Drugs, legal or illicit, have always been part of the Hollywood lifestyle, on and off screen. I don't believe the frenzy of silent movie slapstick was accidenta
With the announcement by the Royal Opera House in London that it will produce an opera about Anna Nicole Smith, drug-related deaths by prescription chemicals have attained a new cultural high.
Nowadays the death of celebrities caused by "legal" drugs seems tragically routine.
The history of drugs and Hollywood goes back to early days. In 1916, D. W. Griffiths, Tod Browning and Anita Loos made a film called the Mystery of the Leaping Fish starring Douglas Fairbanks as Coke Ennyday, a Sherlock Holmes pastiche. Fairbanks imbibes huge amounts of cocaine in a "comedy" that left my guests slack jawed even in 1980 when I screened it. I don't believe the frenzy of silent movie slapstick was accidental. Drug related acting drifted into the 1940s and 1950s with pot evoking more relaxed performances, like some of those by the great Robert Mitchum and the charismatic James Dean.
While Richard Nixon, according to his aide Bob Haldeman, was getting the Secret Service to help him open his prescription drug container after gnawing it unsuccessfully, Hollywood was experimenting with psychedelics.
In 1968 Groucho Marx took LSD in preparation for his role as a man called God in Otto Preminger's comedy Skidoo. Paul Krassner, who was present, recorded some of Groucho's acid remarks like: "I'm really getting quite a kick out of this notion of playing God like a dirty old man. You wanna know why? Do you realise that irreverence and reverence are the same thing? If they're not, then it's a misuse of your power to make people laugh."
In 1959, Cary Grant, under medical supervision, experienced psychological therapy with LSD and spoke highly of the outcome.
Discovered in Switzerland in 1943 by Sandoz chemist Albert Hoffman, LSD subsequently had murky origins in CIA experiments with mind control. In 1978, I thought its history would be the good makings of a film, so I set off to meet Ken Kesey, author of One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest and an early US government guinea pig for LSD tests.
At his Oregon home, surrounded by male and female admirers, Kesey proved a charming and unusual host. Offering me nitrous oxide instead of coffee, he whispered to me: "People are morons about drugs, watch this!" He pulled out a bunch of chocolates and announced: "Everybody, listen up, I have here the latest, strongest psychedelic ever invented. You can all try it but I am warning you: You may never come back!" The guests eagerly reached for the chocolates. After some time, of course, absolutely nothing happened, although one guy started making weird noises and dancing. Kesey rolled his eyes at me. He showed me 16-millimetre colour film of his historic trip across America in a bus called Further, immortalised by Tom Wolfe in Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.
He gave me his illustrated script called Further, based on the journey, and asked me to pitch it in Hollywood. Even in 1978 this subject matter, of events that arguably changed a generation proved outre, and I was greeted with blank looks. I was used to weird expressions from some studio executives reacting to non-formulaic material. When I suggested to Alan Ladd jnr a film about morphine-addicted Errol Flynn, pictured, and his trip to Franco's Spain with friend and SS spy Hermann Erben in 1936, he suddenly looked at me as if he had been vomiting for six hours. Further never went any further either.
Also in 1978 I was assembling a documentary on the 1960s and showed a cut to LSD exponent Timothy Leary. When he saw himself in a clip saying, "I well may be a charlatan," he went ballistic and called me an "arsehole" for using it. “Why? You said it and it's amusing.” He stormed off. He wasn't the only one upset with this film. In brief, when the studio, Columbia, changed leadership the incoming regime stopped the film, locked the cutting room and locked the producer David Puttnam out of his office as well.
One of the studio executives involved, shortly after went berserk on cocaine, and ended up for a while in a mental asylum.
Seems to me that nowadays arguably the only thing worse than illegal drugs are legal drugs. Michael Jackson being wheeled out last year as a cadaver has to be one of Hollywood's lowest drug moments. The tragic Jackson will not be around to enjoy the record $271 million album deal his estate signed last week.
March 21, 2010
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