LIVING LA VIDA COCA

Byline: Peter Braunstein

NEW YORK — With all due respect to vapid media buzz-phrases, heroin was never really all that chic.
Certainly, the term “heroin chic” was used in the previous decade to describe that emaciated, jaundiced look associated with certain models and ad campaigns, and, by extension, to implicate the entire industry for making opiated dissipation seem so sexy. But the lifestyle associated with actual heroin use, whether situated in penthouses or shooting galleries, is notoriously difficult to glamorize in fashion or film.
Cocaine is another story entirely. The official illicit drug of would-be social climbers, cocaine possesses a stylistic legacy stemming from the various cohorts who indulged: the disco crowd of the Seventies and Yuppies of the Eighties. The equation of upward mobility and cocaine has even carried into film. Paradoxically enough, some of the biggest actresses of the last two decades have had career bumps as a result of doing “bumps” on-screen. Michelle Pfeiffer gave a jolt to her burgeoning career by consuming massive amounts of powder in “Scarface” (1983). And who can forget Demi Moore as the coke-addled, Christian Lacroix-inspired fashion victim in “St. Elmo’s Fire” (1985)? Sharon Stone got a Best Supporting Actress nomination for her unfaltering depiction of a cocaine wretch with commitment issues in “Casino” (1990), and so did Julianne Moore for her endearing role as druggie porn starlet Amber Waves in “Boogie Nights” (1997).
This year boasts another addition to this pantheon of nose candy queens: Penelope Cruz, who stars as the Colombian wife of cocaine trafficker Johnny Depp in the forthcoming film “Blow,” which opens April 6. Like several of the other movies in its peer group, “Blow” is a sprawling epic spanning the Sixties to the Eighties. A twisted take on the “small town boy makes good” theme, the film tells the true story of blue-collar nobody George Jung, who went on to become the world’s premier importer of cocaine from Colombia’s Medellin drug cartel during the Seventies. “Blow” also revels in a kind of tongue-in-cheek casting of supporting roles. Ray Liotta — who consumed copious amounts of cocaine in “Goodfellas” alongside natty mistress Debi Mazar — plays Jung’s father. Paul Rubens (aka Pee Wee Herman), known for his own run-ins with the law, plays a flamboyant hairdresser and Jung’s drug-running confederate. And, in a cameo appearance, model James King — much-publicized victim, and survivor, of the “heroin chic” era — plays Jung’s grown-up daughter.
For costume designer Mark Bridges, who dressed Cruz for “Blow” and also outfitted the cast of “Boogie Nights,” the challenge was to accentuate the downward spiral of cocaine abuse through a sequence of costumes.
“I try to convey a luxurious descent via clothing,” Bridges told WWD. “In ‘Boogie Nights,’ there’s an early scene in which Julianne introduces Dirk Diggler [Mark Wahlberg] to cocaine, and that’s a look I call blue-eyelash-ridiculous-Snow Princess. It’s cute. But later on, when she’s cloistered in the room with Rollergirl [Heather Graham] and coke is clearly taking over her life, I put her in a dowdy mumu frock. She’s a mess.”
In the course of “Blow,” Cruz is subjected to the same treatment.
“The cocaine lifestyle is exalted earlier in the movie, then we see the downfall,” Bridges said. “First, I play up that whole Colombian spitfire thing by putting her in a glamorous red Yves Saint Laurent dress. Then, to capture the excess of the Eighties, I dressed her in a trashy, gold lame YSL two-piece, ranting and raving at Johnny and turning him into the police. Gold is a great ‘my life has gone to hell’ color.”
Although Bridges researched the trashy chic aesthetic of the early Eighties by looking through old issues of Vogue, he could just as easily have stuck to current fashion magazines, since it’s almost exactly the same look. But the Eighties revival is a place Bridges doesn’t want to go.
“It’s too soon to be there again,” he mused. “The whole Eighties thing is disturbing — I think we can do better than that.”
Ted Demme, the director of “Blow,” applauded his costume designer’s mastery at transforming Cruz into the consummate Eighties drug wretch.
“Of all the coke whores in film, Penelope is easily the scariest,” said Demme. “The minute she enters the film, you know it’s trouble, and Mark Bridges was central to that. Having her give birth with bright red lipstick on, having her in the later scene — after she’s lost everything — in a bad wig, high heels, and Eighties sweatsuit, was perfect. Mark Bridges is a god.”
One of the unintended benefits of casting Cruz in this role was that it flew in the face of her cuddly image as Ralph Lauren model.
“She got the Lauren campaign after I cast her,” said Demme. “So all I had seen her in, up to that point, were these Spanish movies where she played a nice, calm, virginal type. So I thought it would be great to cast her in a role where she’s like, ‘let’s party!’ When the Lauren campaign came out, I thought that’s certainly not the Penelope people will see in ‘Blow,’ and when she starred in that horse movie with Matt Damon [“All the Pretty Horses”], I felt the same way.”
Of course, when crafting a cocaine movie, filmmakers have to walk a tightrope between giving audiences a credible narrative without glamorizing cocaine use. But that has proven difficult, largely because audiences can’t be prevented from finding the most demeaning, sociopathic, or self-destructive behavior glamorous. In “Scarface,” for instance, drug kingpin Tony Montana descends into full-blown cocaine psychosis and chases away his wife, kills his best friend, and dies along with his sister at the hands of vindictive drug lords. But that hasn’t prevented succeeding cohorts of admirers from memorizing every line from the movie and wholeheartedly embracing the “Scarface” ethos.
Demme is already prepared for the inevitable comparisons between “Blow” and other landmark films in the drug/crime staple like “Trainspotting,” “Goodfellas,” and the rest. Already, some people who have screened “Blow” are calling it “the Boogie Nights of cocaine movies” — even though one could argue that Boogie Nights was the Boogie Nights of cocaine movies. “I know that we are in familiar territory here, and that I was adding to a genre — and those are some of my favorite movies,” said Demme. “But I didn’t want this to be a sequel to any of them either. So I made it a point to cast some unfamiliar faces, or use some familiar ones — like Ray Liotta — in unconventional ways.”
Demme has his own theories about what audiences find appealing about cocaine movies. “Whether it’s ‘Blow’ or ‘Scarface’ or ‘Casino’ or ‘Boogie Nights,’ people go to these movies because they know they shouldn’t be doing coke, they know they shouldn’t be in the Mob, they know they shouldn’t star in porn movies, they know they shouldn’t be importing cocaine from Colombia, but they want to do it once,” argued Demme. “Actresses are attracted to these roles for the same reason. You wouldn’t want to make a career out of it, but playing a coked-out lunatic once is very tempting.”
For the director, the easiest way to sabotage a message about the perils of addiction is to engage in heavy-handed moralizing.
“The audience can sense when the narrative is contrived or too preachy, and they’ll immediately turn off to the film,” said Demme. “You don’t want to glorify it, but it has to seem real. ‘Blow’ is unapologetic and, by the end, completely heart-wrenching.”