The 1945 Academy Awards were the first held after the end of WWII. Over the previous 12 months the nation had shifted into a confident optimism that victory was at hand. In May of 1945 that became a reality when Germany surrendered. And when Japan surrendered that September it was all “over over there.”
The need for films that either reinforced the war effort or encouraged those at home was no longer critical. And while lighthearted movies like The Bells of St. Mary’s* and Anchors Aweigh were box office successes, film noirs Spellbound, Leave Her to Heaven and Mildred Pierce all finished in the top five money-makers of the year. All of them received multiple Oscar nominations. All but Leave Her to Heaven were up for best picture. All won Oscars.
The Lost Weekend was another box office hit that year (#11) lifting spirits of a different sort. The film centers on the consequences of alcoholism on both the alcoholic and those in their life who care for them.
This is such a smart film. Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder crafted a sharp script that puts first things first. It stays focused on the story and keeps it from getting bogged down in things that don’t matter.
The Lost Weekend is a story about Don Birnam, a writer gripped by alcoholism. How did he get to this lowly state? What drove him to drink? It doesn’t matter, at least not at first. What matters is this man is in an intense struggle he can’t win.
Call it a McGuffin if you want but it’s enough to know this has been going on for a while. It reminds me (albeit a bit comically) of the opening theme song of Mystery Science Theater 3000.
If you’re wondering how he eats and breathes and other science facts just repeat to yourself “it’s just a show, I should really just relax.” – Mystery Science Theater 3000
It’s the little details that solidify it. At one point Don runs up a big bar tab in a swank restaurant. Billy Wilder doesn’t weaken the moment by showing the bill or how much cash Don has. He lets it play out without the unnecessary detail.
When we first meet Don he is already in deep. Lies and denial flow so effortlessly off his tongue. He’s gotten good at it and it comes easy. Even his outrage is convincing when others confront him with the truth.
He is set to go on a trip to the country with his brother Wick. When Don’s on again/off again love interest Helen drops by to say goodbye she mentions she’s on her way to a concert. Don convinces Wick to go with her so they can take a later train and not be so rushed.
Don has gone to extremes to hide liquor around his apartment. When Wick goes to the concert he scours the apartment looking for his hidden booze. But his brother has cleaned him out.
He finds a hidden $10 and takes off for the liquor store. After his 2-bottle purchase he stops into the bar for a couple shots before his brother gets back from the concert and they leave for the country. Spoiler alert: he doesn’t just have a couple and Wick leaves without him.
Thus begins Don’s alcohol-fueled, lost weekend.
It’s a sad picture of addiction.
“I’m on that merry-go-round. You gotta ride it all the way. Round and round until that blasted music wears itself out and the thing dies down and comes to a stop.” – Don Birnam
“With you it’s like stepping off a roof and expecting to fall just one floor?” – Wick Birnam
Don is under the same illusion as people like Seth Rogen and Sarah Silverman who smoke pot because they think it makes them “creative.”
He drinks so he can write but soon the drink wears off and he’s stuck with writer’s block so he drinks so more. Before too long he’s drinking because he doesn’t know how not to.
“I’m way ahead of the right doctor. I know the reason. The reason is me. What I am. Or, rather, what I’m not. A writer.” – Don Birnam
Even when Don decides to go cold turkey and write his great novel he doesn’t get past the title page before the bottle calls him back.
Don is pathetic, not sympathetic. His goal in the film is self-destructive. So you aren’t ever rooting for him even though you’re rooting for him to overcome his addiction. Helen’s devotion for Don is pure and unwavering. She is the picture of unconditional love. You’re able to channel your empathy toward her.
You feel for his brother Wick too even though he gets fed up and leaves Don near the start of the film. You see in flashbacks how he came to his wits end. The moment when he tries to cover for Don with Helen, claiming he’s the drinker is both sweet and sad.
Ray Milland is very good in the lead role. He transforms as the story evolves. Right when you think he’s hit rock bottom he takes it down another level. At one point he is absolutely losing his mind. It’s probably the most intense and physical performance in any of the best picture winners so far.
This film was the pinnacle of Ray Milland’s long and prolific career. The Lost Weekend was the one and only Oscar nomination he’d ever receive.
He was certainly given great material to work with. It’s a perfect storm of a brilliant performance meeting a brilliant script. The script gives Don such a clear and distinct voice. At first I thought Milland’s performance was just 1940s melodrama but that’s not the case. It’s intentional. Don talks the way he does because he’s a writer. Because he’s a bad writer.
But Don’s not the only one with a distinct voice. Nat the bartender (played wonderfully by Howard Da Silva), Gloria, the call girl, and Bim the nurse all paint a sharp contrast to Don. Nat is so natural and understated. Gloria’s dialogue is peppered with some cool funky slang. Bim is straight and to the point. He’s seen it all and he’s not buying any of Don’s lies.
“I can pick an alkie with one eye shut. You’re an alkie. You’ll come back. They all do.” – Bim
There is some brilliant cinematography with amazing shots which accentuate the visual symbolism of the film. When Don carries his typewriter all over New York looking for a pawn shop (they’re all closed for Yom Kippur) it’s striking.
The use of “Libiamo ne’ lieti calici” from La Traviata is really smart. The song is a lively drinking song that encourages imbibing. As Don sits in the audience watching the players toast and drink it drives him mad.
With about 10 minutes to go I wondered if this film would have a happy ending or a tragic one.
I won’t spoil it for you. It’s a powerful ending to a worthy best picture winner.