Best Picture: THE LOST WEEKEND (1945)
By Witney Seibold on June 19, 2014
Week 18 in Witney Seibold’s epic quest to watch and review every single Best Picture winner reveals a skillfully told, but somewhat dated cautionary tale from the masterful director Billy Wilder.
While Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend is a perfectly effective and heartbreaking drama about alcoholism – a wildly hidden topic for mainstream feature films in 1945 – I can’t help but think that the film’s Best Picture award was a “make good” Oscar for the loss of Double Indemnity the year previous, which is, in most measurable regards, the superior film. Wilder, however, was a rising star at this point, and would go on to create some of the best movie classics this country has ever seen (wait until I lose all dignity, waxing rhapsodic about The Apartment in 15 weeks time), and the Academy clearly saw his talent. Perhaps this was a way of encouraging him.
I have seen many Billy Wilder movies, and The Lost Weekend seems to fall in the middle of the man’s canon; more critics and fans tend to cite Sunset Boulevard, Some Like It Hot, Stalag 17, Ace in the Hole, and the films already mentioned as amongst his best, while The Lost Weekend is usually relegated to the realm of the footnote. I can see why is was so acclaimed at the time, though. It’s subject matter was touchy and daring, and addiction – especially during WWII, a time of patriotic togetherness – was not rarely discussed so openly.
Based on a novel by Charles R. Jackson, The Lost Weekend tells the story of an aspiring writer named Don Birnam (Ray Milland) who is, at the film’s outset, already hiding booze around the house; the film’s opening shot is a bottle of booze dangling on a string outside of his window. His best friend and his girlfriend (an excellent Jane Wyman) have already conspired to spirit Don away for a weekend to prove that he can go at least a few days without getting drunk. Of course, this plan quickly fails, and the rest of the film is told in fitfully remembered flashbacks – very much the way the mind works while drinking – of Don’s first meetings and various shameful low points. And Don has a lot of low points. Every single instance in his life reminds hims of how badly he needs to drink. If there’s one thing The Lost Weekend gets 100% right, it’s relaying the compulsive and desperate desire to engage in drinking. I do not drink, but when Don smacks his lips, hoping for a shot of rye, I can palpably sense his thirst.
Having come off of Double Indemnity, one can see Wilder’s film noir affect on The Lost Weekend. This is not a glamorous story. This takes place in sleazy bars, dirty streets, and smoke-stained hidey-holes. It almost feels like a Raymond Chandler adaptation, only it takes place in New York.
However salient a film it may be about the dangers of drinking and the compulsive terminal velocity toward vice that an addict experiences, The Lost Weekend still has the unfortunate sheen of something dated surrounding it. Perhaps stained by the ensuing decades of drug-related cautionary tales, After School Specials, and tut-tutting “outrage” films about drugs, The Lost Weekend – while never preachy – seems perhaps a little too cautionary for its own good. The film ends with “Don the Writer” temporarily winning out over “Don the Drunk” writing about his alcoholism, and pondering how many would-be writers are in the same boat. Its morals are too starkly realized, its subtlety kept at a minimum. As such, it erodes some of the film’s timelessness; I can see how a modern-day teen would scoff at something like The Lost Weekend.
Personally, I still found the film to be engaging, tragic, and appealingly greasy. It also examines addiction in a big way, something that Hollywood rarely handles well. I would say that The Lost Weekend might be one of the better films about addiction. Milland seems uncomfortable in his own skin, and his best friends are constantly torn: They love Don dearly, but they are left in the awkward position of never being able to trust him, eventually unable to give him the benefit of the doubt. This may not be Wilder’s best film or best-known, but it’s still emotionally gripping, possessed of a few horrific gut-punches along the way.
Join me next week for The Best Years of Our Lives.