We watch Humphrey Bogart’s stoic demeanor as the owner of Rick’s Café in the classic movie Casablanca. The bar’s proprietor often has a drink in his hand. In fact, you would be hard-pressed to find a movie in which Humphrey Bogart doesn’t take a drink – or five. What my young self did not know as I watched as many classic movies as I could find, was that Bogie died a painful death from esophageal cancer, a disease highly correlated with excessive drinking and smoking.
Now as an adult, I watch Charlie Sheen unravel on NBC’s Today show in the morning and on ABC’s 20/20 at night. Aside from his personal struggles with substance abuse, Sheen can also be seen pretending to have a drinking problem on the number one rated show in the US – Two and a Half Men. Sheen, like Hollywood stars for decades, made a mint glamorizing drinking for a young impressionable audience. Now, Sheen’s art has become his reality. We never watch Sheen’s character (also, oddly, named Charlie) struggle in a serious sense with his alcoholism. In fact, it is played for laughs. In one memorable episode this past season, Charlie (the character) announces he is giving up drinking. Throughout the episode, he is seen drinking beer instead of his usual hard liquor and pronouncing that it is good to be sober. This is not funny; it is degrading to those who struggle with sobriety; it is a bad influence on the children and young adults who watch the show at its early time slot of 9pm; lastly, it just isn’t real – it doesn’t represent the seriousness of the problem.
Will Two and a Half Men be so funny in reruns when we think about what has happened to Charlie Sheen? Today, I struggle with watching Bogie take a drink or a drag off a cigarette on the big screen, knowing that those behaviors ended his life too soon. I no longer think excessive drinking and smoking is “cool.” But what about all those kids who grew up admiring, or at least laughing with, all the Hollywood characters that drink? What will it take for them to realize that excessive drinking doesn’t “make you a man” or make you popular?
As counselors, we have an uphill battle to fight with our young clients who are eager to be “adults” and have a drink. They have grown up with signals that tell them that it is alright to get drunk and that it is in fact desirable. While we can’t change Hollywood overnight, perhaps we can make sure that information is readily available to our clients about the dangers of overdoing it with the bottle – lost jobs, lost friends, strained marital and family relations, cancer, heart disease, death. Much like the later interviews of the famed “Marlboro Man” suffering from cancer and imploring the next generation not to smoke, perhaps the fates of Bogie, Sheen, and others in the public eye will encourage people to be careful with their drinking and seek help if they need it.
Tara Overzat is a counselor-in-training at Mercer University in Atlanta. Her interests include multicultural issues and acculturation amongst college students.