Easy Rider scored a landslide victory in HIGH TIMES' survey of the Top 50 Drug Movies of All Time. This survey was published in the July '99 issue.
Jack Nicholson inhaling marijuana in Easy Rider; Al Pacino snorting up a mountain of coke in Scarface; Cheech and Chong smoking the largest joint ever in Up in Smoke; Matt Dillon shooting up in Drugstore Cowboy; Malcolm McDowell drinking synth-meth in A Clockwork Orange; deranged "marihuana addicts" in Reefer Madness. These are the enduring images of drug use in movies. And they are the basis for a new category of movie established for the purpose of this article: The Drug Movie.
What exactly is a drug movie? It's a movie in which the theme is either entirely about drugs (pot, coke, LSD, heroin, Ecstasy, peyote, mushrooms, meth, pharmaceuticals) or in which drugs play a major role. Like the sports movie or the war movie, the drug movie is a unique genre unto itself. It can be a movie-within-a-movie, a drug scene that alters the storyline or a visual style representing drug use without the drugs themselves. But when asked to vote for their Top 25 Drug Movies of All Time, our esteemed stoner panel repeatedly cited films that embraced the drug ethos.
There are plenty of films we love to watch stoned -- Fantasia, 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Wizard of Oz immediately come to mind -- but these are not drug movies per se. So when we compiled our list of 125 drug movies -- from Altered States to Woodstock -- they were intentionally omitted in order to prevent confusion. We then sent the list and a ballot to 100 prospective panelists (writers, directors, actors, etc.) asking them to select their Top 25 Drug Movies of All Time.
THE RESPONSES HAVE BEEN FASCINATING:
Hunter S. Thompson's top movies were Dead Man, Boogie Nights and Gothic.
Oliver Stone, who wrote the screenplays for Scarface and Midnight Express, submitted a short list of three favorites: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Nosferatu and his own Platoon.
Amy Heckerling, who directed Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Clueless, decided that A Clockwork Orange, Trainspotting and GoodFellas were the best.
Tie-Died director Peter Shapiro voted for Up in Smoke and Easy Rider, calling the first ten minutes of Up in Smoke "one of the funniest, most clever scenes in motion picture history."
Alex Winter, who played Ted in the Bill & Ted movies, picked Scarface, Nice Dreams and The Monkees' Head "because it's more tripped out than all of Roger Corman's acid flix combined."
Lisa Law, who interviewed Dennis Hopper for this issue (see page 64), declared that Jacob's Ladder is "one of the best movie ever made."
Washington Post film critic Tom Shales argued that X--The Man With X-Ray Eyes is the Top Drug Movie of All Time "because it's about drugs from beginning to end." No one else agreed with him.
Other panelists included critics Peter Travers (Rolling Stone) and Virginia Campbell (Movieline), authors John Hulme and Michael Wexler (Baked Potatoes: A Pot-Smokers Guide to Film & Video), independent directors Marc Levin (Slam), Iara Lee (Synthetic Pleasures) and Chuck Parello (Henry 2), producer Adam Fields (The Money Train) and a number of HIGH TIMES editors and contributors. A total of 34 panelists voted.
That Easy Rider (1969) was selected the Top Drug Movie of All Time shouldn't come as a big surprise. It's the margin of victory that makes its selection so overwhelming: Easy Rider outdistanced the closest competition by more than 100 points.
Directed by Dennis Hopper and co-written with Terry Southern, Easy Rider is the quintessential '60s drug movie. Hopper (Billy) and Peter Fonda (Captain America) deal dope, smoke pot and take acid as they ride across America on their Harleys. Hippie longhairs representing the radical youth culture of late '60s, they encounter hostility from rednecks in the South and are ultimately murdered in the last scene. Despite this tragic conclusion, Easy Rider remains the high point of cinematic depictions of that hallowed era. Voters of all ages agreed that Easy Rider deserved the honor of the Top Drug Movie of All Time.
Other '60s movies to make the list were Roger Corman's The Trip (1967), written by Jack Nicholson, in which Fonda experiments with LSD two years before Easy Rider; and Michael Wadleigh's Woodstock (1970), which documents the stoned-out horde of hippies searching for community through drugs and music at the infamous rock festival.
Drug movies came into their own in the '70s. In Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange (1971), Malcolm McDowall plays a sadistic punk loaded on meth who commits unspeakable acts. The same year William Friedkin's The French Connection -- in which Gene Hackman (Popeye Doyle) tirelessly traces the US heroin supply from Marseilles to New York -- collected Best Picture, Director, Actor and Screenplay Oscars.
Jamaica got into the act in 1973 with Perry Henzel's The Harder They Come. Several years before Bob Marley gained popularity in the States, Jimmy Cliff electrified audiences with his performance as a reggae singer attempting to break into the recording business. He sells ganja, kills several cops and become the most wanted man in Jamaica. At the end, Cliff is riddled with bullets by the police as another pro-drug anti-hero bites the dust.
Drug movies are not all busts and bad news. Rated as the Top Pot Movie of All Time, Lou Adler's Up in Smoke (1978), starring Cheech Marin and Tommy Chong, came out at the height of marijuana decriminalization. Like a Marx Brothers movie, Up in Smoke finds humor in every ridiculous situation. In fact, Marin's virtuoso comedic performance is on par with Groucho Marx. The message of Up in Smoke is weed may not make you smart, but it sure makes you funny.
Alan Parker's Midnight Express (1978) is as harrowing a drug-bust movie you'll ever see. It's also one of the great prison dramas of all time. Routine torture, general degradation and an exteneded sentence bring Brad Davis (Billy Hayes) to the brink of madness. Against all odds, he escapes and kicks up his heels in joy in the last frame.
Francis Coppola's Apocalyspe Now (1979) closed out the decade with its rich depiction of Vietnam as a psychedelic experience, exploding with rockets' red glare, pot and LSD.
Dosed in the jungle, Sam Bottoms (Lance) joins Martin Sheen (Captain Willard) in his pursuit of Marlon Brando (Col. Kurtz). Devastating as it is, Apocalyspe Nowoffers redemption for its survivors, however few there may be.
Ken Russell's Altered States (1980) kicked off the new decade in hallucinogenic fashion with William Hurt pushing the mind-expansion envelope. A combination of sensory deprivation and psilocybin mushrooms (eaten in a shamanic ceremony in Mexico) tranform him into an animal, but in the end, with the experiment over, his disraught wife (Blair Brown) welcomes him back.
Amy Heckerling's Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982) takes a more cautious approach to marijuana--it's better to be stoned and not seen. Sean Penn's surfer-dude character, Spicoli, emerges from a smoked-out van and he does a bonghit in his bedroom, but that's the extent of the film's drug content. A better stoner than drug movie, Fast Times barely made the Top 25.
Brian De Palma's Scarface (1983) ushered in the modern cocaine movie. A tour de force performance by Al Pacino (Tony Montana) lifts this update of the '30s gangster classic way over the top. Tony arrives in Miami a criminal reject from Cuba and soon takes over his boss's mini-coke empire. With an Alps-shaped mountain of coke on his desk, Tony drops his head on the pile and pulls it back up, his nose coated with white powder. It's a singularly spectacular drug-movie moment. Moments later, Tony goes out in a blaze of machine-gun glory.
While Alex Cox's punk-and-junk rock biopic Sid and Nancy (1986) deconstructs the short and unhappy lives of Sid Vicious (Gary Oldham) and Nancy Spungen (Cloe Webb), Gus Van Sant's Drugstore Cowboy (1989) finds redemption in rehabilitation. On methadone, broken up with his girlfriend (Kelly Lynch) and shot by a two-bit speed dealer (Max Perlich), former junkie Matt Dillon (Bobby) is just happy to be alive as he's carted off in an ambulance at the close of the film.
The same goes for Ray Liotta (Henry Hill) in Martin Scorcese's cocaine classic, GoodFellas (1990). Driven by rockers like "Gimme Shelter," "Magic Bus" and "Layla," Goodfellas turns the corner from typical Italian mobster flick to a complex generational struggle within an organized crime family. Barred from the family for selling drugs, Hill is soon busted by the Feds for coke. He ends ups a "schnook" in the witness-protection program as the Sex Pistols sing "My Way" over the credits.
Adrian Lynne's Jacob's Ladder (1990) revolves around Army experiments with hallucinogenic drugs on soldiers in Vietnam. Tim Robbins (Jake) suffers repeated flashbacks in this complex thriller, which takes liberty with the facts--the CIA did conduct experiments on unwitting soldiers as part of the MK Ultra program, but not for the purpose stated in the film. Another '90s drug movie with questionable merit is David Cronenberg's grotesque adaptation of William S. Burrough's junkie classic Naked Lunch (1991), yet the panel elected it to the Top 25.
Richard Linklater's Dazed and Confused (1993), on the other hand, clearly deserves its designation as the Top Pot Movie of the '90s. Set in Texas, the film accurately portrays student liberation in the apathetic '70s. Faced with expulsion from the football team if he doesn't pledge to not do drugs, QB Jason London (Randall Pink) blows off his coach and hangs with the stoners. Rory Cochrane (Slater), who wears a pot-leaf t-shirt and carves a wooden bong in shop, perfectly personifies the paranoid mindset of a teenaged weed aficionado, whatever decade it is.
Heroin dueled pot in the drug-movie sweepstakes of the '90s. While Harvey Keitel does it all in Abel Ferrara's Bad Lieutenant (1992) -- heroin, coke, crack -- and then is blown away at the end for his sins, Uma Thurman lives to see another day in Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction (1994) -- despite nearly dying of a heroin overdose early in the story. Danny Boyle's Trainspotting (1996), however, topped them both by bringing to life a vibrant community of Scotch junkies who can't say no despite the deaths of so many around them. Ewan McGregor plays the survivor who wins this intriguing game of Russian roulette.
More of a sex movie than a drug movie, Paul Thomas Anderson's Boogie Nights (1997) still swayed our panel with the copious cocaine use that fueled the making of many a porno flick. And though it might be one of the worst movies ever made, Terry Gilliam's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998) couldn't be ignored due to the mass quantities of drugs (pot, coke, acid, mescaline, ether) consumed by Johnny Deep (portraying Hunter S. Thompson) and Benicio Del Toro.
Clearly, the drug movie took flight in the '60s and continues to soar in the '90s, but two films on our list pre-date this phenomenon. Otto Preminger's The Man with the Golden Arm (1955) was the first major movie to tackle the taboo subject of heroin addiction. Frank Sinatra (Frankie Machine) plays a drummer and card shark who gets the shakes and repeatedly turns to I-told-you-so dealer Doro Marante for relief. But Kim Novak comes to Frankie's aid in one of the most memorable cold-turkey scenes. He survives his bout with dope and gets the girl in the end.
There's no such sentimentality in Louis Gasnier's infamous pot-propaganda film, Reefer Madness (1936). The granddaddy of all drug movies targets marihuana (the original spelling) as the "assassin of youth," a "ghastly menace" that leads to "incurable insanity." If it weren't so influential in paving the way for pot prohibition one year later, this badly made B-movie--in which reefer addicts are enslaved by evil marihuana--would be laughable.
The drug movie illuminates the human desire to alter one's consciousness with plants and chemicals, both good for you and bad. In the case of hard drugs, the dramatic resolution is often negative, with death, jail and addiction at the end of the road. Marijuana tends to be treated more comically, but this serves to reinforce the stereotype that potheads are dopey.
The best of the drug movies, as this survey reveals, brings depth to a subject that remains gravely misunderstood. Hopefully, these movies have and will continue to sway the American public, its legislators and judges to be more tolerant and, ultimately, to help bring an end to the unconscionable War on Drugs.
HIGH TIMES' TOP 50 DRUG MOVIES
(As of 1999)
1. Easy Rider
2. Apocalypse Now
3. Drugstore Cowboy
4. Up in Smoke
7. A Clockwork Orange
8. The Harder They Come
9. Reefer Madness
11. Midnight Express
12. Dazed and Confused
13. The Man with the Golden Arm
14. Altered States
16. The Trip
17. Sid and Nancy
18. Pulp Fiction
19. The French Connection
20. Bad Lieutenant
21. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
22. Fast Times at Ridgemont High
23. Naked Lunch
24. Boogie Nights
25. Jacob's Ladder
26. Who'll Stop the Rain
27. The Doors
29. Panic in Needle Park
30. Half Baked
31. Dead Man
33. True Romance
34. I Love You Alice B. Toklas
35. Natural Born Killers
36. 2001: A Space Odyssey
37. Beavis & Butthead Do America
39. Valley of the Dolls
41. King of New York
42. Cheech & Chong's Nice Dreams
43. Killing Zoe
45. The Basketball Diaries
46. The Breakfast Club
48. My Own Private Idaho
49. Christian F.
50. New Jack City