Monday, June 17, 2013


The Lost Weekend is an interesting patron of the Best Picture club, especially for the 1940s. Many of its contemporary Best Picture winning colleagues trumpeted uplifting and inspiring messages about life, particularly against the backdrop of war. However, in a way The Lost Weekend seems to exist worlds away from those types, instead placing a serious social issue under a gritty microscope and presenting it without a drop of varnish. It feels like a curious break in voting trends for the Academy at that time to select a dark, depressing drama, particularly at the dawn of post-WWII living when people were anxious to move on  and embrace the sunnier chapters of life.

Apart from its drearier tones, The Lost Weekend doesn’t boast snappy, quotable dialogue, any iconic scenes full of provocation and sparkle or a roster of legendary movie stars pushing their talents to the edge for the sake of bringing truth and humanity to the silver screen. But despite the dearth of any traditional trademarks typically found in Oscar-winning epics, The Lost Weekend is still a fascinating film to watch, precisely because it redefines what an Oscar-winning epic can look like. It shows that the internal struggle for one’s own soul can be a saga as grand and brimming with fear and courage, love and hatred with a footing equal to a more conventionally grandiose film, regardless of its more intimate scale.

Co-written and directed by the versatile Billy Wilder, The Lost Weekend corralled seven Academy Award nominations, ultimately riding away with four wins, including Best Picture in 1946. Two of those wins were scooped up by Wilder, who won for Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Director, marking his first victory in the directing category. The film stars Welsh actor Ray Milland and Jane Wyman, who was briefly married to President Ronald Regan. The Lost Weekend would prove to be the apex of Milland’s career, critically speaking, as the film would be the source for his only Oscar nomination and win.

Adapted from Charles R. Jackson’s novel of the same name, The Lost Weekend paints a harrowing portrait of New York writer Don Birnam’s grinding battle with alcoholism over a particular weekend binge during his more than six-year struggle against the bottle. A promising young writer whose talents peaked during his college years, then valleyed after graduation, Birnam sought to assuage his pen’s personal failures with a few drops of the drink. However, what started out as a temporary remedy to feeling inadequate soon engulfed Birnam, creating a desperate dependent out of him whose entire spectrum of thought and action heralds the siren’s call of alcohol, threatening to dash his very existence against the rocks of his condition.

Given that he’s in just about every scene, it’s no stretch to say that the entire film rests on Milland’s ability to be authentic. His performance is beading with sweat and shaking with nerves, as he manically staggers about in a frenzy searching for his next swig. He infuses each scene with a sense of urgency and tension, as he begins to view everyone as merely an obstacle in his path to a shot of whiskey. He’s coiled, ready to spring into a defensive rage at the first sign of push back from anyone regarding his habit. Despite the overall tragedy of Don Birnam’s situation, Milland’s performance is so relentless that it elicits a response that threatens to drown out any compassion one might feel for him. He’s frustrating, exasperating and draining to observe, as he lies, cheats and steals from those who care about him. His performance captures the enslaving power an addiction can have over a soul, bleaching it of humanity and poise as it becomes a mechanized object obeying command and impulse. This sense of helplessness is scrawled all over Milland’s face as his obedience to alcohol shepherds him throughout the streets of New York to satisfy his Master.

Apart from Milland’s performance, another element of the film that heightens the palpability of the struggling alcoholic is the film’s score. The Lost Weekend was among one of the first films to prominently incorporate the unique sounds of the theremin into its soundtrack. A theremin is an electronic musical device that is primarily recognizable for its eerie ghostly sounds that often seem to be associated with cheesy sci-fi movies from the 1950s. The theremin’s paranormal reverberations are put to effective use in The Lost Weekend, creating this impression that alcoholism has other-worldly origins that are driven by unnatural forces not belonging to mankind. Every time Don Birnam’s craving begins to swell, so does the score’s use of the theremin, which gives an audible characteristic to the sense of confusion and lack of control associated with one’s thoughts while feeling the extreme need for a drink. Given the theremin’s ghostly noises, it’s inclusion in the score creates this image of alcoholism as something of a specter, continually hovering over and haunting its victims with relentless energy.

Despite its allegiance to realism and authenticity in examining the struggles and dynamics of alcoholism, The Lost Weekend delivers on its efforts all the way up until the conclusion of the film. There are instances where Don Birnam is able to momentarily step back and look at what a failed mess he has become, providing him with a surge of determination in rolling up his sleeves to pound out of his typewriter the great novel he feels is bottled up inside of him. Of course he never gets beyond a few lines, causing him to crash-land even harder than before. But in the final scene, after some intense and dramatic conversation with his girlfriend, Helen St. James, Don has supposedly been pierced to his very core, awakening him to the urgency of his reality. From this, we are left to believe that Don has finally found the strength to tackle the heretofore elusive task of settling down to his typewriter to tap out the novel inside.

For me, this conclusion did not jive with the rest of the film. For two hours, the viewer is riding along side Don as he flails in his alcoholism, experiencing the darkest depths of his personal hell, including, at one point, a hallucinatory spell where he sees a bat fly into his apartment and attack a mouse crawling from a crack in the wall. Clearly, the long, boney fingers of alcoholism have a menacing grip on Don that has been able to tighten over the past several years. It did not feel believable that Don could suddenly put everything into perspective and get a handle on things just because Helen showed up and delivered some words of encouragement to him. I’m sorry, but I just don’t buy that the tide of Don’s addiction could be so easily turned like the viewer is led to believe is has been by the time the credits roll.

However, I don’t think an imperfect ending discredits the rest of the film’s strengths. In watching The Lost Weekend, you almost get the sense that this film wasn’t made to be entertaining, but rather to exist as a delivery to enhance public understanding toward those afflicted with alcoholism. In that light, the ending makes sense because in dealing with something so dark, people have to believe that victory is possible or else they would never attempt to triumph against the trial.

Favorite Line: This line became the most famous line from the film. I thought it was great because it seemed to sum up Don Birnam’s hopeless perspective. “One drink’s too many, and a hundred’s not enough.”

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