Two classic films, released 17 years apart, about alcoholism in America. How do they stand up?
We’d say, reasonably well although our patience is still tested by movies about incorrigible drunks. Having said that, we like that each of these movies draws superb performances from solid casts, and an Oscar nomination for Jack Lemmon (always welcome) and a huge best actor win for Ray Milland.
Both of these films offer grueling looks at the physical and mental costs of alcoholism — both male leads spend time in psycho wards — although it’s odd, in retrospect, that the more recent of the two, although nominated for five Academy Awards, won in only one category — best song, Henry Mancini’s Days of Wine and Roses.
Let’s take a look at 1945’s The Lost Weekend first.
It tells the tale of a writer whose battle of the bottle appears futile except for the ministrations of his still loving wife (Wyman). The plot was bold for its time, and Hollywood was thankful. The picture drew seven Oscar nominations and won director Billy Wilder an Oscar. For Milland, it was a breakthrough. (Check out his 1974 autobiography, Ray Milland: Wide-Eyed in Babylon.)
He was a working actor without great artistic pretensions who developed into a big star. He did not harbor acting aspirations as Reginald Truscott-Jones, born in rural Wales in 1905. He sort of fell into acting — and never felt quite secure in his abilities in his early movies both in England and in Hollywood.
He also recalls how impressed he was as a fresh immigrant in the early Thirties by the sight of the Hollywood lights as seen from a perch atop Sunset Boulevard. He was told then that the sight “belonged” to Ramon Navarro, the Mexican-born MGM star who reigned at the time as Hollywood’s premier leading man.
Milland was a real workhorse, and appeared in more than 70 productions of all stripes at MGM and at Paramount (his home for two decades) by the mid-Forties when director Wilder cast him as dipsomaniac writer Don Birnam.
When the picture (largely shot with hidden cameras on the streets of New York) was completed, Milland’s performance as the alcoholic writer on a weekend binge was getting noticed. The actor was approached one day by a studio technician:
The sound department ran a rough cut of “Weekend” Saturday night, just checking the sound track. I wanna tell you something. You’re going to be nominated for an Academy Award. You can’t miss.
Milland’s response was typical of him: I gave him a quizzical look and told him to stop kidding around. The technician wasn’t kidding, and proposed a substantial bet giving the actor fifty to one odds that he would not only be nominated but actually win an Oscar. Your trouble is that you’re afraid to think about it.
But think about it Milland certainly did. The next three months were absolute hell. I was working but I wasn’t really there, the actor wrote.
Then came, finally, the morning the Oscar nominations were announced with the results splashed across the Los Angeles papers. And sure enough, there was Milland’s picture among those of the best actor nominees. Then I burst into tears. It was March, 1946. I was thirty-nine years old. The next four weeks were a phantasmagoria that brought me to the point of almost hating (Hollywood).
Milland at first decided NOT to attend the Oscar ceremonies. He told his wife, Mal, on the morning of the big day that I couldn’t face it and made up my mind not to attend. That did not go down well with his spouse. (She and Milland were married for 54 years until his death at 81 of lung cancer.) With a look as cold as a Canadian nun, she urged him not to miss the Academy Award ceremony.
Upon departing triumphant with his Oscar, Milland ordered his chauffeur to go out Sunset to the bridlepath and stop near Hillcrest. I got out, and with the Oscar in my hand, I …looked down at the lights (of Hollywood).
They seemed very bright that night. After a few minutes, I quietly said, “Mr. Navarro. Tonight they belong to me.”
In Days of Wine and Roses, directed by Blake Edwards, Lemmon plays a public relations executive whose three-martini lunches soon descend into full blown alcoholism. Dragged down with him is his wife, portrayed by Lee Remick (above). He gets fired from his job, she sets fire to their apartment, almost killing their daughter, Debbie.
The picture is much less hopeful than Lost Weekend. Helping matters is a solid supporting cast including Charles Bickford as the wife’s father, and Jack Krugman as a wise AA sponsor.
Both picture aren’t for the faint of heart.