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(Credits: Far Out / Denise Jans / Ruan Richard Rodrigues / Kier In Sight)


How cocaine became Hollywood's drug of choice


On May 9th 1991, the career of Italian actress Laura Antonelli took yet another abrupt turn. She had her name in the sex farces of the 1970s before establishing herself as a serious actor in films such as Luchino Visconti’s The Innocent (1976) and Ettore Scola’s Passione d’Amore (1981). When police found 36 grams of cocaine in her villa, she was tried and sentenced to three and a half years of house arrest – reduced from ten years after prosecutors established that the vast supply had been for personal use.

But while the Italian government was making a concerted effort to make an example of Antonelli, law enforcement in Hollywood was turning a blind eye to the numerous actors and producers sitting on similar quantities of the white stuff. Today, we accept cocaine as part of many actors’ lifestyles, but exactly how did cocaine become Hollywood’s drug of choice?

Cocaine was first isolated by German chemist Albert Niemann when he successfully extracted the stimulant from coca leaves in 1859. However, it wouldn’t be until the 1880s that it would become a mainstay of the medical community. Around this time, Austrian psychoanalyst and incest obsessive Sigmund Freud, who was known to use the drug, started promoting cocaine as a cure for depression and sexual impotence. His 1884 article entitled Über Coca (About Coke) sought to explain the “benefits” of the untested substance. One get’s the sense that Freud landed on the use of cocaine as an anti-impotant through personal experience. He did, after all, prescribe the drug to both himself and his girlfriend.

Despite admitting that cocaine had led to physical and moral decadence in his own life, he continued to promote the drug to his closest friends, one of whom ended up suffering from paranoid hallucinations. Friend, Fraud, Freud: the clues in the name really. The psychoanalyst also believed that it was very hard to take a lethal overdose of cocaine, arguing that humans could take huge amounts of the drug without suffering any negative effects. And with that, one of Freud’s friends died of an overdose he had prescribed.

Between the 1850s and the early 1900s, elixirs laced with cocaine and opium became popular among all social classes, with notable figures like Thomas Edison promoting their reviving effect. The actress Sarah Bernhardt was equally enthusiastic, as was the whole of the silent film industry. At this point, Hollywood began pumping out pro-cocaine messages, leading to the widespread popularity of cocaine as a recreational drug. By the turn of the century, cocaine had been already available over-the-counter for 20 years. That all changed when articles about the dangerous side effects of cocaine use began appearing in newspapers

Still, the film industry remained unperturbed. Already decadent to the bone, the movers and shakers of Hollywood began spending huge sums of money on cocaine. As author Andy Edmonds writes of early Hollywood, “Cocaine was as common as aspirin and major stars blew their fortunes on thousand-dollar-a-week cocaine habits.” Soon, rumours began to flourish – and you can’t blame people for talking.

If you look at actors like Keystone Kops, Mack Sennett, and perhaps even Charlie Chaplin, it isn’t much of a leap to suggest that their boundless energy may have been the result of a quick huff before the cameras started rolling. Fatty Arbuckle was a notable addict as was Norma Talmadge (A Tale Of Two Cities, Kiki), who would eventually develop arthritis and die as a result of her extensive drug use. The “joy-powder” also led to the death of Olive Thomas, a promising young silent film actress who was married to the brother of Mary Pickford and died of an overdose at the age of 25. By the end of 1912, the same year the Titanic sank beneath the Atlantic, the United States government reported 5,000 cocaine-related deaths. In 1922, the drug was officially banned.

In reality, making cocaine illegal didn’t make it any less coveted by Hollywood entertainers. In the 1970s, the drug became associated with the glamour and fast-paced lifestyle of the modern high-flyer. It was particularly attractive to actors because, as well as giving them the boost of energy they needed after a long day on set, it gave them the sense of confidence they needed to fulfil the aspirational ideal they were expected to embody.

Cocaine also just so happened to be an excellent if costly weight loss drug. In 2011, Dennis Quaid, who was an addict from the 1970s to the 1990s, wrote a piece for Newsweek in which he explained how the drug became an informal currency within Hollywood. “Cocaine was even in the budgets of movies, thinly disguised,” he wrote. “It was petty cash, you know? It was supplied, basically, on movie sets because everyone was doing it. People would make deals. Instead of having a cocktail, you’d have a line.”

In the 1990s, the cocaine-related death of high profile names such as River Pheonix coincided with a wave of movies that normalised the drug, portraying it as the friendly cousin of the real villain: heroin. This continued into the 2000s with films like Blow, in which cocaine became synonymous with a sort of edgy glamour. No wonder the addiction of Hollywood A-listers came to feel so commonplace; slowly but surely, we were being fed the idea that cocaine was an extension of the celebrity mythos, a sniffable indication of wealth beyond measure.