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Why Can’t Hollywood Get Drinking Right?

When it comes to its portrayal of drinks and drinking culture, Hollywood is woefully out of touch.

drinking in movies

The question should have been an easy one to answer, but Heywood Gould was stumped.

Could he name one film in recent years where drinking was portrayed in a considered, thoughtful way? If there were a movie like that, Gould would know. As the author of the novel Cocktail, as well as the screenplay to the subsequent film adaptation, he inspired what is arguably the best-known modern film about bartenders and bar life. But he was drawing a blank.

“The Hangover films were not sophisticated,” he says, naming the recent film franchise. “You binge drink, get sloshed and try to figure out what you did the next day. No, I can’t think of a single film in the last 40 years that depicted drinking in a sophisticated way.”

It wasn’t always thus. In the movies of the 1930s, ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s, you couldn’t keep fine, upstanding Americans away from the cocktail shaker. They were constantly sidling into elegant bars and swank nightclubs, ordering with obvious experience and preference. At home, they took pains over their cocktail hour, mixing up the evening’s refreshments with care and handing out well-built drinks to appreciative guests.

“If you go to the Golden Age, drinking is fun and drinking is healthy,” observes Gould. “People are drinking their brains out. You go home, and your wife has Martinis. If you faint, they give you brandy. Until the 1960s, when you drink, it’s a happy time and the hangovers are comical.”

Today, a film in which a character knows of anything beyond pints, shots and beer pong is so rare that word spreads fast. Such was the case with a brief moment in the 2011 comedy Crazy, Stupid Love where Ryan Gosling made a perfectly executed Old-Fashioned for Emma Stone. The scene lasts all of five seconds, but has by now reached legendary status among those who care about such things.

This cinematic drought occurs, oddly, during a time when the viewing public has become more educated about what they’re drinking. Twenty-somethings order Old-Fashioneds as often as their grandparents did, and can tell you the difference between different mezcals and amari. Even television has caught on, with various series making room for an occasional cameo by a Moscow Mule or a Paper Plane. But moviemakers remain blissfully oblivious.

What went wrong? How is the Hollywood that once had Nick Charles demonstrate which dance steps best mixed which cocktails (in 1934’s The Thin Man); that had Cary Grant order Gibsons on a train (1959’s North by Northwest); that had Marilyn Monroe shake up clandestine Manhattans in a hot water bottle (Some Like It Hot, also 1959)—how is that town now utterly incapable of determining the business end of a barspoon?

Well, to sum it up in a cliché: times have changed. During the midcentury, the screenwriters and directors and producers who put movies together had a long and loving knowledge of drink. And that was translated to the screen.

“Most of the movies made from that period were made by drinkers,” says Gould. “[Director] John Ford was a drinker. Every movie Ford made has a lot of drinking in it.”

Today, movie executives and artists live cleaner lives—or, at least, make a bigger show of doing so. Robert Downey, Jr., Bradley Cooper, Samuel L. Jackson and many more are sober and vocal about it. Stars like Gwenyth Paltrow and Jessica Alba have transformed themselves into health gurus. Hyper-fit former wrestlers like Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and John Cena are full-fledged movie stars. All in all, you’re more likely to see a star with a yoga mat in their hand than a cocktail glass.

“When I started working in movies, almost every day the crew went out for drinks afterwards,” recalls Douglas Tirola, a documentary filmmaker who made Hey Bartender, a 2013 film that chronicled the rise of the cocktail renaissance. “Now, people are healthier. Alcohol is looked at in a different way. The idea of a writer sitting in a bar with a notebook, I’m sure it still happens. But… I think you’re much more likely to have a breakfast meeting with movie people than three hours of drinking together.”

“If you go to the Golden Age, drinking is fun and drinking is healthy. People are drinking their brains out. You go home, and your wife has Martinis. If you faint, they give you brandy.”

Lack of engagement in the drinking culture among film types has lead to a certain apathy when it comes to translating drinking to the screen. One wouldn’t accuse filmmaker Steven Soderbergh of such disinterest. As the owner and importer of Singani 63, his personal brand of the Bolivian style of brandy called singani, he knows a great deal more about alcohol and drinking than your average director. But, even he admits his knowledge is newly born.

“My impression is, in general terms, people’s understanding of spirits is pretty average,” he says. “And, frankly, so was my level of interest prior to getting involved in Singani [63]. I just didn’t really care.”

He agrees that the changed lifestyles of film professionals have effectively knocked urbane drinking out of the picture. He also thinks the viewing public has become less tolerant of certain drinking motifs that were once common in film. “Certainly, the genre of the happy drunk is over,” says Soderbergh, “Arthur [the 1981 movie starring Dudley Moore] being the best, or most recent, example of a successful version of that. We’ve reached the point where most people understand that that sort of excess is not good for you or the people around you.”

Additionally, he also blames a newly cautious attitude on the part of liquor producers. According to the director, liquor brands are shy of coming off badly in films. They analyze each script with a microscope to make sure their product is reflected positively.

He remembers getting a call from Brian Koppelman and David Levien, the creators of the television series Billions. “They said, ‘Hey, we have a scene where one of our characters is loaded and is out in his backyard firing an assault rifle at a bunch of deer, and no one wants their product anywhere near that scene.’” They asked Soderbergh if he could send over some bottles of Signani 63. The director was happy to oblige. “We’re the brand,” he says, “that takes the novel position, ‘It’s just a show. It’s not the real world.’”

That scene from Billions, however, represents one of the central tenets of Hollywood’s current “drinking problem.” When drinking is depicted, it is almost always in a negative light—as bro-binging, college shenanigans, barroom bad decisions or as fuel for outright aggression. Never is it an accessory to smart conversation, courtship or character-building. A protagonist’s choice of drink doesn’t say anything more about a their personality than does the brand of gasoline they put in their car.

As Gould observes, “at some period of time, drinking became a problem. It always was, but it became acknowledged as such.”

To Soderbergh, the most encouraging sign in recent years that things might turn around—that a character lifting an attractive drink to their lips might be an indication of urbanity, intelligence or, at least, something other than stupidity—came not from the big screen, but the small one. “It’s hard to have this discussion without wanting to bring in Mad Men,” he says. He recalls the “slack-mouthed, glassy look” his colleagues would get when viewing one of the many scenes from that series when a office bar cart was rolled into use.

“I know a lot of people who thought, ‘Gee, that looks like fun.’”

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