Saturday, January 29, 2011

The Lost Weekend

 "If it happens, it happens and I hope it does. I've had six years of this. I've had my bellyfull... Who are we fooling? We've tried everything, haven't we? We've reasoned with him. We've baited him. We've watched him like a hawk. We've tried trusting him. How often have you cried? How often have I beaten him up? Scrape him out of a gutter and pump some kind of self-respect into him and back he falls, back in every time." --Wick Birnem to Helen St. James (The Lost Weekend, 1945)
I find it extremely ironic that by the time I got around to seeing this movie, I was nursing a pretty horrible hangover.  If there was ever a movie designed to stop someone from drinking, this would be it.  It is also a gritty and aching portrayal of a desperate alcoholic.  It was strange to see a film that focused on just alcoholism, rather than the extensive drug that would be seen today.  But more importantly, this film marks the first of the 1940s winners with a much darker tone.

The Plot
Failed writer and alcoholic Don Birnam, played by Ray Milland, lives in New York City with his brother Wick.  In an effort to get Don away from temptation, Wick plans a weekend in the country for them.  Despite Don's protestations of sobriety, he is secretly planning to bring along his whiskey.  But Wick finds the bottle and pours it down the drain.  Desperate to find some alcohol, Don suggests Wick take Don's girlfriend, Helen St. James, played by Jane Wyman, to the symphony so Don can get some rest.  When they leave, Don finds money Wick left for the maid, buys some whiskey and then goes to have a drink at Nat's Bar on 3rd Avenue.  He plans to be home on time, but gets too drunk and only makes it home in time to hear Wick tell Helen that he is fed up with Don and plans to leave without him.  Don hides until both Helen and Wick leave, hides one of his bottles in the chandelier and drinks the other.  The next day Don wakes up and goes to drink at Nat's, where he convinces a call girl, Gloria, to ditch her business date and go on a date with him, though he doesn't intend to actually meet her later.  Nat, played by Howard Da Silva, lectures Don for lying to Gloria and treating Helen so badly.  Don tells Nat he plans to write a novel called The Bottle about an alcoholic meeting a girl, before flashing back to how he met Helen.

Don's brother Wick played by Phillip Terry
Three years ago, Don was at the Metropolitan Opera to see La Traviata, but during the opening aria he kept hallucinating trench coats filled with bottles of whiskey.  He leaves to go get the whiskey in his coat, but because his ticket was mixed with another's, he must wait until the woman who belongs to a leopard coat comes to claim it.  After the entire opera is over, Don finds Helen, who is holding his coat.  Though rude at first, Don eventually invites Helen to see another opera with him, and she invites him to go with her to a cocktail party.  He turns her down, but when he accidentally drops his whiskey bottle he decides to go with her to the cocktail party.  But at the party he falls in love with her and doesn't drink.  He is sober for weeks until he is to meet her parents from Ohio.  Overhearing them question his lack of job, he becomes too nervous to meet her parents, cancels at the last minute and gets drunk.  When Helen comes to his apartment to check on him, Wick tries to cover for Don's drinking, but Don comes out and confesses his alcoholism.  He tells Helen that although he was a successful writer in college, when he quit school to come to New York he never sold another piece.  He tells Helen there is two Don Birnams: the writer and the doubt-filled drinker.  Helen kisses him and and vows to support him.

Don and Helen

Back at the bar, Nat tells Don his story will end in suicide.  Determined to write again, Don goes home to his typewriter, but after writing only the title page, he suffers from writers' block and insists he needs another drink.  He can't remember where he has hidden his whiskey, so he goes to a bar though he cannot pay for a drink and attempts to steal money from a woman's purse.  After he is caught and thrown out of the bar, Don goes home and finds the hidden whiskey bottle.  After drinking the bottle, he decides to pawn his typewriter for another drink.  But as he wanders the streets, desperate for a drink, he discovers all the pawnshops are closed because of Yom Kippur.  He goes back to Nat's, begging for a drink, shaking so badly he cannot even lift the shot glass.  Nat throws him out, forcing Don to go beg Gloria for money.  Although she is furious, he kisses her and she gives him money.  But as Don goes to go back down the stairs, he falls, hits his head, and ends up in the alcoholic ward of Bellevue Hospital.

Don begs Gloria for money.
Don attempts to leave, claiming he isn't an alcoholic, but Bim, the male nurse, says he must stay.  Bim, played by Frank Faylen, warns him that most alcoholics suffer from delirium, often imagining they see "little animals."  He explains to Don that most of the men in the ward have been coming there for years.  Don refuses to be convinced, and when, in the middle of the night, one of the patients must be dragged from the ward during a fit of terror, Don steals a doctor's coat and escapes in his hospital robes.

Don is thrown out of a bar.
Meanwhile, Helen has slept on Don's doorstep, as Don has gone to extremes to make sure she never knows when he is home.  Don's landlady wakes her up and promises to let her know when Don is home.  Don forces a liquor store owner to hand over a bottle of whiskey in the morning and comes back to his apartment.  He drinks the bottle, passes out, and then wakes up hallucinating a mouse in the wall being eaten by a bat.  He believes blood is streaming down the wall, and begins screaming so loudly that the landlady hears and calls Helen.  Don tries to chain the door, but Helen manages to get through, pick him up, and convince him that the animals aren't real.

Don starts to hallucinate.
Don realizes Bim was right; he is an incurable alcoholic.  When he wakes up in the morning, he steals Helen's leopard coat and pawns it.  Helen tracks him down and, thinking he has pawned her coat for more alcohol, finally snaps.  She accuses him of being a "sponge" and tells him they're through.  He goes home, and she goes into the pawn shop, only to find that Don has actually pawned her coat for a gun.  Don is home, writing his suicide note, when Helen arrives and pretends to ask for a raincoat for the storm.  He gives her the same coat he wore the night they met, replicating that first day.

Don always needs another drink.
When his back is turned, Helen finds and grabs the gun, but he and she struggle, and Don retrieves the gun.  He tells her it doesn't matter, Don Birnam is already dead.  Helen reminds him that there are two Don Birnams, and that he shouldn't sacrifice one for the other.  At that moment, Nat arrives at the door with Don's typewriter, which he found after Don fell down Gloria's stairs.  Helen convinces Don this is a sign that he needs to live and write his story.  Don takes his last glass of whiskey and puts his cigarette out in it.  Helen begins to fix him breakfast, telling him that now his story has reached an end, he can finally write it.  Don gets out his typewriter and begins to write.  He remembers when he was packing for the weekend, that the only thing he could think about was the bottle of whiskey hidden outside his window.  He wonders, how many other windows are like his in New York City, as the camera pans away from the window.

Just one drink.
The History
Billy Wilder is one of the most famous directors of the Golden Hollywood age.  Wilder was born to a Jewish family in what is now considered Poland.  He began his career in Berlin before Hitler rose to power and he moved to the United States.  He would go on to write, direct, and produce over 60 film, including Some Like It Hot, Sabrina, The Seven Year Itch, The Apartment, and Double Indemnity.  He is one of only five people to have won an Academy Award for Best Producer, Director, and Writer for the same film (The Apartment).

Billy Wilder on set.
Hot off of Double Indemnity, Wilder bought some reading material for his train ride from Hollywood to New York where he was supposed to be taking a vacation.  One of the books was bestselling semi-autobiographical novel The Lost Weekend, written by Charles R. Jackson about a man who spirals into alcoholism after being tormented about homosexual rumors in college.  Wilder, having just worked with alcoholic screenwriter Raymond Chandler on his last film, had found his new project.  By the time he pulled into Grand Central he had an outline, a book filled with notes, and a phone call to his collaborator, Charles Brackett to ask if he'd like to be a part of the project.  Brackett agreed and was personally drawn to the novel--his wife was an alcoholic.

Don, Gloria, and Nat at Nat's Bar
Paramont wasn't sure of the bleak subject matter, but they let Wilder have his head.  They only interceded to insist he cast leading man Ray Milland in the role of Don, feeling that an "attractive-looking hero" would make the film more commercially viable.  Ray Milland wasn't too thrilled with the role, and several studio executives predicted it would ruin his career.  Even so, he worked hard at the role by spending a night at Bellevue Hospital to prepare and losing weight to more effectively look like an alcoholic who forgot to eat.  By the end of filming, Wilder predicted the movie would get Milland an Oscar.

Filming The Lost Weekend
The movie was filmed mostly on the streets of New York, giving the film a documentary feel.  Test audiences didn't know how to take such a different film, some walking out of the theater laughing in confusion.  But Paramount refused to shelve the film, and it opened in London to rave reviews.  Although the studio was also besieged by temperance groups lobbying that the film shouldn't be released, as it would only encourage drinking, and the liquor industry offering $5 million to bury the film, Paramount decided to go ahead and release the film in the States anyway.  It was a huge hit.

Don and his whiskey.
Going into the awards show in 1946, The Bells of St. Mary's, the sequel to Going My Way, was leading the nominations with eight, with The Lost Weekend  just behind with seven.  Even so, The Lost Weekend would sweep the awards, winning four awards to The Bells of St. Mary's one for "Sound Recording."  The Lost Weekend won "Best Picture," "Best Actor," "Best Director," and "Best Screenplay."  The Lost Weekend is the only film to win both the Academy Award for "Best Picture" and the Palme d'Or at the first Cannes Film Festival.  It was among the first films to use a "theremin" --a musical instrument that produces a strange "wailing" sound that would later became famous to 1950s sci-fi film audiences.  The film also popularized the "character walking toward the camera as neon signs pass by" effect.  While important in 1945, the film has faded over time in the face of Wilder's much more popular films.

Joan Crawford, "sick" with her Oscar
The war was over.  The Oscars were back to being glamorous and glittering just as the statuettes were back to being made with bronze and gold plate.  Even so, ABC decided to broadcast only the "interesting" awards.  The first half of the ceremony was hosted by the newly returned Jimmy Stewart, while Bob "Academy" Hope hosted the awarding of the weightier awards in the second half.  The two halves were broken by a stirring remembrance of World War II.  Joan Crawford, who had made her big comeback in Mildred Pierce, was too nervous to attend the Awards.  She stayed at home, claiming pneumonia.  When she was announced the winner, she made a miraculous recovery and was photographed in her bed with her award.  The after-party was at her house.

"Best Actor" winner Ray Milland had the night of his life.  Though he managed only to stammer his thanks when collecting his award, on the way home he stopped the chauffeur and got out at Sunset Boulevard, overlooking Hollywood.  His agent had brought him there upon arriving in Hollywood in 1930, and told him that at the moment "it all belongs to Ramon Navarro.  He is the reigning romantic star at the moment, so tonight it belongs to him."  As Milland stood there with his Oscar, he exclaimed, "Mr. Novarro, tonight they belong to me!"

Ray Milland wins an Academy Award for "Best Actor"
The Verdict?
There is something about this film that is completely unexpected.  I keep waiting for the moralizing to start.  I wanted the sun to come out, for the bright optimism of the 1930s and 40s to emerge in this film.  But The Lost Weekend manages to veer away from the melodramatic and the trite.  It is also alarmingly simple.  It is the story of a man who is an alcoholic.

Don's self-loathing contributes to his drinking.

Nowadays we are trained to expect a cavalcade of medical and moral problems in an addiction movie.  Requiem for a Dream, The Basketball Diaries, and Blow are just a few examples of recent popular movies concerning addiction.  All of them center around drugs.  Alcohol is, by modern standards, incredibly boring.  So it is jarring for a modern viewer to watch this movie, see the wreck the main character has become, and realize that it is due only to a bottle of whiskey (or perhaps several).  I kept catching myself thinking, "Okay, that's fine--but when is he going to prostitute himself and shoot up heroin?"

Don's scary face.

Much of this has to do with the times; drugs were not as prevalent or as easily accessible in the 1940s.  Nor were they the stuff of major motion pictures.  (See Reefer Madness)  But once I got used to it, I thought the film's singular focus was strangely compelling.  Milland managed to portray all the classic signs of an addict, without going too far into parody.  He is conniving and manipulative to find his next drink and yet he still has moments of barely hidden self-loathing.  His portrayal is frightening in its severity, and yet suprisingly subtle at times.

Publicity photo of Don and Helen.
Jane Wyman's Helen was the character that was a little tougher to take.  She sticks with Don, despite his increasingly destructive behavior.  Why is he so attractive?  What is it that keeps her coming back to him?  The answer is never quite clear in the film, and one of my criticisms is that Wilder does not take enough time to develop what it is about Don that was once so likable, focusing instead on the negative aspects of his personality brought on by whiskey.  One assumes that her inability to leave Don has more to do with her personality than with his.  Still it is grating how cheerfully optimistic she continues to be despite Don's many failures.  She is so determined to save him that by the time she finally cracks it felt a little flat.  Perhaps that is why I don't buy the ending.  Will Don really stop drinking?  Somehow I doubt it, and I think Wilder does too.

Don, ravaged by drink.

This is a new kind of film, dark and filled with complexities.  But more importantly, this is the first film since All Quiet on the Western Front that is negative without much hope of redemption.  Both films are post-war, and in this case I believe that The Lost Weekend starts a trend of much more pessimistic films.  It remains to be seen, but I think the style of the 1940s, such an optimistic decade before the war, is about to become much deeper, more though-provoking.  And certainly much less uplifting.  We'll see what's up next....

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