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Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Best Picture Countdown #18: The Lost Weekend (1945)

Director: Billy Wilder
Starring: Ray Milland, Jane Wyman

The Lost Weekend is arguably Billy Wilder’s darkest film. It is almost unrelentingly grim (though it does have a happy-ish, if not entirely believable ending), swirling ever deeper into the depths as it follows protagonist Don Birnam (Ray Milland) on an odyssey of self-destruction. With his characteristic skill, Wilder guides us on this journey, ultimately winning two Oscars (for directing and writing) for his efforts.

The story begins with Don supposedly on the road to recovery. After manipulating his brother Wick (Phillip Terry) and girlfriend, Helen (Jane Wyman), into leaving him alone, however, he heads straight to one of his favourite bars. Disappointed, Wick more or less gives up on his brother and encourages Helen to do the same, but that’s easier said than done because, despite his problems, she loves him. Despite his problems, he loves her, too, and he recounts the story of how they met to a bartender. Don’s anxieties run deep, so deep that he sees himself as having been split in two: Don the writer, and Don the drunk. The two personalities are at odds with one another but intractably linked, as Don can only form ideas when he’s drunk but forgets them when he’s sober.

Don’s feelings of low self-worth drives as wedge between him and Helen, as he encourages her to break things off lest he drag her down with him, but she remains determined to stand by him, even as things get increasingly worse. He steals a woman’s purse to buy booze and is caught, he tries to pawn his typewriter, he takes a bad fall down a flight of stairs and ends up in the hospital, where he falls into the care of the alcoholics’ ward. After escaping he gets right back to drinking, suffering from horrible hallucinations, and considers suicide.

Made during the time of the Production Code, The Lost Weekend isn’t quite as brutally candid as a film like Leaving Las Vegas, but it is quite harrowing nevertheless. The scene where Don hallucinates seeing a mouse being attacked by a bat is still effective today, though of course it’s not graphic by today’s standards. Milland’s performance, entirely without vanity and full of weariness at his character’s self-defeating choices, is really excellent and certainly worthy of the Best Actor Oscar he won. Playing drunk is notoriously difficult because, of course, it invites over-acting and mugging. Milland keeps the character from becoming caricature and renders a lived-in performance that perfectly suites the seen-it-all/done-it-all attitude of the character.

For the most part the film unfolds with a gritty sense of realism (well, as gritty and real as a film made under the strict rules of the studio system could possibly be) but the ending is another matter. Don rallies, combining his two personas into one by writing about his experiences as a drunk (rather than allowing his experiences as a drunk to supplant his work as a writer) in a novel called “The Bottle.” It appears that he’s on the wagon and finally on the way to fulfilling his promise as an artist. Part of me thinks that this ending is too easy, that someone who is in as deeply as Don couldn’t crawl out just on the strength of his love for Helen and her love for him. On the other hand, I also wonder whether this is meant to be a true resolution. Perhaps this is just another occasion where Don will pull himself together for a brief period and then go right back to square one. After all, the final shot mirrors the first, focusing on the bottle of booze he has suspended outside of his window. So, is it triumph or is it another tragedy waiting to happen? I suppose that’s up to the viewer.

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