It seems like every day there’s some awful news item about heroin. Right now it’s a lethal strain called Hollywood that’s killing people in western Massachusetts. In Pittsburgh, the ironically-titled Super Heroin is wreaking havoc. And in Utah, police are looking into the mysterious overdose of a one-year old. Luckily, we have movies to take our minds off all that despair.
How can you take your mind off all this despair? You might want to settle in with a good movie. Unfortunately for you, these movies won’t help — they’re all about heroin, and as you might expect, they’re mostly total downers. Quite a few feature musicians in starring roles, and many are actually about the music industry. With addiction rates particularly high among queer populations, there’s also quite a few films about heroin with LGBT characters. Here’s our pick of ten great movies about junkies:
The Man With The Golden Arm (1955)
Frank Sinatra scored an Oscar nomination for playing Frankie Machine, a professional card shark and wannabe drummer who returns to a miserable home life after getting out of jail. It was Hollywood’s first attempt at portraying drug addiction as a real issue, and very controversial upon its release. While in the novel this film is based on, the protagonist gets addicted to morphine while recovering from a war injury, the film version has Frankie getting addicted just for kicks.
Lady Sings The Blues (1972)
Legendary jazz singer Billie Holiday died in a hospital while withdrawing from heroin. The doctors had cut her methadone treatments and she died alone, handcuffed to a bed in a room where she wasn’t even allowed a record player. The singer’s tragic story was brought to life in a 1973 film with Diana Ross in the title role. The film played up Holiday’s youth, working in brothels before becoming a singer, and focuses on her doomed relationship with the devoted Louis McKay, played by stylish seventies star Billy Dee Williams.
Christiane F. (1981)
West Berlin in the seventies was a hotbed of junkie teenagers, many of whom would shoot up and prostitute themselves in the bathrooms behind the Bahnhof Zoo train station. Christiane F. was a real girl, one who first tried heroin at the age of thirteen at a David Bowie concert and who feeds her habit by giving guys handjobs at the station. It’s one of the bleakest movies you’ll ever see, with a soundtrack from David Bowie (including a German-language version of his hit “‘Heroes?’“) and a cameo by the Thin White Duke himself.
Dogs In Space (1986)
David Bowie and Frank Sinatra aren’t the only musicians to appear in heroin flicks. There’s also Dogs In Space, an obscure but fascinating film starring Michael Hutchence, the late INXS frontman, as uh, a drug-addicted Australian rock star who sings in a band called Dogs In Space. Released in the mid-eighties but set in the late seventies, it’s interesting to watch as a counterpoint to Sid and Nancy, the equally druggy Sid Vicious biopic that came out around the same time.
Drugstore Cowboy (1989)
Before his creative juices totally withered on the vine, director Gus Van Sant scored a critical and commercial hit with Drugstore Cowboy, a drama set in 1971 Oregon about a quartet of junkies who rob pharmacies around Portland. With Matt Dillon and Kelly Lynch in the lead roles, the film offers a pretty gut-churning look at a bunch of people who spiral further and further down until they hit rock bottom.
Twenty years ago, director Danny Boyle took a long, tedious novel written in Scottish slang and transformed it into a frantically-paced drama that showed both the manic highs and disgusting lows of a group of heroin-addicted ne’er-do-wells in Edinburgh. It’s funny and tragic and really gross in certain parts, like the surreal scene dubbed “The Worst Toilet In Scotland.” The movie was propelled by a fantastic soundtrack (Iggy Pop’s 1977 single “Lust For Life” became a bigger hit than ever) and performances by actors nobody knew at that point. Ewan McGregor became an A-list Hollywood star, while many of his co-stars ended up on long-running American TV shows: Jonny Lee Miller (Elementary), Kevin McKidd (Grey’s Anatomy), Robert Carlyle (Once Upon A Time), and Kelly MacDonald (Boardwalk Empire).
The Gia Carangi story is beautiful and tragic and also involves lesbianism, meaning it has all the elements of a made-for-cable movie in the late nineties. An unknown actress named Angelina Jolie starred as Carangi, a supermodel in 1970s New York who falls deeper and deeper into a heroin habit, thanks (in the movie world) to a terrible relationship with the mother who abandoned her family when Gia was only eleven. It’s quite the sob story, with (SPOILER ALERT!) the young model contracting HIV from an infected needle and dying tragically. Jolie won an Emmy for the role.
High Art (1998)
Director Lisa Cholodenko first burst onto the scene with High Art, a downer in which a drug-addled lesbian photographer (The Breakfast Club‘s Ally Sheedy) falls in love with her neighbor, a magazine intern looking to get ahead in the world of publishing. Cholodenko would later go on to make queer classics Laurel Canyon and The Kids Are Alright.
Party Monster (2003)
The true story of club promoter Michael Alig, “King of the Club Kids,” Party Monster is a debauched journey into the soulless center of New York nightlife in the early nineties. Routinely hopped up on all sorts of drugs, Alig and a guy named Freeze brutally killed and dismembered a drug dealer named Angel. The movie nevertheless makes the party scenes look oddly fun, with supporting performances by Chloe Sevigny and Marilyn Manson and a star turn by former child star Macaulay Culkin.
Bad Education (2004)
The Motorcycle Diaries‘ Gael Garcia Bernal stars as Ángel Andrade, an underemployed actor who visits his old friend Enrique in hopes to getting his story produced as a screenplay. The film incorporates heroin as a vice and murder weapon, while a complicated mystery unravels that involves child molestation, drag, and transgender issues, but unlike many of director Pedro Almodóvar’s loony comedies this one is very, very dark.
And if that’s not enough for you, check out Leonardo DiCaprio as junkie poet Jim Carroll in The Basketball Diaries (1994); More, a 1969 film set in Ibiza with a soundtrack by Pink Floyd; Bette Midler’s epic role as an out-of-control rock star in The Rose (1978); Courtney Love in a supporting role in Alex Cox’s tragic Sid & Nancy (1985); or Gary Oldman’s directorial debut, the amazingly bleak Nil By Mouth (1997).