We hadn’t heard for a while from our Books2Movies maven, Larry Michie, and thus were delighted that he agreed to our proposal to compare the book and movie versions of The Lost Weekend.
Hello, everybody. Joe Morella and Frank Segers, your classic movie guys, here today to report that things sometimes just don’t go as planned. Let us explain.
The Lost Weekend, the novel, is getting renewed notice these days largely because of the publication of author Blake Bailey’s new biography of its author, Farther & Wilder: The Lost Weekends and Literary Dreams of Charles Jackson.
Jackson was a balding deep-in-the-closet homosexual (he had married and had had two daughters) who had coped with a heavy drinking problem in the mid-Thirties. Like the protagonist of his novel, writer Don Birnam, he was a confirmed alcoholic.
One of the new biography’s intentions is to examine “what it meant to be an addict and a closeted gay man in mid-century America, and what one had to do with the other.”
A light bulb went off. Why not have a Books2Movies reconsideration of Weekend the original novel and Weekend the 1945 movie, the fruit of director Billy Wilder’s partnership with Charles Brackett. Both were big commercial successes with Ray Milland walking off with the best-actor Oscar for his strong interpretation of the Don Birnam character onscreen.
Our man Larry eagerly plowed in, and then came back this: Here’s the poop — I tried to read the novel, but found it ragged and creepy and offensive, as I guess it should be, given the subject matter. I was strongly put off by (it).
The opening portion is all about drunken slurs against homosexuals, and a description of a young man at an adjacent table making lip-smacking noises…Don Birnam (the novel’s chief character) of the book appears to be a lot nastier that Ray Milland (who played the character in the movie.)
Charles Jackson, author of the novel, had spent a long time in the bottom of a bottle of booze before he straightened up his life and made something of himself. (His) book has scenes in it of psychiatrists, whom Jackson scorned. He believed that the only cure for an alcoholic was having the boozer renounce drink and stay sober.
It might be that some folks still feel that way; I’ll think about it over my Martini.
Larry hastened to add that he loved the movie version. Jane Wyman (Ray Milland’s costar) was excellent, and as I recall, separate from “The Lost Weekend,” I was very much in love with (her) when I was about six years old. Milland’s impression of absolute alchoholic collapse was enough to make you a teetotaler for life.
The movie was pioneering in the sense that it didn’t treat alcoholism at all lighty, as a subject for laughs. Paramount was dubious about its commercial prospects but green-lighted the project anyway because of the string of hits emanating from the Wilder-Brackett partnership, who worked closely with Jackson on the script. Some of the novel’s rougher edges were smoothed out but the essence of the book is what you see on the screen.
In his 1974 autobiography, Ray Milland: Wide Eyed in Babylon, the actor recalls spending a night of “research” in the psychiatric ward of New York City’s Bellevue Hospital where the really far gone alcoholics were confined until they were sufficiently dried out and could be returned to their families or whatever dismal pads they lived in.
Milland was formerly admitted to Bellevue, was assigned pajamas, a robe and a narrow iron bed. He was not prepared for what followed next: tough-looking male nurses who acted like jail guards; sounds of moaning, screaming, wailing like deranged coyotes; delusional patients violently resisting their handlers; and ”quiet crying.”
The place was a multitude of smells, but the dominant one was that of a cesspool.
Finally, at 3 a.m., Milland “struggled into a hospital robe and not bothering with slippers” exited the hospital, making a run in public for a taxi to take him back to his Waldorf Towers suite. I never wanted to set eyes on that horrifying place again.
But I did. It turned out that the very first (‘Weekend”) scene we made in New York portrayed a ward filled with men with the d.t.’s.
It was shot in exactly the same place.