The Lost Weekend (1945)
“One drink’s too many, and a hundred’s not enough.”
“The Lost Weekend” is a 1945 film directed by Billy Wilder, and telling a story of a failed writer Don Birnam (Ray Milland) who struggles to combat his chronic alcohol addiction in the course of a weekend. The winner of an Academy Award in the categories of Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor and Best Adapted Screenplay, “The Lost Weekend” is now deemed so significant both culturally and historically, it has been recently added in that category to the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress. Indeed, more than 70 years after its initial release, the movie still mesmerises the audience with its performances, and paints probably the most heartfelt and realistic picture of someone combating their alcohol addiction.
The movie starts off with a long-shot of New York City, a city of opportunities but also hidden vices. In first shots, we see Don and his rational and composed brother Wick (Phillip Terry) discussing their forthcoming trip to the country, where both can relax and enjoy nature. But even as we watch their laid-back discussion, Don’s hidden bottle of liquor hangs just outside the window, ready to be drunk as soon as everybody leaves him alone. Here, probably, lies the greatest merit of the film. Its devastatingly realistic portrayal of an alcohol addiction given the time the movie was shot in. Back in the 1930-40s, alcoholism was still something usually to be made fun of, be ashamed and embarrassed about, to be glamorised over, and even not be talked about at all. It was certainly not the main character’s biggest problem. “The Thin Man” (1934) and “Nightmare Alley” (1947) are clear examples of this. In “The Thin Man”, alcohol makes the main character witty, charming and brave, and no serious repercussions follow from his excessive drinking. By these standards, “The Lost Weekend” is revolutionary as it exposes Don’s addiction to such a great depth as to completely eradicate any misconceptions about the disease. It is portrayed as an illness which is virtually uncontrollable, and its effect on everyone involved, including family and friends, is also fully explored.
In the movie, Don is really obsessed with getting another drink. If he is not drinking his liquor, he is thinking about how to smuggle two bottles of rye whiskey to the country so that his brother would not suspect anything. At one point, Don frantically searches for his bottle in his apartment; at another point, Don goes to a bar and drinks, even though he was supposed to go with his brother on vacation. “The Lost Weekend” is great in that it portrays different facets of the addiction. Particularly, it: (i) not only shows the full extent of Don’s obsession, but also its implications and extremes; (ii) shows the impact of Don’s alcoholism on people close to him; and (iii) explores Don’s own acknowledgement of his condition, emphasising his depression and hopelessness.
Firstly, Don is prepared to do anything possible for his drink: he lies to a housekeeper, and that way gets the money to go to a bar; he escapes the alcohol ward at a hospital; he steals a woman’s bag to get money for a drink; he flirts and arranges to meet another woman behind his girlfriend’s back, he threatens a man with violence to get his bottle; and even tries to commit suicide. The vice induced by the alcoholism is there. Secondly, the people close to Don, his straight-thinking and serious brother Wick and his caring girlfriend Helen (Jane Wyman), are deeply affected by Don’s addiction and his actions. They also do everything possible to shield him from the disease and save him from himself. Wick lies to Helen about Don’s not showing up to meet her parents to such an extent that he humiliates himself by telling her it is he who has a problem with a bottle. Helen is also prepared to sacrifice a lot for Don’s happiness despite his addiction and stigma. Thirdly, “The Lost Weekend” makes Don realise full well the extent of his addiction, his wrongful actions and its consequences. Throughout the movie, Don says how good alcohol makes him feel, why he picked it up the first time around (because of a series of doubts about his promising writer’s career), and acknowledges that, indeed, he is in a “vicious circle”. At one point, Don says: “circle is a perfect geometrical figure: no end and no beginning”. At another point, Don refers to himself being a Shakespeare, Michelangelo and Jessy James when he drinks, referring to his all-powerful personality which emerges and takes over another Don, who remains a “good” one. Here, even mental abnormality related to his dependency is explored as Don also begins to suffer from auditory and visual hallucinations. Fast forward 50 years, and we see alcohol-induced “Leaving Las Vegas” (1996) and “When a Man Loves a Woman” (1994), but no where these movies are near that level of tension, urgency and devastation we experience in “The Lost Weekend”, where just one man remains alone with his beloved bottle.
Given the nature of the movie, everything rests upon Ray Milland’s performance of a man battling his alcoholism, and his performance is great. Some may say he is overdoing or overreacting in some scenes, but he does come off as authentic, a really desperate man, who, although realising his plight, is unable to stop himself. In many scenes, Milland’s Don is restless, frenzied, almost maniacal, thinking up different ingenious ways of continuing his binge-drinking. His co-cast, Phillip Terry and Jane Wyman are also good, especially in a way they go to unimaginable lengths to cover for Don in the movie, and bring common sense to him. The music in the movie also does a lot to create the right atmosphere: it is menacing with a sense of urgency to it, and even touches of bittersweet melancholy, which, given, the optimist ending to the film, makes sense.
It is also easy to see why “The Lost Weekend” won at the Academy Awards in the Best Picture category. At the 1946 Oscars, its competitors included such films as “Anchors Aweigh”, “The Bells of St. Mary’s”, “Mildred Pierce”, and “Spellbound”. Possibly, the real competition was between Alfred Hitchcock’s “Spellbound” and “The Lost Weekend” since “Mildred Pierce” distinguished itself largely through Joan Crawford performance for which she, indeed, won an Oscar. Comparing “The Lost Weekend” to “Spellbound”, it is easy to see how flawed in its details “Spellbound” is compared to “The Lost Weekend”. The latter movie feels more “complete”, with stellar performances by all the cast, while “Spellbound” seems to be carried entirely on Ingrid Bergman’s shoulders with little help from her co-star, Gregory Peck.
Despite its age, “The Lost Weekend” has never really lost any of its devastating impact on the audience’s imagination. The movie may not now reveal any hidden truths, but the movie’s unflinching, brutally honest portrayal of a serious illness remains one of the most powerful ones in the cinematographic history. Together with the story, the film’s performances are also top-notch, making “The Lost Weekend” one of the Hollywood’s absolute classics. 10/10