Movies

Depictions of Addiction, Onscreen

Drug addiction is a complex condition that stems from a number of factors, and it’s not easy to overcome. When you bring social isolation and reduced resources into the mix, addiction can become even more dangerous.

In real life, COVID-19 is further compounding the struggles that accompany both active addiction and recovery. Bans on large gatherings mean that 12-step and other types of recovery groups aren’t able to meet, and many methadone clinics across the country are limiting their hours and/or services in an effort to keep COVID-19 at bay.

Furthermore, addicts may be feeling greater financial burden if they lost work due to the pandemic. As depression and anxiety about the future can fuel addictive tendencies, it is interesting to see how addicts respond in these unprecedented times. Dealing with addiction in the wake of a pandemic may prove to be an interesting subject for future filmmakers.

For now, movie buffs have to make due with Hollywood’s previous depictions of addiction onscreen. In some cases, films about addiction win Oscars, like Leaving Las Vegas, for which Nicolas Cage won Best Actor portraying a sad alcoholic on a suicidal mission. Other films are pushed into relative obscurity or overlooked altogether even though they accurately portray the life of an addict. A film in which an addict’s life is accurately portrayed includes 2012’s Smashed, starring Mary Elizabeth Winstead.

Young, Tormented Onscreen Addicts

In Smashed, Winstead plays a troubled, young alcoholic. Tortured young souls make for a rich plot and dynamic character development onscreen, no matter the genre. Hollywood doesn’t disappoint when it comes to onscreen addicts who just also happen to be young and beautiful. For instance, in an early role, Leonardo DiCaprio stepped into the shoes of real-life writer Jim Carroll, who spent his teenage years as a drug addict and champion basketball player.

The DiCaprio film, 1995’s The Basketball Diaries, was based on Carroll’s autobiographical book of the same name. As Carroll, DiCaprio doesn’t hold back, and gives the role a sense of raw honesty, even during his character’s darkest moments. While DiCaprio’s Carroll experimented with alcohol and various pills, it was heroin that turned him into an addict.

Heroin addiction has happened time and time again onscreen, often to young people with promising futures ahead. Fictional alcoholics, however, tend to be more world-weary and haggard. In Crazy Heart, released in 2009, Bad Blake (played by Jeff Bridges) is already a washed-up country singer when his alcoholism brings him close to the breaking point.

The Myriad Repercussions of Addiction

Unemployment, estranged loved ones, and deteriorating health are just some of the negative repercussions of addiction, and these traits are typically given top billing on film. It’s not the entire picture in real life, however. On-screen alcoholics don’t usually end up asking themselves whether their condition is a disease or if a cure exists.

In the real world, problem drinkers may discover that they’re actually living with alcohol use disorder (AUD). The good news is, under the Americans with Disabilities Act, those with AUD who are seeking treatment are protected from workplace discrimination. Despite that, recovering addicts aren’t protected from other forms of discrimination.

In real life, personal relationships are sometimes too damaged to repair in the wake of addiction. In Hollywood, Blake, in Crazy Heart,  discovers this firsthand when he attempts to reconnect with his former lover, Jean (played by Maggie Gyllenhaal), near the end of the film. Jean appreciates his hard work at recovery but declines to engage with him further. In this way, Crazy Heart does an exemplary job of depicting the loneliness of addiction.

Hollywood, Addiction, and Recovery

Of course, in both film and in the real world, loneliness and addiction go hand in hand. Onscreen, grief and loss are often the underlying catalysts for addiction. They certainly fuel Bad Blake. Yet in real life, addiction can happen for any number of reasons. For example, addiction often starts with an injury or chronic pain. A single opioid prescription is then likely to snowball into something much more sinister: Full-blown addiction.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, “about 80 percent of people who use heroin first misused prescription opioids.” The prevalence of opioid addiction has governmental bodies, healthcare providers, and social justice groups scrambling for potential solutions.

Unfortunately, combating substance abuse on a wide scale doesn’t end up in many Hollywood scripts, nor does the subject of finding alternative solutions to treating chronic pain. Research indicates that it’s possible to manage chronic pain via natural channels — for example, with the help of natural supplements like CBD. An all-natural recovery or a rehab experience isn’t likely to entice as many viewers to a film, but instead a film develops as the story of an alcoholic actively battling his or her demons.

The battle against addiction is almost impossible to fight alone. In the overwhelming majority of movies that culminate in successful recovery, the protagonist has someone to lean on, whether friends, family, or healthcare providers. In real life, that’s a tall order for those addicts who may have pushed away their loved ones over the years.

The Human Connection

As movies have shown us time and again, addiction can ultimately harm personal relationships, sometimes beyond repair. Exploring complicated, nuanced interpersonal relationships is Hollywood’s bread and butter.

For instance, Ben’s heartbreaking relationship with Sera, another troubled soul, in Leaving Las Vegas nearly brought Ben back from the brink of destruction. And as Jim in The Basketball Diaries, DiCaprio seemed to sabotage every personal relationship, ultimately alienating everyone, from his mother to his best friend Mickey.

Thus, prior to Covid-19, the plots of movies where addiction plays a role tend to focus more on relationship matters than tools for recovery. It will be interesting to see the ways onscreen depictions of addiction are altered once social distancing mandates are lifted.

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