by Brad Nelson
I suppose I should be having a couple of Buds while watching Ray Milland get plastered. But alcoholism is no laughing matter…except, of course, when it is. The comic drunk remains a staple of stage and screen. But “The Lost Weekend” isn’t one of those comical portrayals. It’s a tragic one. Paramount thought this film by Billy Wilder would be too controversial — or just something audiences wouldn’t like to watch as a movie for entertainment. But Wilder convinced Paramount to do at least a short run in New York. Critics loved it and then it went into wider distribution.
I wonder if back then (in the 40’s) people didn’t want to be reminded of the harms of alcohol. Or maybe that’s how (and perhaps with good reason) the studio execs thought the public might react. Better to show the happy-go-lucky drunk than to show the realities of alcoholism and addiction. Better to keep up that shared illusion that the only problem with drinking is when the bars closed too soon. But apparently audiences were more than ready to watch an honest portrayal of something that surely most people had witnessed, either first-hand or from a friend or relative. And one reviewer at IMDB.com mentioned that a lot of the boys who had just come home from WWII had more than just a passing familiarity with drinking.
Milland plays a pathetic character. Sneaking around. Hiding bottles everywhere. Living from drinking binge to drinking binge. And the people around him seem just as real. His brother has had his fill of Milland and basically says to hell with him. Jane Wyman, the love interest, is more sympathetic and tells the brother that Milland has a disease, and that you wouldn’t just dump him if there was something wrong with his heart, would you?
And then you have the honest bartender who is sympathetic to Milland and tells him he should go home and take it easy…but who nevertheless keeps on serving him the drinks. And you see the barfly lady. You see the culture that develops around drinking. It may be a sad culture, but is all that some people have. And the more they have it, the more they have little else. And for the first couple of drinks it’s a grand thing as Milland wonderfully shows as he turns into a joyful and talkative commentator and expert on many subjects. For a while he is filled with verve again.
Somebody who has tipped back at few (or seen others do so as well) probably wrote this picture. It seems very authentic. There’s some great introspective dialogue delivered by Milland. This movie has a pretty good understanding of why people drink…too much. It’s not just “to forget your problems.” For Milland’s character, it’s also about trying to capture that creative high – or at least visit it once in a while. And this drunk isn’t a down-and-out bum. He’s very middle class. He’s ashamed of his addition, but he seems powerless in the face of it.
This picture has sort of a goofy soundtrack. At times it sounds like it belongs to a low-budget sci-fi film.
But the question lingers, is alcoholism a disease, a moral weakness, or just a bad choice? I think the answer to that cuts too close to humanity. That’s why we put all these relatively simple labels on something that is much more complex. To ask the question of addiction is, I think, to ask something far deeper.
But I’m satisfied that this film has asked the right questions and didn’t gloss over the truth or give us a corny one. And eventually, as you’d expect, Milland hits rock bottom. Well, he actually hits a lot of different bottoms on the way down. He steals money from some lady’s purse to buy drinks, for example. He tries to pawn his typewriter but all the pawn shops are closed for Yom Kippur. So he begs one drink from his usual bartender until he is told to scram. Finally he blacks out and falls down a flight of steps. He wakes up in some kind of sanitarium ward for alcoholics.
But not quite all-the-way rock bottom. Milland escapes from the alcohol ward. (Jeez, I need a drink. This movie is so tragic.) Jane Wyman is very loyal and supportive, but will she get dragged down too? Is she stronger than that other beast like she thinks she is? The rock rock bottom comes when he hallucinates and sees a bat flying around his room that then eats a mouse that he had also seen poking out of the wall. He’s FREEEKED out by this. Great job by Milland screaming practically like a girl.
“It’s just that I’d rather have you drunk than dead,” Wyman says as she confronts a suicidal Milland. In the end, if you want to know the end, there is hope. There is hope because, in this case, there was a woman who believed in him. And he was more than just the drunk that he had become.
And Billy Wilder was directing something a bit more cerebral than his usual. Milland won an Oscar for his role (a breakthrough role) that was much more serious than the light comedic roles that he typically had. In the end, there was a best picture Oscar. Best writing and screenplay. Best director.
Issue-oriented movies (especially if they support libtard issues) tend to gather Oscar accolades despite their merit, or lack of it. I guess that some people feel good giving awards to pictures that they think are “important” and make a “statement.” Yawn. But in this case, I certainly think the writing and Milland’s performance are deserving. The picture overall is pretty good, but a bit stiff in places.
But looking at the other nominees from 1946, I can see why this would be a clear winner. And it’s not at all hard to give it 3-1/2 stars out of 5. What keeps it from that fourth star is the awful soundtrack, Wyman’s just-okay (but not outstanding) performance, and Wilder’s sometimes ham-fisted directorial style. But I would say this truly is an excellent and important movie. I highly recommend it.