IMDB #208 The Lost Weekend

Another day, another Best Picture winner on the countdown- this one 1945's The Lost Weekend.

Here for the first time, Hollywood takes on the evils of liquor and the troubles of alcoholism, with the downward-spiral film to end (or begin, rather) all others.

The Key Players:

Billy Wilder, legendary Golden Age director, makes the first of six appearances on the countdown (including Double Indemnity, Sunset Blvd., Stalag 17, Witness For The Prosecution, Some Like It Hot, and The Apartment). He also helmed the well-known Marilyn Monroe vehicle The Seven-Year Itch and the Charles Lindbergh biopic The Spirit of St. Louis.

Our marquee idol is Ray Milland, a Best Actor Oscar winner for this role, who also starred in future entry Dial M For Murder in a long-storied career.

Jane Wyman co-stars- her career includes four Oscar nominations, one win (for Johnny Belinda), the longest cinematic kiss in history (3 minutes, 5 seconds), a late career resurgence on "Falcon Crest" with Lorenzo Lamas, and two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame (for Film and TV). She's also the only ex-wife of an eventual president, divorcing Ronald Reagan in 1948 for her Belinda co-star (remember?).

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The Story:

A 33-year old failed writer named Don Birnam (Milland) begins the film distractedly packing for a weekend trip with his brother, Wick. Don's girlfriend, Helen (Wyman) and his brother say the trip will be good for him after what he's "been through," but Don claims he hasn't touched the stuff for ten days.

Clearly though, he has- Don has a hidden bottle of rye whiskey (his drink of choice) hanging suspended from the windowsill, and he waits only for his brother to step out of the room before trying to hide it in his suitcase. What follows is a no-holds barred descent into alcoholism, as Don convinces Wick and Helen to leave him alone for a few hours, cons the cleaning lady out of $10 (which is like $88 today) and buys two bottles of whiskey and several more shots at the bar.

The bartender, Nat (whose accent cracked me up every time he called Milland "Mr. Boinum") is a little reluctant to serve a known alcoholic, but he takes his money anyway, and listens as Don recounts exactly how he got such a caring and upwardly mobile girlfriend (Helen works for TIME magazine). They met, as we see in flashback, when their coats were switched at the Opera- Don had ducked out early to get a bottle of whiskey in his raincoat, but without the right ticket to give the checker, had to wait out the remaining acts until Helen appeared. They hit it off, and Don even lies about the bottle of whiskey when it falls from his coat, claiming it to be for a sick friend.

Later, we see Don, an unemployed writer who can never start what he finishes, back out of meeting Helen's parents when he overhears them wondering about what kind of future he has. He needs one drink to face them, but one drink becomes two, and so on, until Helen finds him in a stupor at his apartment and learns of his alcoholism for the first time. But with true 1940s stick-to-it-iveness, she shrugs it off and vows to help him, and help him get a job, and kisses the drunken wretch! If this woman and Don's saintly brother can't save him, then surely nothing can.

Coming back to the present of the narrative, we're reminded Don still hasn't changed. He decides, in a moment of clarity, to finally write That Novel (oh, That Novel. I've been writing my That Novel since February) and runs up to his apartment and begins click-clacking the typewriter.

About a half shake of a lamb's tail later (does that expression mean time? Or is a "lamb tail shake" a measure of distance?) he's tearing apart his apartment, looking for the second bottle of whiskey he drunkenly hid the night before. He finds it, dramatically, hidden in the overhead light, and drinks himself to sleep again.

The next day, avoiding the phone, Helen's visits, and his landlady (Wick has given up and gone on the weekend trip without him), Don tries to pawn his typewriter for more booze money, but finds the pawn-shops all closed. He finally pathetically begs one shot from Nat, who kicks him out, and some money from a barfly girl that he stood up the night before. But he (hilariously) trips over a child's bicycle on the stairs and wakes up in an alcoholic ward!

There, an orderly tells frightening tales of small animal hallucinations brought on by withdrawal, and Don witnesses the frenzied shouting of the other inmates.

Has he finally hit rock bottom?

The Artistry:

The Lost Weekend was the first real look at the perils of binge-drinking and chronic alcoholism, at least in a serious manner- plenty of drunks and lushes had been played for laughs in the pictures to that point. The liquor companies even allegedly offered Paramount $5 Million dollars (which is like $44 Million today) not to release the film- curiously, temperance groups also lobbied against it, claiming it would promote drinking.

People even told Milland, a classic hero/leading man type, that the role of a slovenly drunkard would ruin his career- as it turned out, it was his most memorable role. Milland, in a performance that's sort of a dark mirror of Jimmy Stewart-like histrionics (because it's not, you know, funny), really succeeds at portraying a hopeless depression along with the addiction- all of the tropes we've come to expect from cinematic fall from graces started with this performance, in a lot of ways.

The novel that The Lost Weekend is based on has one key element that Wilder and co. removed: the Birnam in the book is driven to drink by the memories of a homosexual college experience that he still finds confusing- movie Birnam is just a writer that can't write and can't admit that he should do something else. I can't imagine that making the cut in the days of the Hayes Code, but it clearly would've been an entirely different film. The Lost Weekend still fares plenty well, and in a more universally relate-able way without it.

From a technical standpoint, it used some standard hazy lenses to get us into flashbacks, and I admired the way the plot was broken up, but the most memorable element was the score: the first film to use a theremin in the score, the drinking sequences were given shrieking notes of terror akin to anything from The Day The Earth Stood Still.


Well, Don just up and walks out of the alcoholic ward (apparently they were pretty lax back in the day), and finds Helen on his doorstep. She comforts Don as much as she can (he's now hallucinating a rat coming out of the wall, which is then attacked by an hilariously fake looking bat), but the next morning sees him stealing her coat and running to a pawnshop. She goes to buy back the coat, only to find that Don had pawned it for a gun!

Don writes a suicide note (advising his brother to go with a small service and "a couple of good jokes"). Helen returns, sees the gun, and tries to distract Don with a drink. But he won't even take it, such is his resolve all of sudden to end it! All looks bleak.

But the Nat shows up at the door, miraculously, returning Don's typewriter, which he had dropped when he fell down the stairs. Taking it as a sign, Don sits down to write a novel based on his lost weekend, putting out a cigarette in his whiskey instead of drinking it.

He ends the film speculating to Helen about how many more poor schmucks must be out there, wondering where the next drink will come from, just like him.


Overall: Should it be Higher or Lower?

The Verdict: Lower

Paving the way as it did for the Leaving Las Vegases of the world, it wasn't that much fun to watch, and the score was terribly distracting, to be honest. I appreciate Milland's work, but I'm more excited for most of the other Billy Wilder films.

The Legacy:

Can four Oscars (Picture, Director, Actor, Screenplay) and the Palm D'Or at Cannes be wrong? The Lost Weekend was also referenced a couple times in "Looney Tunes" (including a mouse reading a book titled The Lost Squeakend) and its influence can be seen in every "waking up surrounded by bottles" scene ever.

The Best Video Of It On YouTube:

Psychadelic fake bat freakout!

Leftover Thoughts:

-Ray Milland gave the shortest Oscar acceptance speech ever- he just bowed and left the stage. That is bad-ass.

-I am currently a 25-year-old unpublished writer. If I'm still unpublished eight years later (Birnam was 33), maybe I'll be way more into this movie.

Coming Up...

Tuesday, September 22nd: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Thursday, September 24th: Bringing Up Baby

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