Friday, October 25, 2013

The Lost Weekend (Best Picture 1945)

The Lost Weekend is like no other Best Picture film I have ever seen. It is not an epic, it is not a musical, it is not a biography of somebody we've never heard of; no, The Lost Weekend is an extremely personal and intimate story of one man's battle against alcoholism. I grew up in the Seventies and Eighties where social issues were often presented on television in so-called "movies of the week." However, The Lost Weekend starts a trend in Hollywood that would put these later films to shame. For the next three years all of the Best Pictures were social commentaries, shining a light on returning veterans, antisemitism, and alcoholism. The Lost Weekend is a brutally honest, almost painful film to watch. We're not in Bing Crosby's Going My Way any more, Toto!
Ray Milland has a tour de force role as Don, the absolute center of the story. He is a writer, or wants to be. However, he is plagued by anxiety and this feeds his writer's block, which feeds his anxiety. He turns to drink, but he soon realizes he is an alcoholic and cannot stop.

The story begins with Don and his brother Wick (a quiet yet strong Phillip Terry) planning on going away for a weekend retreat to their family's farm. He maneuvers out of it, however,  when his girl-friend Helen arrives to say good-bye. Wick and Helen (a forceful but loving Jane Wyman) both suspect what Don is up to, but can't figure out his scheme, so unwittingly go along with him. Soon he has "escaped" from their clutches and is at the bar, where he tells his bartender friend Nat (a great Howard Da Silva) how he got to be where he is. We then get an extended flash-back where we learn that Don had always had a problem with alcohol, but had managed to stay dry after he first met Helen (ironically, because of his need for a drink). He falls off the wagon on the day he is supposed to meet Helen's parents, and that is when Helen first learns the depth of Don's problem.
After his current binge leaves him broke (again) and needing more (again) there is an extended scene where he searches his apartment for his hidden bottle. This is one of the most painful scenes in the film, as Milland goes from the highest of highs to the lowest of lows and back again in search of the second bottle he knows he hid somewhere in the apartment. Later, he steals a woman's purse to pay his tab and then hits on another girl who likes him in order to buy more alcohol. He falls down the stairs at her apartment, and because Wick and Helen are not home to claim him he is committed to an asylum to dry out. Here he meets Bim, a cynical nurse/guard played by Frank Faylen. Faylen is most famous as the easy-going cab driver in It's A Wonderful Life; to see him here playing a jaded "seen-it-all" hospital orderly is creepy to the extreme. He tells Don a little bit of what it will be like to go "cold turkey," which scares the hell out of Milland's character. He manages to escape back to his apartment, where he begins to experience what the orderly said that he would. This is the most chilling part of the film, as Milland goes (literally) bats-in-the-apartment crazy.
The next day Helen finally catches up to him, and Don is so embarrassed by his actions that he decides to commit suicide. She initially believes that he has decided to go on another binge, but when she realizes what his real plan is she pleads with him to keep fighting. Then Nat the bartender arrives with Don's type-writer, which he had left at the bar the night before. Don sees this as a sign to write, and he begins working on his story against The Bottle.
The plot may not sound like much, but in a world of Forties films like Going My Way and How Green Was My Valley, where people are able to solve their problems, this film is hugely different.  Besides Best Picture Ray Milland won Best Actor, Billy Wilder won Best Director, and he shared Best Screenplay.
The Lost Weekend
*Academy Award Best Picture of 1945*
Produced by Charles Brackett
Directed  by Billy Wilder
Screenplay by Billy Wilder & Charles Brackett
Based on the novel by Charles R. Jackson

This trailer definitely gives you the feeling that this film was NOT the usual fare
Also Nominated:
(in alphabetical order)
Anchors Aweigh
The Bells of St. Mary's
Mildred Pierce
Except for The Bells of St. Mary's, which is a sequel to Going My Way, I have actually seen all of the other nominees this year. Bing Crosby and Ingrid Bergman were both nominated for this film, but lost to Ray Milland and to Joan Crawford (in Mildred Pierce). With this nomination Bing became the first actor to be nominated twice for the same role. Mildren Pierce is, of course, the tour de force Joan Crawford "comeback" film about a desperately poor woman who scratches her way out of poverty. Anchors Aweigh is Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra as sailors on leave in Hollywood. It's an adorable picture and features, among other things, Gene dancing with Jerry the Mouse (from Tom & Jerry fame). And Spellbound is Alfred Hitchcock's film with Ingrid Bergman as a psychiatrist and Gregory Peck as an amnesiac who may have murdered his best friend. All of these are pretty good films. 

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