The Lost Weekend (1945); and book by Charles L. Jackson

Back to my Best Picture Oscar sequence, after the summer break, and it’s The Lost Weekend, which also won Best Director, Best Actor and Best Screenplay, losing out on Best Cinematography (Black and White), Best Music and Best Editing. It was also one of 11 films that won the Grand Prix at Cannes that year, and only one other film since has managed the Cannes/Oscar double. (Marty, which I have not otherwise heard of; we’ll get there in 1955.)

The two IMDB ratings rank The Lost Weekend 8th and 3rd among films of 1945, behind Spellbound and Brief Encounter in both cases. I confess that I had not seen a single other film released in this year. (I have since watched The Picture of Dorian Gray, for Hugo completism.) Here is a trailer, which interestingly leads with the fact that it is based on a best-selling book.

The Lost Weekend is about alcoholism, and the mess that it makes of the lives of alcoholics and of the people around them. Don Birnam, the central character played by Ray Milland (a Welshman successfully sounding American, and winning an Oscar for this performance), desperately and degradingly struggles to get cash to buy booze, having given his brother and his girlfriend the slip for the weekend.

To start with the bits I didn’t like so much, and work upwards. First, in the book, which I’ll get to below, the protagonist is very definitely bisexual, and reflects on his affairs with both men and women. No hint of this whatsoever survives to the film. It’s one of the most blatant examples of gey erasure that I have seen. There is a character, Gloria, played by Doris Dowling, who is clearly a sex worker, or at least as clearly as the Code would allow.

Jane Wyman, who was at the time married to fellow actor Ronald Reagan, is very good as Don’s girlfriend Helen and gets a lot of great lines. (Her mother is played by Lilian Fontaine, whose two daughters Joan Fontaine and Olivia de Havilland also appeared in Oscar-winning films, Rebecca and Gone with the Wind.) But Helen’s storyline is one of standing by her man, no matter how awfully he behaves. In fact her relationship with Don is deeply toxic and controlled by his addiction.

She is not quite an enabler, but I would hope that a remake of the story today would look a bit more sensitively at how those who love addicts can sometimes make matters worse. Also, of course, because this is a Hollywood film and the conventions must be observed, Don is redeemed by the strength of her lurve. “We’re both trying, Don. You’re trying not to drink, and I’m trying not to love you.”

Among many memorable scenes, the segment set in the alcoholic ward of the hospital stands out for its bleakness – Frank Faylen as Bim Nolan, the nurse who explains to Don just how bad his situation is. “We had a peek of your blood. Straight apple jack. 96 proof. … You’re an alky. You’ll come back. They all do. Him, for instance. Shows up every month. Just like the gas bill. … You know that stuff about pink elephants? That’s bunk. It’s little animals. Little tiny turkeys in straw hats. Midget monkeys coming through the key holes. See that guy over there? With him, its beetles. Come the night, he sees beetles crawling all over him. Has to be dark though.”

Other memorable moments include the La Traviata performance where Don becomes obsessed by the drinks on stage during the Drinking Song; the desperate search for an open pawnbroker on Yom Kippur (the Irish pawnbrokers close in solidarity with the Jews, who return the favour on St Patrick’s Day); and Don’s hallucination of a bat flying around his room that then attacks a mouse.

I finally have to note the use of the theremin in Miklós Rózsa’s incidnental music, two decades before Star Trek; it gives an amazing otherworldly feel to Don’s alcohol-dazed perceptions.

This is a grim film to watch, but I think also a great film. I am ranking it fourth in my list so far, behind All Quiet on the Western Front but ahead of You Can’t Take It With You. You can get it here.

Next is The Best Years Of Our Lives. I know nothing about it.

The book of The Lost Weekend, by Charles L. Jackson, is apparently solidly autobiographical. Second paragraph of third chapter:

He listened to the ’phone. It rang six or seven times and then stopped. He closed his eyes, relieved.

It’s as grim reading as the film is grim viewing, tight third throughout, vividly realised, and without the film’s happy ending.

As noted above, Don Birnam is bisexual in the original novel, but firmly straight on screen; in the book, his ambiguous sexuality is part of the root of his addiction – which of course rather ignores the fact that in real life, many alcoholics are entirely secure in their sexual identities; but I guess Jackson had to tell the story he himself knew best.

The penultimate section of the book has Don hallucinating at his girlfriend Helen’s apartment, rather than his own – this gives a stronger sense of displacement, and of course reinforces the point that when he does get home he starts drinking again, ending the book in the same place he started, only worse off.

Several of the great visuals of the film (including the opera scene) were written for the screen and were not in the original book. The passage in the hospital is memorable in a very different way in the book – the nurse, Bim Nolan, hints at seducing Don as part of his treatment, though Don is not really interested either in being seduced or in being treated. (In fairness this is hinted at on screen, but it is text rather than subtext in the original.)

As I said, it’s a grim read, but you can get it here.

1920s: Wings (1927-28) | The Broadway Melody (1928-29)
1930s: All Quiet on the Western Front (1929-30) | Cimarron (1930-31) | Grand Hotel (1931-32) | Cavalcade (1932-33) | It Happened One Night (1934) | Mutiny on the Bounty (1935, and books) | The Great Ziegfeld (1936) | The Life of Emile Zola (1937) | You Can’t Take It with You (1938) | Gone with the Wind (1939, and book)
1940s: Rebecca (1940) | How Green Was My Valley (1941) | Mrs. Miniver (1942) | Casablanca (1943) | Going My Way (1944) | The Lost Weekend (1945) | The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) | Gentleman’s Agreement (1947) | Hamlet (1948) | All the King’s Men (1949)
1950s: All About Eve (1950) | An American in Paris (1951) | The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) | From Here to Eternity (1953) | On The Waterfront (1954, and book) | Marty (1955) | Around the World in Eighty Days (1956) | The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) | Gigi (1958) | Ben-Hur (1959)
1960s: The Apartment (1960) | West Side Story (1961) | Lawrence of Arabia (1962) | Tom Jones (1963) | My Fair Lady (1964) | The Sound of Music (1965) | A Man for All Seasons (1966) | In the Heat of the Night (1967) | Oliver! (1968) | Midnight Cowboy (1969)
1970s: Patton (1970) | The French Connection (1971) | The Godfather (1972) | The Sting (1973) | The Godfather, Part II (1974) | One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) | Rocky (1976) | Annie Hall (1977) | The Deer Hunter (1978) | Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)
1980s: Ordinary People (1980) | Chariots of Fire (1981) | Gandhi (1982) | Terms of Endearment (1983) | Amadeus (1984) | Out of Africa (1985) | Platoon (1986) | The Last Emperor (1987) | Rain Man (1988) | Driving Miss Daisy (1989)
1990s: Dances With Wolves (1990) | The Silence of the Lambs (1991) | Unforgiven (1992) | Schindler’s List (1993) | Forrest Gump (1994) | Braveheart (1995) | The English Patient (1996) | Titanic (1997) | Shakespeare in Love (1998) | American Beauty (1999)
21st century: Gladiator (2000) | A Beautiful Mind (2001) | Chicago (2002) | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) | Million Dollar Baby (2004, and book) | Crash (2005) | The Departed (2006) | No Country for Old Men (2007) | Slumdog Millionaire (2008)

One thought on “The Lost Weekend (1945); and book by Charles L. Jackson

  1. Does ‘All Members of the House who have taken the Oath, and who are not subject to
    statutory disqualification, suspended from the service of the House, or on Leave of
    Absence, are entitled to vote in this by-election.’ not mean what it looks superficially like it means, then?

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