In the 1942 tearjerker Now, Voyager, suave actor Paul Henreid says to Bette Davis: "Shall we just have a cigarette on it?" As the two gaze deeply into one another’s eyes, Henreid puts two cigarettes into his mouth, lights them, and hands one to Davis.
It was considered the ultimate in sophisticated romance.
Flash forward fifty-seven years. In the hit comedy My Best Friend’s Wedding, Julia Roberts sits on the floor outside a hotel room, smoking an illicit cigarette. Her friend yanks open the door and snatches the cigarette from her fingers. "I want you to quit this [stuff] before it kills you," he snarls.
It’s the ultimate in social condemnation—and a complete reversal of the cinematic attitudes of yesteryear.
What happened between 1942 and 1997 to generate such a change? The answer shines a spotlight on how we may one day win the abortion debate.
As Frederica Mathewes-Green writes in a collection of essays called Thirty Years after Roe v. Wade, our grandparents embraced values that we now recognize as damaging, like cigarette smoking and heavy drinking. Those attitudes, says Mathewes-Green, were celebrated in movies in much the same way reckless sexual behavior is today. For instance, in the hugely popular Thin Man films, the heavy drinking of both Myrna Loy and William Powell was treated as comic relief. Anyone who objected to this view was dismissed as a moralizing busybody.
But then, something happened on the way from the bijou to the multiplex. Americans began losing friends to lung cancer and emphysema—friends who smoked. And drunk drivers killed thousands of people. As a result, cigarettes—which kill 400,000 Americans a year—are no longer considered glamorous. Drinking to excess—which kills 100,000 more—is no longer considered funny. And for the most part, Hollywood has stopped suggesting that they are.
It’s important to understand, Matthews-Green points out, that it wasn’t all those warning labels on cigarette packages that got people to quit smoking. And it wasn’t the Temperance Union that convinced people to stop getting drunk. It was truth itself and social pressure.