Throughout the studio system era (roughly 1927–1959), Hollywood faced challenges in trying to present complex social issues without resorting to crude stereotypes. Nowhere was this more in evidence than with the portrayal of drug users as criminals and madmen, most famously in 1936's absurd Reefer Madness. For more serious fare, Hollywood stayed away from showing addicts altogether until the studio system began to collapse in the mid-1950s—and only then did the Oscars begin to pay attention to them. But it was only in the modern era of filmmaking, starting in the 1970s, that drug users began to find a regular presence onscreen, and not necessarily as bad guys. Still, Oscar-nominated films about drug abuse almost always show unrehabilitated addicts as meeting a dark end. The old moralism still hides behind a modern stage curtain.
Nominated for Best Actor, Art Direction, Music, 1955 (year of production)
Like many films that pushed the boundaries of 1950s Hollywood, The Man with the Golden Arm is an Otto Preminger–directed film with a social conscience and a heavy-handed message. Frank Sinatra plays heroin-addicted drummer "Frankie Machine," who gets clean thanks to a stint in prison. Once he gets out, though, he ends up hooked once more. Soon he's back in and out of prison, involved in gambling, bamboozled by his wife, and accused of murder. Unlike earlier Hollywood films about substance abuse, which placed all the blame for addiction on the behavior of the user, The Man with the Golden Arm also implicates the addict's social environment and financial struggles as reasons for his recidivism.
Nominated for Best Supporting Actor and Original Screenplay, 1969
As one of the instigators of the risky, innovative New Hollywood era, Easy Rider is both important and overrated. Though protagonists Captain America (Peter Fonda) and Billy (Dennis Hopper) are proud users of pot and acid, and dealers of cocaine to boot, the film’s depiction of being “turned on” could have been recycled from any number of late-1960s exploitation films—freaky lighting and editing, jump cuts, out of focus shots, and so on. The major difference is that whereas earlier films that employed such techniques depicted users as mentally ill or dangers to society, Easy Rider showed them as heroes, albeit wary and conflicted ones.
Nominated for Best Picture, Actor, Actress, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography, 1972
New Hollywood at its height gives us Dustin Hoffman as obscenity-fueled comedian and counterculture icon Lenny Bruce. While Bruce had been dead for nearly a decade when this quasi-documentary film came out, his struggles with the law and society had become the stuff of legend, and his story—featuring a stripper wife, drugs like morphine and amphetamines, and the ever-present authorities—seemed both timely and irresistible to director Bob Fosse. Bruce is a true anti-hero in the film, a broken figure ravaged by addiction but simultaneously a trailblazer for freedom of expression.
Nominated for Best Picture, Supporting Actor, Director, and Editing; won for Musical Score and Adapted Screenplay, 1978
The drug film as the pinnacle of lurid, melodramatic excess. Brad Davis plays Billy Hayes, a wayward American who tries to smuggle hashish into Turkey. After he’s caught and given a grueling sentence, he resorts to using drugs behind bars. In due course, he’s beaten by the guards, mentally and physically tortured, nearly raped and institutionalized, and must chew off a guard’s tongue and commit murder to escape. As a two-hour excuse for torture porn, Midnight Express doesn’t provide much insight on drug smuggling or substance abuse, but it does reach a level of grotesque xenophobia that few mainstream films have since equaled.
Nominated for Best Actress and Original Song, 1990
Meryl Streep rounded out a string of 1980s Oscar nominations with her portrayal of a Hollywood actress trying to kick her addiction to coke and pills after a stint in rehab. For various reasons she ends up having to live with her mother (Shirley MacLaine), whose manipulative and overbearing personality has long driven her crazy. Based on Carrie Fisher’s autobiographical novel of her own addiction and relationship with her mother Debbie Reynolds, Postcards is sometimes funny and touching, but all too often settles for reveling in movieland shtick instead of depicting the actual challenges of going straight.
Jennifer Jason Leigh was something close to the queen of independent cinema in the 1990s, and well regarded for her fearlessness and devotion to her roles— which are fully on display in this portrait of a damaged musician, Sadie, who can’t live up to the example set by her more financially successful and emotionally stable sister, Georgia. Unable to cope with the pressure she puts on herself, Sadie self-destructs in a tailspin of drug abuse. Leigh is risk-taking and captivating as always in the role, which required her to have repeated meltdowns, some onstage while singing bleak, hopeless songs.
Darren Aronofsky’s pioneering film doesn’t just showcase the dangers of addiction, it gives them to us in vivid Technicolor detail, in three gruesome interrelated stories. In one, Jared Leto and Marlon Wayans are small-time drug dealers and heroin addicts, while in another, addict Jennifer Connelly sees her creative dreams thwarted as she’s reduced to prostitution. But it is the third story, about Ellen Burstyn’s diet-pill-addicted pensioner, that Requiem achieves its most inventive horrors, as she lapses into psychotic visions of being attacked by her refrigerator. For all its creativity, though, Requiem’s message about drug use is thoroughly retrograde.
Nominated for Best Picture; won for Best Director, Supporting Actor, Editing, Adapted Screenplay, 2000
Requiem’s 2000 counterpart was Traffic, which also offered three overlapping storylines but in a much more realistic and sobering assessment of substance abuse and the drug trade. In Steven Soderbergh’s film, we see narcotics policy from the highest level—by the US drug czar (Michael Douglas) in an increasingly ineffective War on Drugs—down to the “street” level of the daily user, in the form of the czar’s own heroin-addicted daughter (Erika Christensen). Other plotlines of this complex, multilayered movie examine the effect of the drug trade in Mexico and a DEA investigation in California.
Female adolescent addicts saw limited screen time in earlier decades, but the rise of independent cinema changed that. Catherine Hardwicke’s Thirteen was one of the most disturbing films of the good-girl-goes-bad subgenre, chronicling the corruption of innocent Tracy (Evan Rachel Wood) at the hands of troubled Evie (Nikki Reed). Evie takes Tracy down a dark road that begins with shoplifting and promiscuity, and lead to self-mutilation, drug abuse and violence. Hardwicke presents the torment of youth in excruciating detail, especially Tracy’s cutting and the girls’ mutual face-punching after getting doped up on inhalants.
Nominated for Best Picture, Director, Supporting Actress, Editing, Original Screenplay; won for Supporting Actor and Supporting Actress, 2010
Set in gritty working-class Boston, David O. Russell's family drama sees Christian Bale delivers one of his most memorable and challenging roles as Dicky Eklund, the crack-addicted brother of pugilist Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg). Despite his destructive habit, Bale's strangely charming, magnetic performance shows the great strides made by Hollywood in a half-century of depicting drug use, from weird trips and melodramatic freak-outs to the more nuanced and compelling portraits of today.
J.D. Dickey is a writer and editor living in the Pacific Northwest.