A History of Stoners in Film

We look at the rise of the stoner in film, from the 1930s to the present...

“The motion picture you are about to witness may startle you. It would not have been possible, otherwise, to sufficiently emphasize the frightful toll of the new drug menace which is destroying the youth of America in alarmingly increasing numbers. Marihuana is that drug – a violent narcotic – an unspeakable scourge.” – the Real Public Enemy Number One!

So reads the opening crawl to the now infamous film Reefer Madness. Originally released in 1936, it was designed as a hard-hitting expose of marijuana and its inherent dangers. The drug could cause “violent, uncontrollable laughter,” the movie’s introduction read. It could induce “dangerous hallucinations,” “monstrous extravagances,” all eventually leading to “shocking acts of physical violence… ending often in incurable insanity.”

Reefer Madness was one of many cautionary films that appeared in the 1930s and 40s; Marihuana (1936), Assassin Of Youth (1937) and She Shoulda Said No! (1949) all purported to uncover the perils of drug use through lurid melodrama. The latter movie starred Lila Leeds, who was arrested for marijuana possession just one year earlier with an even bigger Hollywood star, Robert Mitchum.

Released from prison after 60 days and struggling to find work, Leeds agreed to star in She Should Said No!, a low-budget exploitation film designed to cash in on the high-profile arrest of Leeds, Mitchum and two other actors. Also marketed as The Devil’s Weed and Wild Weed, it’s shot like some kind of alien invasion movie: in its opening scene, the fractious whine of a theremin plays as we see marijuana-laced cigarettes pass from hand to hand, gradually spreading across Los Angeles like a virus.

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The only defence against this insidious menace, the narrator tells us, is Captain Hayes of the Narcotic Division, a stern looking man with a precise moustache, slicked-back hair and a handkerchief in his top pocket.

By the 1960s, authoritarian figures like Captain Hayes began to look like something from a bygone age. A new counterculture was forming that stood in opposition to the establishment and the rules of the past; long-held attitudes to sex, class, equality and, yes, the use of drugs were changing among the post World War II “baby boomer” generation.

Those changing attitudes were reflected in the counterculture movies of the late 60s, where those who dabbled in narcotics didn’t necessarily succumb to the “dangerous hallucinations” or “incurable insanity” that Reefer Madness warned an earlier generation about. In the shadow of the Vietnam War, director-producer Roger Corman broke new ground with a string of low-budget movies which stood in stark contrast to the anti-drug movies from the previous generation (In the early 1970s, Reefer Madness enjoyed an unlikely revival in theatres, where a new viewed its earnest portrayal of addiction as a comedy).

The Wild Angels, released in 1966, was but one film in a rapidly growing genre of biker movies. What was significant about The Wild Angels, however, was that it starred Peter Fonda, the son of Hollywood star Henry. Where his father had starred as all-American archetypes like Wyatt Earp in My Darling Clementine, or as a straight-backed colonel in Fort Apache alongside John Wayne, Peter Fonda rode a Harley Davidson with his bong-playing crew, taking drugs, getting into fights and generally raising hell.

The difference between the mayhem seen in Reefer Madness and movies like The Wild Angels was that, in the latter, the stoners, bikers and drop-outs were depicted as romantic heroes. When Fonda’s character stands up to a judge in The Wild Angels‘ most famous scene, he seemed to speak for an entire disaffected generation:

“We don’t want nobody telling us what to do. We don’t want nobody pushing us around.”

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“Just what is it that you want to do?” The judge asks in a stentorian voice.

“We want to be free to ride our machines without being hassled by The Man. And we want to get loaded!”

Two years after the release of The Wild Angels, Peter Fonda took the biker movie into the mainstream with Easy Rider, and the cinema landscape would never be quite the same again. Fonda made Easy Rider with Dennis Hopper, whom he’d met two years earlier on another low-budget Corman film: the blissed-out LSD odyssey, The Trip. Together, Fonda and Hopper concocted a movie that writer Peter Biskind later described as the “automatic writing” of the hippy age. Its style, influenced by the experimental filmmaking coming out of Europe, was loose and immediate, its editing choppy and abrupt, its music loud and current.

Fonda’s character in Easy Rider is called Wyatt – another thumbing of the nose, perhaps, at his father’s uptight generation. Like The Wild Angels, Easy Rider made heroes of its drug-taking, bike-riding characters. The movie’s freewheeling attitude struck a chord across America; on a tiny budget of just $360,00, Easy Rider made $60 million, launching it from the cheap theatres of most biker movies and into the national consciousness. Whether they meant to or not, Fonda and Hopper (who directed and starred as Billy) tapped into the spirit of the age; it’s telling that Easy Rider managed to far outgross glossier, more established Hollywood fare like Hello, Dolly!, Paint Your Wagon and Alfred Hitchcock’s thriller, Topaz.

Along with The Graduate and Bonnie And Clyde, Easy Rider opened up the floodgates for a new wave of American filmmaking which sat alongside the gonzo writing of Hunter S. Thompson and the music of The Byrds and The Jimi Hendrix Experience. The old Hays Code, which since 1930 had blocked the depiction of drug trafficking, “pointed profanity” and “suggestive nudity” in movies, finally crumbled in 1968 – snapped in two, it seemed, by the new cinema flooding in both from Europe and within America’s own borders.

Without Easy Rider, it’s hard to imagine that comedy duo Cheech & Chong could have enjoyed quite such a long career in the movies. Their brand of zoned-out comedy became hugely successful in the early 1970s, with recordings of their gigs regularly reaching the top 10 album charts. In 1978, they made their big-screen debut with Up In Smoke, which brought Tommy Chong and Cheech Marin’s slacker personas to a wider audience. Like Easy Rider, there’s almost nothing to the plot: Cheech and Chong (here playing characters named Man and Pedro) get high on weed and LSD, putter around looking for their next score, and do their best to avoid various scrapes with the police.

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Here, fully-formed, are the archetypal stoner duo in cinema. The character Cheech plays is even called Anthony “Man” Stoner. Up In Smoke was a huge hit, making more than $44 million at the box-office. Sequels followed, including Cheech & Chong’s Next Movie (1980), Nice Dreams (1981) and Things Are Tough All Over (1982).

By the time the ’80s had rolled around, attitudes to recreational marijuana smoking had changed so much that it had become a character grace note in mainstream movies. Take another look at Poltergeist, the eighth highest-grossing film of 1982. Before the Freeling family’s lives are taken over by ghosts, we see the 30-something parents, Diane and Steven (JoBeth Williams and Craig T. Nelson) relaxing in their bedroom with a spliff.

The ’80s also saw the rise of the stoner as a common archetype in movies. Watch a high school drama or comedy of the period and you’ll almost certainly find one. Sean Penn served up a wonderfullybleary-eyed stoner, Jeff Spicoli, in Cameron Crowe’s Fast Times At Ridgemont High (1982) Judd Nelson plays a particularly dashing one in John Hughes’ The Breakfast Club (1985). Although they’re never seen taking or even discussing drugs specifically, the two heroes at the heart of Bill And Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989) possess more than a trace of the whacked-out chemistry of Cheech & Chong, not to mention a distrust of authority (and with good reason: Ted’s father plans to send his son off to a military academy if his end of year grades aren’t up to snuff).

Even in a film as full of memorable scenes and striking cameo appearances as Tony Scott’s True Romance (1993), Brad Pitt almost manages to steal the whole show as long-haired stoner Floyd. So high that he barely registers his first visit from the mob (embodied by the late, great James Gandolfini), his reaction when a larger contingent of gangsters turns up is priceless. As they march in, guns at hip level, Floyd doesn’t even get up off his sofa; rather, he sort of snorts a laugh into his improvised bong as they line up in front of him. Pitt’s performance as Floyd is so funny – he’s almost puppy-like in his eagerness to please – that we overlook the fact that he’s gladly given up the whereabouts of the story’s two runaway heroes, Clarence and Alabama.

True Romance was written by Quentin Tarantino, a young writer and director who, like many other filmmakers of his generation, revelled in telling stories about bank robbers, gangsters, drop-outs and washed-up boxers. Writer-director Richard Linklater’s films were less violent, but his breakthrough movies Slacker (1991) and Dazed And Confused (1993) showed a similar interest in characters from the wrong side of the tracks. One of the most memorable characters in Dazed And Confused is Matthew McConaughey’s David Wooderson, a man in his early 20s who, in McConaughey’s own words, “Is about four things. His car, getting high, rock and roll and picking up chicks.”

The same could be said of Jay and Silent Bob, the comic creation of writer-director Kevin Smith – a young filmmaker who was first inspired to pick up a camera after watching Linkater’s off-the-cuff, black-and-white Slacker. With their long hair, loose clothes and rambling conversations about the minutiae of pop culture, Jay and Silent Bob were the acme of disillusioned 90s youth. First appearing in Smith’s debut movie Clerks, the characters popped up repeatedly in the filmmakers later movies, including Mallrats, Chasing Amy and Dogma. They’ll soon be appearing on our screens again in Smith’s long-planned Clerks III.

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If the stoner had grown into a kind of street-level sage in the ’80s and ’90s, offering their own eccentric and often disarming view of the world, Joel and Ethan Coen’s The Big Lebowski forced the archetype into an unlikely role: that of a hard-boiled (or maybe half-baked) detective. The filmmaking duo conjured up an uncannily convincing character with Jeff Lebowski (played by Jeff Bridges, on career-best form), a former roadie with Metallica who wants nothing more than to smoke a little weed, drink a few white Russians and go bowling each evening. But what happens when this directionless character is thrown into the middle of a Raymond Chandler-like kidnapping plot? The results are unpredictable, surreal and consistently hilarious.

Even as the new millennium dawned, the kind of stoner comedy pioneered by Cheech and Chong could still pull in money at the box office. Dude, Where’s My Car?, directed by Danny Leiner, had a premise which could have easily been a Cheech and Chong movie – two guys get so stoned that they can’t remember where they parked their car – even though its two young stars (Ashton Kutcher and Seann William Scott) are more fresh-faced than their care-worn predecessors. Dude Where’s My Car? was panned when it appeared in 2000, but soon garnered a cult following, as did Leiner’s next film, Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle.

What’s interesting about Harold and Kumar, the two stoned and peckish 20-somethings at the film’s center, is that they aren’t exactly drop-outs. Harold (John Cho) is an investment banker, while his best friend Kumar (Kal Penn) is a prospective medical student. Much of the film’s comedy comes from their attempts to balance their recreational use of marijuana with their working life, or, in Kumar’s case, his constant agonising over whether he wants to become a doctor like his older brother.

Seth Rogen’s character Dale in Pineapple Express (2008) has a similarly respectable job: he’s a process server, or the guy who has to deliver the legal papers to people who’ve been summoned to court for whatever reason. It’s an important but mundane job, so Dale takes the edge off by smoking marijuana. It’s a habit that ultimately gets him chased all over town by a gangster and a crooked cop, with James Franco’s drug dealer Saul along for the ride.

In essence, all stoner films are about characters trying to find escape from the grind of everyday life, and what happens as a result. Perhaps this is why, in the decades since the release of Easy Rider or Up In Smoke, the genre’s still so regularly revisited. The past five years alone have seen the release of such films as High School, Hansel & Gretel Get Baked and Kid Cannabis. They’re not really about the specifics of smoking dope, but rather about characters either deferring responsibility (going to medical school, say) or dropping out of mainstream society altogether, as in Easy Rider. We may not be able to ride off on a Harley Davidson or go on a strung-out road trip ourselves, but these movies allow us to experience that thrill vicariously, and to imagine what it might be like to throw off the shackles of our everyday life ourselves.

American Ultra relates the adventures of a young stoner (Jesse Eisenberg) who finds out that he was once a highly-trained government agent – and, more scarily still, he’s been targeted for termination. Once again, the story’s told not from those in authority, but the weed-smoking outlaw – a far cry from the movies of the 30s and 40s, where scowling paternal figures like Captain Hayes were held as benign role models. These days, we’re more likely to be on the side of Peter Fonda:

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“We don’t want nobody telling us what to do. We don’t want nobody pushing us around. We want to be free to ride our machines without being hassled by The Man. And we want to get loaded!”