mena plays Barry Seal, an ex-airline pilot who became a drug runner for Escobar. So what’s the big attraction?
Says one producer with a nose for drug movies, “It’s simple, really. These movies tend to center on deeply flawed, complicated, even dangerous guys, the kind of role that’s catnip to the right actor. It could mean critical attention and, who knows, maybe award nominations. Plus, the best drug movies are flashy, violent thrillers with roles for gorgeous women in great clothes and lots of them fallen women. They move in a world of beautiful houses, cars and swank locations around the world. For a moviemaker, sometimes he or she is a recovering addict, and this is a way of closing that door. For others, making a movie like this can be a way of trying to heal the loss of a loved one through drugs.
“Whatever the reason,” concludes the producer, “we’re going to keep making them. A lot of them flop, but when they click, they’re brilliant.”