I am an alcoholic. And after a long weekend in the hospital following an “incident” and absolutely no memory of any of it, it’s become apparent to me that this is an issue I need to address – something I need to take seriously. Not the first time something like that’s happened, but it needs to be the last.
Movies have always been my love and my coping method when times have been bad. So I decided to watch a classic I recall being a great film on alcoholism, The Lost Weekend. I’ve seen quite a few films about alcohol – not many get is as much as this 1945 film.
WHAT IS ALCOHOLISM
You could always use Google or this wikipedia article on the topic. Essential, alcholism is the broad term to describe any drinking of alcohol that results in problems; medical problems, social problems, etc. When one is facing these problems and knows that they come from the repeated use of alcohol and then choose to keep drinking anyway – that’s alcoholism. There are several movies that delve into the topic, each with different looks at it, some of which I will be taking a look at. For now, however, how does The Lost Weekend address alcoholism; why do I feel it does it so well?
The film, directed by legend Billy Wilder, is based on a semi-autobiographical novel by Charles R. Jackson and the film is a pretty accurate adaptation. Being 1945 and the Hays Code in effect there was some stuff which would not make it to the screen but nothing to effect what the story needs to say Wilder was drawn to this project after working with Raymond Chandler on Double Indemnity. Chandler, an alcoholic whose drinking and struggles to stop caused a stressful, tumultuous relationship. Wilder made the film, in part, to try to explain Chandler to himself. So we have knowledgeable source material and a director who really wants to show people what alcoholism was, how it affects the alcoholic and those who love him. After the era of prohibition there was something of a better understanding of the affliction, but beyond comical stereotypes of “the town drunk” or friendly red-nosed drinkers like W.C. Fields – it wasn’t something people understood as serious. Billy Wilder saw a need to change that.
THE EFFECTS OF ALCHOLISM
Oh there’s lot and again I would encourage Google or that aforementioned wikipedia article. I could list them out but I’m looking at The Lost Weekend.
The film opens with writer Don Birnam (Ray Milland) packing for a vacation with his brother Wick. It’s clear that Don is an alcoholic attempting recovery for the upteenth time. Don wants sobriety but he also wants the bottle of whiskey he’s left hanging out the window. Don’s girlfriend Helen comes by to see them off but Don takes the opportunity to get Wick and Helen to leave for a few hours. They know what he plans, that he is planning to drink again and that his promises of “no, I’m just going to take a nap,’ are blatant lies. They still leave and in an instant Don finds some money to immediately get himself a couple bottles of whiskey and stop by the bar for a few drinks. He tells the bartender that he needs to get home by 6pm, and it hits pretty close to home for me because I know that situation – once you start it’s impossible to stop and you don’t care about the time anymore, which is exactly what happens.
Thus starts a 4 day bender for Don as he goes back and forth from the bar to home. Drinking at the bar, or any bar, when he can afford it or drinking bottles of whiskey at home. What is made clear throughout is that Don KNOWS he has a problem – often alcoholics do – and is unable to control himself. Sobriety does not feel normal, it feels awkward and wrong – that only through drinking can an alcoholic feel complete with themselves and the world, even though they know it for a fact to be wrong. Any bit of money Don gets be it through finding it, stealing it, or putting valuables in pawn, is spent on alcohol. Yes he is aware of the consequences for those actions but the only way he feels, the only way any alcoholic feels, that they can deal with those consequences is with a few drinks in them, just to make it all easier. But there’s no such thing as “just a few drinks.”
Over the course of these four days we see the desperation in Don, how much he NEEDS this alcohol, how unbearable sobriety is. He asks for a drink at his usual bar and is denied credit and, with tears in his eyes, he begs “Then it’s charity. Just one. Just one shot to help me out,” (I’ve begged for drinks before, I know that situation). He ends up in rehab for an evening and sees long-term alcoholics – people that are him and he knows it. Does not stop him from escaping to drink again. He experiences the DTs (delirium tremens), hallucinations, etc. Which, by the way, happen during moments of sobriety – they’re a withdrawl symptom, but I’m willing to allow the film this little factual error of Don experiencing them while drunk because of it’s brief time span and the importance of showing that these horrible things are a part of alcoholism.
So…. is there hope for Don?