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Stoners Always Win

Coleman Collins | Friday, February 25, 2011

Here’s a not-very-odd prediction for a kind-of-odd reason: James Franco is going to win Best Actor, and not because he singlehandedly carried a very solid movie about self-amputation (which he did), but because he once played a stoner.

This formula for success is simple. Just play a person who actively smokes marijuana or is heavily affiliated with marijuana culture in a feature film, and then continue to make movies. You will eventually win an Academy Award. You may have to wait up to 20 years for this to occur.

The trend has been around since at least the early 70s with Jack Nicholson’s win for “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest” after sparking up a few years earlier in “Easy Rider.” This pattern has seen a major uptick in recent years. In fact, you can go all the way back to 2004 before one of the big four winners hadn’t at one point played a fan of the sticky icky.

Starting with the 2010 awards, it goes: Jeff Bridges (stoned in “The Big Lebowski,” won for Crazy Heart), Sean Penn (“Fast Times at Ridgemont High”/”Milk”), Tilda Swinton (“The Beach”/”Michael Clayton”), Forest Whitaker (“Fast Times at Ridgemont High”/”The Last King of Scotland”), Reese Witherspoon (“Freeway”/”Walk The Line”), Jamie Foxx (“Ray”/”Ray”), Sean Penn (“Fast Times at Ridgemont High”/”Mystic River”).

Past that, examples are intermittant, but still exist: Benicio Del Toro (“Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas”/”Traffic”), Nicolas Cage (“Fast Times at Ridgemont High”/ “Leaving Las Vegas”) Jack Nicholson (“Easy Rider”/”As Good As It Gets”), Diane Keaton (“Annie Hall”/”Annie Hall”), Dustin Hoffman (“Rain Man”/”Midnight Cowboy”) and Jon Voight(“Coming Home”/”Midnight Cowboy”).

This seems like more than just a weird coincidence.

By my estimation, this is happening because: Actors no longer see taking a stoner role as career-limiting, weed is now seen as comic or even normal rather than subversive and “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” is a movie.

The last reason is pretty straightforward — by sheer force of coincidence, excellent casting or Cameron Crowe’s probable pact with the devil, “Fast Times'” ensemble cast has spawned something like a dozen successful actors, including three who won Academy Awards. Cage, Whitaker and Penn all got their starts in this movie and its popularity launched superstar careers that allowed them to eventually pick up Oscar-bait roles such as Harvey Milk (“Milk”) and Ben Sanderson (“Leaving Las Vegas”), as well as second-home-bait roles such as “The Guy In Wicker Man.”

The first two reasons are a bit more interesting — consider the movie “Midnight Cowboy,” made in 1969, which was made amidst worries that it would sully the careers of Voight and Hoffman, specifically because of their roles as gigolos and drug users. Why these same worries did not apply to the production of “Little Fockers,” I will never know.

Anyway, this ended up not being the case, primarily because “Midnight Cowboy” was a good movie. But, the same thing happened with a number of the older examples on the list, such as Nicholson in “Easy Rider.” Until the new class of stoner-stars that came in with “Fast Times,” actors worried that playing someone who used the marijuana in a film but was not a bad guy would force them into an entire career of playing nothing but bleary eyed losers, or ‘counter-culture icons,’ if you prefer.

The success of the “Fast Times” actors and “Fast Times” itself seemed to open the floodgates for all kinds of stoner comedies, and a crop of just-starting-out actors who felt that with this example, they were safe. They wouldn’t get pigeonholed as druggies by filling these zonked out roles.

It has even come to the point where former Oscar winners will pick up druggie roles, statuette in hand. Adrian Brody, who won for “The Pianist” in 2003, just recently played a psychotic drug dealer in the comedy “HIGH School.” It’s just no longer a big deal in Hollywood to jump from serious role to drug comedy to action movie. It might even be the reason some of the bigger actors take these kinds of roles, simply to prove that they don’t just go from serious dramatic role to serious dramatic role. This, of course, still does not explain “Little Fockers,” but I digress.

Many big name actors who started out in the late 80s or early 90s now have a stoner film in their early credits, including A-listers like Brad Pitt, Jeremy Piven, Jared Leto and Jake Gyllenhaal. It seems like it’s simply a matter of time before some (or all) of these people win something, Franco included.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

Contact Coleman Collins at [email protected]