Goodbye to smack alley

A new film marks a turning point in Hollywood's attitude towards drug use

Dan Dunne is a history teacher with a problem. Not only does he have trouble inspiring the kids at a run-down high school in Brooklyn, but he is longing for his next hit. He reaches rock- bottom when his favourite student finds him slumped in a toilet cubicle clutching a crack pipe.

Half Nelson stars Ryan Gosling, who won an Oscar nomination for a performance that marks a watershed in the portrayal of drugs in films. "We didn't want to make a traditional drug movie - one that starts off showing you how someone gets hooked, then depicts how their lives go downstream," says the director, Ryan Fleck. Rather, Dunne is a man with a nine-to-five job who basically keeps it together despite his addiction. "We've done some interesting Q&As," says Anna Boden, who produced and co-wrote the film. "A lot of people have come up to us privately and said that they appreciate the way the character is portrayed because they have gone through something similar themselves."

Such a pragmatic approach makes Half Nelson a film for our times. The public has long been tolerant of drug use, seeing it as a public health rather than a moral or criminal issue. The film industry, however, has been slow to reflect this change. "If someone made a film today in which someone started off by doing two lines of coke and then ended up in the gutter, no one would believe it," says Harry Shapiro, director of communications at DrugScope and author of Shooting Stars: drugs, Hollywood and the movies. "Half Nelson is a positive step because it doesn't focus on some sad character who chucks his life away."

Drugs and Hollywood have always had a difficult relationship. In 1955, the Motion Picture Association of America refused to certify The Man With the Golden Arm, in which Frank Sinatra plays a heroin addict newly released from prison who takes drugs to ease his pain. ("Yeah, you've had a dog's life," says Kim Novak, who plays his long-suffering mistress). The film features a terrifying cold-turkey sequence that could still double as an ad for a "Just Say No" campaign. Sinatra was Hollywood's first "beautiful junkie", and the junkie screen genre, illustrating the perils of substance abuse, remains popular to this day. In 2000's Requiem for a Dream, for instance, there are two beautiful junkies (Jared Leto and Jennifer Connelly) to ram the message home.

In the 1970s, as recreational drug use became widespread, the film world reacted cautiously to the changing times. Gene Hackman, on the trail of ruthless drug traffickers in The French Connection II (1975), was forcibly doped and suffered a horrible comedown. In other films such as Up in Smoke (1978) and Caddyshack (1980), comic actors got high and stuck two fingers up at the establishment, but that was as far as the counter-culture got in Hollywood.

It was cocaine, rather than marijuana, that became the drug of choice as the decade wore on. In his book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, Peter Biskind documents how the gifted group of film-makers who rose to prominence in the 1970s, including Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola, came undone because of an "arrogance and insularity that was fuelled by cocaine in many cases". This trend was kept alive by later films such as Scarface and Goodfellas. Both were directed by 1970s wunderkinder (Brian De Palma and Scor sese, respectively) and featured monstrously coked-up gangsters whose exploits fascinated and appalled audiences.

Film-makers are increasingly rebelling against the conventional anti-drugs line by showing users' glamour and allure. First, Gus van Sant's Drugstore Cowboy (1989), an outlaw road movie that followed a gang of young addicts as they travelled across the Pacific north-west robbing pharmacies to feed their habits, made looking elegantly wasted the latest style to die for. Then, in the 1990s, club culture transformed the way a generation thought about drugs, but the moral message persisted at the cinema. British films such as Trainspotting (1996) and Human Traffic (1999) revelled in the hedonistic highs of all-night binges, but always showed the characters suffering the after-effects. By the end of Trainspotting one of the characters had died of an overdose, while in Human Traffic the aftermath of another long weekend was the catalyst for the characters to start thinking about changing their lifestyle.

A breakthrough came with Steven Soderbergh's Traffic (2000), which took a panoramic view of anti-drug legislators and teen addicts, lowly cops and cartel kingpins. It was a breathtaking achievement which made the argument, as one critic noted, that "laws against illegal drugs function as a price support system for the criminal drug industry".

Inevitably, Half Nelson will raise questions about whether its makers are "soft on drugs", but the film honestly shows the complex role drugs can play in our lives, and challenges some lingering prejudices about addiction. We've certainly come a long way from Sinatra's smack alley.

"Half Nelson" will go on general release from 20 April. Ryan Gilbey will review the film in next week's New Statesman