Movie Review: Lost Weekend (1945)

Groundbreaking piece on bottle trouble ___ 8/10

Lost WeekendDon Birnam: Most men lead lives of quiet desperation. I can’t take quiet desperation!

Don Birnam: It shrinks my liver, doesn’t it, Nat? It pickles my kidneys, yeah. But what it does to the mind? It tosses the sandbags overboard so the balloon can soar. Suddenly I’m above the ordinary. I’m competent. I’m walking a tightrope over Niagara Falls. I’m one of the great ones. I’m Michelangelo, molding the beard of Moses. I’m Van Gogh painting pure sunlight. I’m Horowitz, playing the Emperor Concerto. I’m John Barrymore before movies got him by the throat. I’m Jesse James and his two brothers, all three of them. I’m W. Shakespeare. And out there it’s not Third Avenue any longer, it’s the Nile. Nat, it’s the Nile and down it moves the barge of Cleopatra.

Directed by Billy Wilder
Screenplay by Charles Brackett
Novel by Charles R. Jackson

Ray Milland … Don Birnam
Jane Wyman … Helen St. James
Phillip Terry … Wick Birnam
Howard Da Silva … Nat
Doris Dowling … Gloria
Frank Faylen … ‘Bim’ Nolan
Mary Young … Mrs. Deveridge

According to Robert Osborne of Turner Classic Movies (TCM), Ray Milland was concerned about taking the role of Don Birnam, alcoholic with slim hopes and none… after other screen stars had turned it down—not because he didn’t want it, but because he wasn’t sure he was up to it. Turns out his fears were ungrounded, as not only did he win the 1946 Oscar for best actor, the movie and director and screenwriter all won Oscars.

It was unusual, not to say unprecedented, in the 1940s to deal with alcoholism as a disease in all its gory details. Don Birnam is a writer (naturally) in New York and we’re introduced to him toward the “end of the line:” his brother Wick (Phillip Terry), after six years, has had enough. They have plans to go on a weekend in the country with Don’s girlfriend Helen (Jane Wyman), but Don’s secretive drinking—following a major incident of public humiliation two weeks previous—sabotages the event. Don connives a way for Wick and Helen to attend a symphony the Friday afternoon, while he hangs back in the apartment to scarf up a hidden bottle.

Only the hidden bottle has been discovered by Wick; Don, broke, has to figure another way to satisfy his craving. He tricks the cleaning lady into identifying Wick’s secret location for her $10 fee, then he heads to the liquor store, and to the local bar. Clearly, the bar is part of his denial process, providing an illusion he’s drinking to have a good time in the company of others; he really wants to head home and polish off the bottles. On this occasion he arrives home later than planned, and is completely toasted as his bro and girlfriend return from the symphony. There won’t be a weekend. Wick has had it, but Helen still holds out hope.

At this point, the artistic gimmick of the movie kicks in with a flashback to when Don met Helen and the times when his brother had no idea of the depth of the sickness. It’s amazing how they both participate in the denial process. The flashback illustrates the incidental cause of the drinking problem: having to do with Don’s insecurities as a young writer who in college was a ‘genius’ of Hemingway stature, but here in the Big Apple is having a rough go of it. The booze is the Great Satan promising him the confidence he’s lost.

The movie is a treasure of psychology, so completely covering the problem in every detail—from the denial to the knowing bartender to the bar floozy, Gloria (and I must say she’s one of the highest-class floozies I’ve ever seen), to the public drunk ward and the DTs (delirium tremors)—with a level of reality that can only be conveyed by super acting. The ancillary actors are terrific, as well. I especially liked the scene with the male nurse in charge of the public ‘drunk ward.’ He really knows the score, seen it all before, and even mentions how Prohibition made the public problem far worse, a 24/7 catastrophe. Great role there.

So how does it end? Well, won’t say. But it’s a short movie, and I will say the movie was far enough ahead of its time with valuable lessons driven home, that any deficiencies are peccadilloes. Anyone with a problem, or anyone with someone who has a problem, will gain immeasurably from the extremely open and honest depiction of alcohol addiction. One can also witness emotionally and perceptually the difference between problem drinking and catastrophic-problem or overwhelming-addictive drinking. No question the former can lead to the latter, so it’s best to deal with any problem drinking as soon as possible.

Lost Weekend invites comparisons to latter fare, particularly The Days of Wine and Roses. Yes, I have to say, again without giving too much away, that Lost Weekend doesn’t really lay it on the line… it doesn’t wind up being so depressing as the Days… which I saw as a 13-year-old and should have been warned about. Way too downer. [It gave me nightmares. How does someone so beautiful as Lee Remick succumb to a mindless craving leading to self-destruction? I guess that was the whole point: attractive people, who seem to have it all together, can fall into Hell.] All right, so this is my criticism of Lost Weekend: it bails out at the point of truth. Just when you think Birnam is on the ultimate downhill spiral, the movie ends with vague sentimentality of a woman’s love getting everything right. Not. But you have to appreciate the lead-up.

If one has sat on the edge of a drinking problem, as I certainly admit, one is driven toward self-examination by movies like Lost Weekend. Yes, the movie may cop out at the end, but in the rest there is no higher (or lower) description of the darkness of the ultimate failure of reason. We’ve all had friends who get pretty close to the Birnam model. What’s helpful in the grand scheme of the cosmos is how the movie opens doors into the real disease, at a time when nobody wanted to talk about these sorts of things. It was after the big war, and dammit, if you were a white man and middle class and not blown to bits, you had it made. Whassup with all this wimpy ‘shell-shock’ syndrome and other limitations of real men who drink?

Here’s some beneficial words from Keeley’s Kures, a book I recently published:

Are you an alcoholic?  Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) works! I’ve seen too many success cases worldwide to think otherwise. Make an individualistic stab first, and then fall back on peers. The recovery caveat someone should tell AA clean-and-sobers is that he/she, rather than a faraway spirit influence, worked the cure… in order to avoid a nagging obligation. In Trinidad, I once met a charismatic ex-alcoholic and cocaine abuser who walked village to village helping others reach sobriety. He insisted, “When someone turns his life over to you to get clean-and-sober, you must rehearse each of his stages during a month of recovery to make it stick, and then congratulate him on getting well himself.”

It’s this sort of down-to-earth simple advice that wasn’t generally available to the people back in the days. Movies like Lost Weekend have a cultural value as much as an artistic one. My parents’ generation was was in its young adulthood at that time, so seeing SunFLOWerstarpower struggling with deep alcoholism and trying to reach some kind of solution would have been a real help. Is it a four-star movie, no I don’t think so. But you have to give it an A for climbing out on the leading edge, and Ray Milland is outstanding.

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