Sunday, February 6, 2011

THE LOST WEEKEND (1945)

THE LOST WEEKEND (DIR: BILLY WILDER)  (SCR: WILDER & CHARLES BRACKETT, BASED ON THE NOVEL BY CHARLES R. JACKSON)


Giving the best picture Oscar to Billy Wilder's THE LOST WEEKEND was probably one of the more surprising choices made by the Academy, seeing how it was seen as a daring film in 1945.  It was the first Hollywood film to really deal seriously with the problem of alcoholism (or addiction in general).  In its attempt to be as realistic as possible, it went into often nightmarish detail, and its powerful portrait of a man plunging into a suicidal addiction still holds up well today.

Wilder began his brilliant career in his homeland of Poland, where he became a writer and director; in 1933 he fled the Nazis to Paris, and eventually America.  After a crash course in English, he began working in Hollywood as a screenwriter.  He did excellent work in that capacity for directors Ernst Lubisch (1939, NINOTCHKA) and Howard Hawks (1941, BALL OF FIRE) among others.  Desiring more control over the final product of his scripts, (and taking a cue from fellow screen writer turned director Preston Sturges), Wilder made his move into the director's chair with 1942's fun comedy, THE MAJOR AND THE MINOR.  That was a big success, and his career was set.  As a writer and director, Wilder often gave his films a cynical streak, with corruption and/or infidelity often playing a large role (even the romantic comedy SABRINA, often looked at as his most charming film, opens up with the title character trying to commit suicide), and I feel that it is this cynical nature that has kept his films from feeling dated, unlike so many other films made at the same time. 
Wilder first became aware of the semi autobiographical novel THE LOST WEEKEND by Charles R Jackson when he grabbed the book before a train ride and couldn't put it down.  He immediately phoned his writing partner, Charles Brackett, and then got the Paramount Pictures studio to buy the rights for $50,000.  At first, the studio had misgivings about such a dark film, but it eventually became a hit, and the title is still used to this day to describe a wild drunken time (there's even a bar in San Francisco named after the movie!).
Wilder cast Ray Milland in the lead role as Don Birnam, a surprising decision given the Milland was seen at the time as a good looking, lightweight actor (Wilder had worked with him before on THE MAJOR AND THE MINOR), but it was an inspired choice that garnered the actor an Oscar.
Milland's good looks and charm are right for the character, as he uses them to get others to believe his promises to stop drinking time and time again, even while he is lying to them, and possibly himself.  And that charm also shines in an excellent speech he gives about how wonderful alcohol makes him feel ("I'm Michaelangelo, molding the beard of Moses").  To his credit, (and this is probably why he won the Oscar) he shows no vanity here, as he often allows himself to look haggard and torn, and his character becomes more and more unsympathetic as he literally begs borrows and steals to get money for another drink.


Ray Milland


As the movie opens, the camera zooms from a panoramic shot of New York City to the window of a single apartment, where we see a bottle of alcohol has been hidden outside the window.  Inside we see a sober Don, his brother Wick (Philip Terry) and Don's fiancee Helen (Jane Wyman) calmly talking about how Don and Wick are going up to the country for the weekend, and right away we know that Don is lying to the two of them about his drinking.  Sure enough, there will no weekend in the country for Don, as he soon finds himself on a bender that will see him spiral further and further downward, which Wilder shows by having the camera literally plunge into a glass of alcohol as his bender begins.  His descent is  shown in the bleakest manner possible (for 1945 anyway), as he goes from trying to sell his beloved typewriter (he's a frustrated writer) for alcohol money, to trying to steal a woman's purse.  At one point,  when it appears that he can't sink any lower, he begins to hallucinate, and imagines a rat climbing in through a hole in the wall of his brother's apartment and then being killed by a bat, a truly chilling image.  Amazingly, things get even worse when, after a tumble down the stairs,  he winds up at a hellish mental ward, where he hears other alcoholics scream in agony as the go through withdrawal.  Surprisingly, Wilder contrasts the truly nightmarish quality of this scene with the world weary humor of one of the orderlies named Bim(Frank Faylin), who informs Don that the alcoholics ward is "standing room only".  But the contrast works, as Bim's caustic dialogue keeps the scene from being too bleak, while also showing the inevitable disassociation that someone who works in a place like that would have to have.
Truly, Wilder seemed determined not to sugarcoat the horrors of addiction, and this determination, along with his demand that the film be shot mostly in real locations in New York(often with hidden cameras), give the film a powerful realism; as dark as Don's fall is, it is never unbelievable.  Although the film does have a happy ending, in which Don finally pledges to stop drinking and begins work on his novel, it is entirely possible that he is lying to himself yet again, and that more lost weekends await in his future.


Ray Milland and Jane Wyman

If the film has a weak spot, it's in the Jane Wyman character; Wyman does what she can with the role, but she is just too good to be true.  She remains steadfast and loyal to Don no matter how low he goes (his drunken behavior includes flirting with other women, something I'm sure she is aware of even if she doesn't actually see it).  She sticks with him even after his own brother (who has allowed Don to stay at his apartment for free) starts to give up on him.  Still, her character is important to Don's eventual redemption, and a flashback to how they first met provides the film's only really light scenes, which gives the audience some nice relief from the heaviness of the rest of the film.

SO DID THE ACADEMY GET IT RIGHT?

Although THE LOST WEEKEND is not my favorite Wilder film, it was groundbreaking for its time, and it holds up very well, so I have no problem with the Academy's choice.  The only other film that year that I think compares is Elia Kazan's marvelous, sentimental A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN, but that wasn't as original as Wilder's film.