Oscar’s 90th birthday is just around the corner and to celebrate, from now through March 4th, I will be taking a look at each and every film selected for his top award – the good, the bad and the sometimes not-so deserving.
I’ll be honest; I am sort of amused by Hollywood’s treatment of a serious but touchy subjects like alcoholism or anti-Semitism in an era when husbands and wives weren’t even allowed to be seen sharing the same bed. Some worked and some didn’t (I’m looking at YOU Gentleman’s Agreement). Thankfully when Hollywood took a serious look at alcoholism, it fell into the capable hands of Billy Wilder.
Wilder is one of my favorite directors; a round peg in a square hole who always seemed to be defying the rather rigid imposition of a bellicose code of conduct that Hollywood had imposed on itself, and got away with it mostly due in part to the fact that his films were successful. The Lost Weekend was no different. It was one of the highest grossing movies of the year and picked up Oscars for the screenplay written by Wilder and his long-time collaborator Charles Brackett; Best Director for Wilder; Best Actor for Ray Milland; and, of course The Big One. Oddly enough, it stepped over some rather pious studio pictures like Anchors Aweigh and Mildred Pierce to get there.
Based on a book by a long-forgotten writer named Charles Jackson, The Lost Weekend tells the story of Don Birnam an otherwise sound soul who tries and continually fails to resist the temptation of the bottle and ends up going on a four-day bender while looking back over the highs and lows of a life that would breed shame and regret. Jackson only wrote a handful of novels in his life and is barely even remembered for this one book. Yet he apparently lived what he wrote in his most famous work; he was an alcoholic and also had an addiction to barbiturates. This addiction apparently brought about his death in 1968 at the age of 65 while working on a follow-up entitled “Farther and Wider.”
I read The Lost Weekend in the early 90s when I was in college and I was intrigued that the book explores territory that the movie isn’t allowed to touch. In the book, Birnam struggles not only with alcohol but with his own sexual identity. The movie is scrubbed clean of any hint that Birnam might have any measure of homosexual tendency and instead saddles his drinking problem with a case of writer’s block.
The book was rather explicit (for its time) about a past incident in college in which Don found the “passionate hero-worship of an upperclassman during his very first month at college, a worship that led, like a fatal infatuation, to scandal and public disgrace.” The upperclassman is regaled as a hero while Birnam returns to his hometown determined never to leave the safety of his familiar surroundings again. What exactly happened between them is left to the reader’s imagination but it brought shame and debasement from those around him. Remember, this book was written in 1944 at a moment when any hint of homosexuality could be met by imprisonment or confinement in an institution.
This struggle, I think, gives us a more apt template for Don’s drinking, especially given the time. The movie scrubs all those problems from the screen and for years I doted on this as a fatal flaw. Yet, in preparing for this essay, I was bound to see it in a different light. If the book suggests that the shame of homosexuality was the template for his drinking then it may be possible that the absence of this problem may be to the movie’s favor. It might suggest that Don is simply a weak man who can’t resist the bottle without the backing of a further problem that is exacerbating his addiction. Of course, the absence of his homosexuality leaves the movie open to suggest that his drinking is the product of the fact that, as a writer, he may have peaked too early and feels that he cannot rise to greatness again.
Even given Don’s past ills I admire the film greatly for not giving him a pass. There’s a reason for his drinking but there’s never a sense that Wilder and Brackett’s screenplay are willing to make excuses for him. This is a difficult portrait of a man who seems beyond his own personal demons, and it is a brave film given the texture of the times.