As part of my effort to watch all the movies that have received the Oscar for Best Picture, I watched The Lost Weekend, the 1945 winner, directed by Billy Wilder and starring Ray Milland and Jane Wyman.
The film tells the story of an alcoholic who goes on a weekend-long bender, finding himself sinking to new lows. While at times it is melodramatic, the movie is a stark portrayal of the realities of alcoholism.
Its competitors for Best Picture that year were Anchors Aweigh, The Bells of St. Mary's, Mildred Pierce and Spellbound. Interestingly enough, The Bells of St. Mary's was a sequel to Going My Way, which had won Best Picture the previous year. Both Mildred Pierce and Spellbound are regarded as classics, so this movie definitely faced fierce competition.
I was excited to see The Lost Weekend because the title of the movie has become such a pop- cultural reference. Of course, I was also interested because it was helmed by acclaimed director Billy Wilder, who gave us such classics as Double Indemnity, Sunset Blvd., Sabrina, The Seven Year Itch and Some Like It Hot.
In addition, I was curious to finally see a performance by Jane Wyman, the first wife of Ronald Reagan, mother of conservative radio talk show host Michael Reagon. She died a year ago in September.
The movie starts with Don Birnam (Ray Milland), a down-and-out writer, and his brother, Wick Birnam (Phillip Terry), about to take a trip into the country, where Wick promises a weekend full of fresh milk and cider, with the implication being not a drop of alcohol. At this point, Don claims that he's been alcohol-free for 10 days, but the viewer is tipped off to his lie by a bottle of alcohol, tied to a rope outside his bedroom window.
Faced with the prospect of a dry weekend, Don seeks to delay it, suggesting that they take a later train while Wick accompanies Don's girlfriend, Helen St. James (Jane Wyman), to a play. Don says that way she won't have to go alone and he can finish his packing. This would have been a different movie if Wick had insisted on making the earlier train, but he relents, therefore giving Don the opportunity to slip out of his grasp. The weekend of shame begins by Don stealing $10 meant for the maid in order to go to a liquor store and buy two bottles of rye, which he intends to stow away for the trip, then parking himself on a barstool, where he intends to drink until it's time to leave for his train.
Of course, anyone who's dealt with somebody who's really drunk can predict the outcome. The bartender is unable to shake Don from his stool in time to make the train. Thus, his downward spiral truly begins as his brother storms off for his long weekend without him, leaving Don to four days of uninterrupted indulgence.
Through it all, Don's longsuffering girlfriend, Helen, strives to contact him, to rescue him from himself. Through flashbacks to the beginning of their relationship, we learn that, while she was initially ignorant of his condition, ever since finding out about it, she has always been supportive, convinced that she could bring him out of it.
Jane Wyman manages to combine both sweetness and strength, so that, far from appearing to be a naive enabler, she seems like a woman who's clearly aware of her boyfriend's problems and yet refuses to give up on the man she loves.
The problem is, as the movie shows, that you can't force somebody else to face up to their addiction. It has to come from them, and this realization typically comes from exactly the sort of experience that happens in this movie: where somebody sinks to newer and newer lows, hits bottom, and is scared into a realization of what they're doing to themselves and their friends and family.
Wick makes a remarkably insightful speech in the early part of the film, as he's leaving for the country without his brother. To paraphrase, he tells Helen that, no matter how many times they pick Don up, brush him off and set him on his feet again, he continues to screw up. Maybe it's time, Wick says, to stop helping him. While this might seem cruel, that sort of tough love may be the only way someone can realize the depth of their problems.
Certainly, therefore, the filmmakers understood something about addiction. Helen even acknowledges that it's a disease, saying she can't turn her back on Don any more than she could if he had a heart condition. Don delves into the thinking of an alcholic, relating the story of how he kicked alcohol for several weeks when he was first dating Helen, but when it came time to meet her parents, he needed just one drink for courage. Of course, he relates dejectedly, it never stops with just one drink.
Viewers of this movie might wonder whether Don will truly reform after this weekend. It's hard to say, especially when we're given the indication that he has suffered terrible things before and resolved to change. The one difference about this lost weekend, however, may be that he truly realized how lost he was, without his brother to keep him from reaching the worst depths of the addiction. Perhaps, then, there is a possibility that he may change.
As far as the filmmaking itself, it's shot in a very gritty, film noir style. Stark shadows play a role in various places, as well as the contrast between light and dark. The movie starts out with a flat brightness, which makes it seem almost like a comedy, but as Don descends further and further into self-destruction, the movie gets darker, shadows get longer, and Don himself becomes more disheveled.
The script is based on a novel by Charles R. Jackson, and it tends towards melodrama in parts. This is rescued somewhat by the fact that these characters actually seem to believe what they are saying, especially Milland, who in a touching scene, reveals to a bartender his struggles as a writer. As he complains that the words escape him, he nonetheless launches into a moving depiction of what it's like to be an alcoholic and to awake in the harsh light of morning with no prospect of booze until the stores open.
To prepare for the role, Milland spent a night in Bellevue Hospital (where part of the film was shot), and he also stopped eating as much, since many alcoholics forget to eat, as well.
The movie attracted a lot of controversy before it was released, with both alcohol companies and temperance groups besieging the studio. This was one of the first times that alcoholism was portrayed so starkly, instead of used as a punchline. Yet, once this "dangerous movie" was released, reviewers peppered it with praise, and it went on to box-office success, a Best Picture win and a Best Actor win for Milland.
The one truly distracting element is the heavy-handed use of the soundtrack, which uses suspense music, featuring the first on-screen use of the theremin, which would become a staple of 1950s science-fiction movies. The music is used to compound the feelinsg of disorientation and despair, but it's so overwhelming it reaches the point of absurdity. Perhaps a viewer in 1945 would have found it less distracting, since soundtracks were more prevalent in those days. But to a modern viewer, it clashes. I'd love to watch some of the key scenes without it and see what sort of impact they have, such as the scene where Don tears apart his apartment, looking for a bottle he had hidden while drunk.
Overall, The Lost Weekend holds up remarkably well as an unflinching look at the reality of alcoholism.
Rating (out of 5): ****
The reality of alcoholism is nothing to laugh about.