HOW DARING CAN THE SCREEN DARE TO BE? NO ADULT MAN OR WOMAN CAN MISS RISK THE STARTLING FRANKNESS OF THE LOST WEEKEND.
The story of The Lost Weekend didn’t start out too well. Audiences laughed during the first preview in Santa Barbara, and some wrote on their cards that the film was “disgusting” and “boring”; one of them suggested that it might be better without all that stuff about alcoholism. Some changes were made, especially in the music department, but the producers were also threatened by the liquor industry, which did not want to see the movie released; Paramount was allegedly offered $5 million if they removed the film from their release slate.
The Lost Weekend went on to become a box-office hit and won the Best Picture Oscar. Today it is regarded as Hollywood’s first serious, major attempt to portray alcoholism as something other than a joke.
Alcoholic New York writer Don Birnam (Ray Milland) is preparing for a weekend vacation with his brother Wick (Philip Terry) who has been trying to help him overcome his disease. However, Don is far from cured. When his girlfriend Helen (Jane Wyman) arrives and mentions that she has two tickets for a concert, Don tells Wick to join her. He does so, but knows fully well that it’s merely an excuse for Don to get drunk on his own. However, Wick gives his brother a chance and they agree to meet again in a few hours for the vacation. Don finds some cash and heads to a nearby bar where he gets drunk…
Finding a hero for the lead
Billy Wilder had been working with Raymond Chandler on Double Indemnity the previous year. It wasn’t an easy partnership and Chandler, a recovering alcoholic, hit the bottle again. One reason for Wilder to do The Lost Weekend was to make Chandler better understand his problem. Alcoholism in movies had until then mostly been used as comic relief and not treated as an illness that destroyed families and lives. This film had the chance to start a national conversation that might help victims of alcoholism.
Wilder wanted a good-looking, wholesome hero in the lead, not the type that was normally expected for the part of a drunk. He got Ray Milland who delivers the greatest performance of his career, preparing for it to the extent that he starved himself, tried to get as drunk as possible and had himself committed to the drunk ward at Bellevue hospital in New York City, just to see what it was like. Milland’s role must be an actor’s dream; he’s great and the supporting cast also delivers, not least Doris Dowling as Gloria, a sexy woman at Don’s bar who always talks in abbreviations. The film is peppered with angst as we follow Don over the weekend, drinking, hiding booze, trying to write, and reminiscing about how he first met Helen and almost succeeded in giving up alcohol… until his confidence was shot down.
Wilder and cinematographer John F. Seitz help us get into that first positive rush a drink might give you and then take us down that dark, dizzy road where Don goes on a desperate hunt for more booze, ultimately ending up at the drunk ward. Those scenes are nightmarishly staged and Miklos Rozsa’s music amplifies a feeling of terror; he may spread it on a bit too thick for my taste, but his use of a theremin, an electronic instrument, to illustrate Don’s descent into alcoholic chaos, was groundbreaking.
Milland became the butt of many jokes after winning his Oscar, starting with awards show host Bob Hope who said, “I’m surprised they just handed it to him. I thought they’d hide it in the chandelier.” Laughs aside, it really was time for Hollywood to grow up and not limit itself to exclusively showing alcohol as the fuel that made W.C. Fields funny.
The Lost Weekend 1945-U.S. 101 min. B/W. Produced by Charles Brackett. Directed by Billy Wilder. Screenplay: Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder. Novel: Charles R. Jackson. Cinematography: John F. Seitz. Music: Miklos Rozsa. Cast: Ray Milland (Don Birnam), Jane Wyman (Helen St. James), Philip Terry (Wick Birnam), Howard da Silva, Doris Dowling, Frank Faylen.
Trivia: Jose Ferrer was allegedly considered for the lead.
Oscars: Best Picture, Director, Actor (Milland), Screenplay. Golden Globes: Best Motion Picture (Drama), Director, Actor (Milland). Cannes: Grand Prize, Actor (Milland).
Quote: “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 Michaelangelo, 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.” (Milland to da Silva)
Last word: “I did manage to portray the orderly at Bellevue’s alcoholic ward as a homosexual, even though homosexuality was a taboo subject in American films in those days. I directed the actor how to play his role as a homosexual. The film industry’s censor couldn’t nail me on it, however, because I had been subtle about it, and he couldn’t pin anything down to which he could object. The cognoscenti, those who looked and listened, got the implications of the scene. Those were different days.” (Wilder, “Some Like It Wilder: The Life and Controversial Films of Billy Wilder”)