Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in October of 2010.
In a previous post, yours truly made the admission of being pretty unfamiliar with the work of legendary director and screenwriter Billy Wilder. Well, guess who’s starting to become a really big fan? I made a pledge to get more acquainted with Wilder’s films, and I’m certainly glad I did. After first getting my feet wet with the classic Double Indemnity (discussed in the aforementioned previous installment of this column), I decided to take what seemed like a natural next step and give The Lost Weekend a look.
This film piqued my interest because while learning about DI, I became aware that the relationship between Wilder and his co-scripter Raymond Chandler was a tumultuous one. Supposedly, Chandler was a recovering alcoholic, and working on DI with Wilder caused him to fall off the wagon. This was part of the reason why Wilder decided to make The Lost Weekend. It was his attempt to try to explain Chandler to himself.
One can only imagine what Chandler’s reaction to this production must have been, but regardless, TLW remains a film that was well ahead of its time in its stark portrayal of alcoholism, with strong performances from all players (especially lead Ray Milland as the drunk), and holds up relatively well, therefore making its four Academy Awards for Best Picture, Actor (which Wilder correctly prophesized), Director and Screenplay most likely well-deserved. However, after viewing the movie for the first time in 2010, it’s apparent that the effort does have some flaws even when taking the period of the 1940s into consideration.
The Lost Weekend was adapted from the novel of the same name by Charles R. Jackson that was one of four books that Wilder picked up on a fateful train ride from Hollywood to New York during an impromptu stop in Chicago. It turned out to be a good move. Incidentally, the alcoholism of the main character in the book stemmed from his frustration over the accusation that he had a homosexual affair with one of his college friends. Now, naturally such “sordid” material was completely unacceptable for Hollywood in 1945, as the country was unfortunately not quite ready for such honesty yet (though, it could be argued that it still isn’t, but that’s perhaps a discussion for another time and place).
Instead, TLW focuses on a failed writer (Milland) who’s supported by his brother (Phillip Terry) and who uses alcohol as a crutch. Actually, to state that Milland depends on alcohol to get by is perhaps the understatement of the century. It’s just about his entire reason for living, or maybe just merely existing. Milland is supposed to take a relaxing weekend trip to the country with his put upon brother and get away from New York City after drying out for ten days with Terry’s help (which, the audience will soon learn, isn’t the first time Terry has had to take care of Milland after one of his benders). However, all Milland really wants is a pull from the bottle of rye whiskey that’s hanging outside his bedroom window. Terry manages to find the bottle, but Milland is undeterred.
He manages to ditch Terry and his caring girlfriend (Jane Wyman) so that he can hit his favorite watering hole to get wasted. Thus begins a weekend descent into drunken decadence that has Milland ostracizing everyone in his life that tries to help him, including Milland’s local bartender (essayed brilliantly by Howard Da Silva as a burdened barkeep who has seen Milland’s type a billion times and tries to be positive and helpful, but ultimately realizes that he doesn’t have any control over the actions of others), or dares to care about him. This even includes a “working girl” (played by a very fetching Doris Dowling) who has taken a liking to him. In the process, Milland lies, steals and manipulates in really despicable ways, just to grab a drink and get sauced. It all culminates in Milland breaking down into borderline dementia that includes a stop in the mental ward. When everything is said and done, TLW sets the bar high for every movie of its kind that followed. Whether the film deals with alcohol, drugs, or addiction in general, there’s a decent chance that it owes a debt of gratitude to Wilder’s gem.
Wilder’s script that he co-wrote with frequent collaborator and producer Charles Brackett works on a multitude of levels and I was totally impressed with how they handled the topic of alcoholism and its nuances with such candor, and that their interpretation was at least relatively accurate without being too heavy-handed. I found myself feeling much the same way about TLW as I did about The Man with the Golden Arm. However, it wasn’t just their take on the alcoholic that struck me.
I was especially pleased with the portrayal of how Milland’s addiction affected those in his life. This brilliance is especially present in the scene where Phillip Terry tries to cover up for his brother by telling Wyman that he’s the booze hound and that all the empty liquor bottles belong to him. Of course, Wyman’s character in itself is fantastic, as the woman who sees something in the drunkard that no one else can. Furthermore, once Milland finally comes clean to Wyman about being an addict and explains to her why he drinks, it’s about as frank a discussion as I think I’ve ever heard in a film from the Golden Age of Hollywood.
He recounts all of his broken dreams and failures as a writer with plenty of promise who got a big head and dropped out college to become the next Ernest Hemingway, but fell from grace when his first several pieces didn’t quite come off. He began to use whiskey to clear his head and help him write but found all his ideas lost when he sobered up. Milland also confesses that he can’t put a good face on his troubles and live a life a quiet desperation. It’s all pretty heady stuff, and Milland’s delivery is really something that should be seen. Another tremendous scene is when the desperate Milland eventually finds a lost bottle and treats it as a moment of great triumph, but it’s evident that this bottle could actually be his ultimate downfall. It’s a testament to a performance and a script that could be among the best of the era.
OK, so while there are tons of wonderful things to point out about this film, it’s also necessary to mention that it does unravel ever so slightly in the last act. As Milland really starts to lose his mind, I found all the crazed theatrics and the vampire bat attacking the mouse in the wall (a not-so-subtle sign that he’s experiencing DTs) to be a bit too over-the-top, at least for me. However, thankfully it wasn’t anything in the style of Reefer Madness, and I suppose it could be argued that it worked well enough to serve its purpose. Additionally, while I don’t want to spoil the ending for anyone who hasn’t seen the movie, I thought that it was too neat, convenient and dismissive. This is an issue for debate among many fans of TLW. Some critics agree with this assessment and others don’t. The point could be made that the resolution is left open-ended and that matters could go one way just as easily as they could go another, but even so, it’s all too glib. However, Milland’s speech at the end, relating his problem to the masses was a nice touch.
In closing, I’m going to give TLW four stars out of five. So, who’s up for a drink…? I only state that because, once again, censors had a real problem with this film. However, it’s tough to accurately gauge where the real legitimate concern was. Supposedly, studio executives were wary of the film, worried that it would romanticize drinking. Conversely, alcohol companies were frenzied that the film would turn the public off to their product. There’s even the alleged report that the industry offered Paramount a bribe worth millions to bury the project. It all serves as further proof for just how ridiculous censorship is, and that all art should be released without interference for folks to judge on its own merit or lack there of. The fact remains that TLW is obviously a classic, and it’s no surprise that when Wilder and Brackett returned to the Paramount offices the day after Oscar night, they found liquor bottles hanging outside all of the windows.