The Lost Weekend (1945 USA)

The now very famous title is obviously a reference to what can happen to the confirmed alcoholic when they feel compelled by their bodies to embark on the mother of all benders. As this is an addiction – or a disease, however you prefer to label it – gaps in time tend to occur quite frequently. The drunk will not remember nor care about the depths they have sunk to, but director Billy Wilder was able to superbly capture all of the squalor on film for his audience. The Lost Weekend is almost beyond reproach in its sobering message, sending a strong no-preaching tone. It has a wonderful, sometimes offbeat, script, a wide character range underscored by a marvelous supporting cast and an often moving lead in Ray Milland, our lush under the microscope, who does a grand job projecting despair and cynicism.

Its subtle humour never detracts, while its Manhattan setting always adds. But despite its wide appeal–or perhaps because of, it does tend to hug the surface, not delving too deeply or generalizing too much the downward spiral of an alcoholic. One senses this in the ending–if not in the movie’s general drift. Don Birnam is not the typical alcoholic. Not by status, nor by class. He is a writer first, an alcoholic second or, more pointedly, he is the alcoholic writer–a unique if not an elite individual. He is not part of the “concrete jungle.” His novel, “The Bottle,” may reach alcoholics of his own class (although more likely not if it truly is a “horror story”,) but not the hoi polloi of his imaginings–for “Don Birnham, Esquire” is as apart from them as he is from Gloria. And his alcoholic ordeal is essentially private.

He can hide away in his comfortable digs, pass for a gentleman, pass for normal, dwell on his inadequacies, torment himself over his failures, and escape AA type meetings–and hospital/jails when he needs too. Individuation is what sets him apart, which is why his “merry go round” can stop with his will to art, and not through any social program or institution. In finding his Self, he has gotten to his core–which is not a “sponge” but a mind no longer “suspended outside his window,” one that knows itself as a novelist. In a word, he is secure and valued, an unusual position for an alcoholic. As a writer the causes of his alcoholism are also atypical. For the artist’s identity can exact a heavy penalty on its members. On the other side of success, genius, and talent, is failure, madness, and doubt. Fame may be a phony and distasteful social construct, but it is no less real for that.

lostweekend4The basic set up is the spotlight or bust. Winner or loser, known or unknown–these shape and inform the writer’s role. And, no doubt, Don Birnam’s alcoholism is rooted in this role—it goes with the territory. Writers–especially the losing–and male, take to it–at least that’s the myth, and it’s still strong today. Suicide is also part of that identity: on his 30th birthday Don buys a gun after ten years in the city he came to conquer. Then he was a hot, young genius at Cornell writing in the Hemingway mode. Now he still hasn’t finished a novel or a short story. His drama is precisely this: creation is salvation, failure to create is damnation. This ugly dichotomy is entrenched in him to the point of drink and suicide. And a whole lot of self-doubt along the way. “I passed as a genius,” he says, and “if I’d gotten a job, I’d be married.”

The painful scene at the Manhattan Hotel with Helen’s parents accentuates this. “There are two Dons, the drinker and the writer,” he says, but there is only one Don, the failed artist–his alcoholism being of that rare kind that only writing can cure. Finally, a special alcoholic needs special support, and Don is hardly cheated. Helen’s support is unconditional, emotional, and romantic–a little sappy at times, given the drain, but real and convincing in the final scenes where she almost wills his transformation in rain-drenched muse fashion.Wick provides a decade’s worth of room and board and puts up with all the lies, moanings, and self-absorption of his talented brother. Nat, the bartender, offers warmth, friendship, chides, realism–and the typewriter on which “The Bottle” will be written. Gloria, of the hex sign, gives far more to Don than she receives back–including style/laughs more lost on him than her money. Only Bim of “Hangover Plaza” sees our wretch objectively. Maybe he puts one more lousy drunk back on his feet. Maybe not. Its all so harrowing, cynical and seedy. 🙂

lostweekend

 

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