Thursday, August 17, 2017

Lost Weekend, The (1945)

Director: Billy Wilder


The maddening, controlling addiction to alcohol is the subject matter to the 1945 critically renowned Billy Wilder picture The Lost Weekend. Winner of nearly all notable “best picture” awards for that particular year, the film delved into subject matter commonly shied away from as a serious matter in Hollywood during the years of the Production Code. The film was perhaps a small, almost unnoticed step in a new direction for Hollywood dramas as it discusses serious issues that quietly plague many people.

The Lost Weekend is a drama about a writer’s despairing affliction to alcoholism and how it nearly destroys everything that he is. Don Birnam (Ray Milland) is an alcoholicwriter in New York who manipulates his brother, Wick (Philip Terry) and girlfriend Helen (Jane Wyman) in order to get out of a weekend excursion which was intended to better him by keeping him from his vice. Don’s addiction to his liquid prison makes him desperate to lie, cheat, and even steal just to find the next few ounces or drops of the elixir that will temporary ease his pain. Wick becomes so frustrated with his brothers continual lying that he quits on his brother, but Helen, who relationship began with his insincerity about his condition, is undeterred to making Don well.
Don’s addiction is so gripping that he attempts to pawn all the prized possessions he owns, including his typewriter which represents his very livelihood and self-worth.  Having lost everything, Don pawns Helen’s fur coat, the item that brought the two together, but this time for a gun to end his affliction. Helen attempts to stop Don from shooting himself when Nat (Howard Da Silva), Don’s bartender, returns Don’s lost typewriter, and Helen convinces Don to turn his experiences into a novel. Don appears to take that first step in the right direction and spoils his last remaining drink, with hope this will lead to a better, sober Don.

The film is a dark look into the mind of dangerous addictions and the destructive places it takes a person. The story has no hero or villain. In fact, much of the picture is rather frustrating to watch and we observe this person spiral down a hole of disparaging chaos as his only relief is the very thing that is tearing his world apart, slowly killing him. It is a dark tale with a resolution that actually lacks fulfillment as we never truly see the problem through, but are left with only a glimmer of a first step in a positive direction for a terribly flawed man. It is dark, depressing, and maddening, yet the picture makes the story very tangible and relatable. These are the aspects that make the film so good, literally pulling you into the world and mind of this very man that is lost in his own compulsion.

Based on the 1944 novel of the same name, the film is a product of writer/producer Charles Brackett and writer/director Billy Wilder. The picture’s originally intention was to be a very straight forward manner drama, without polishing it under the lenses of Hollywood movies. This idea would make the product appear very unenticing to studios as there was no intended musical score in the original plans. Also, the leading man was to be portrayed as a very undesirable role with all its ugliness and in full view. The question was whether if produced would anyone take the film seriously?

When Ray Milland was approached for the role of Don, he was unsure how he could portray the alcoholic writer. Milland was far from an alcoholic, or even much a social drinker. He was frightened by the idea that much of the picture revolved around the singular performance of Don, which frightened Milland to think his possible performance would only be seen as overacting. To research the role Milland attempted inebriation on many occasions, but usually ended with himself sick. He also checked himself into an asylum for alcoholism to observe patients behaviors, but found the environment so disturbing that he snuck himself out in the middle of the night, ending with himself being humorously detained by authorities who thought he was an escaping patient.

Jane Wyman had the difficult task of being the unwavering love interest to the frustrating character that was Don. The 28-year-old actress found her first major critical success as Helen, making you believe that she would do anything to help that man that would pawn even her for a drop of booze. This performance proved to be the role that would line he up for many award nominated roles for the years to come.

After production when the film began test screenings, it was apparent that The Lost Weekend needed a score, as test audiences tended to laugh at the overactions of Milland, proving Milland’s fears. The result was the hiring of composer Miklós Rózsa, who was just beginning to test the use of the theremin as an instrument within his music. Like his subtle use in Hitchcock’s Spellbound, Rózsa used the electric instrument to deliver the sense of one growing mad, with the instrument’s whining tones delivering an unworldly sound that both works well with the orchestra, yet stands out as well. Rózsa would be nominated for his score, which he won, but rather for Spellbound instead of The Lost Weekend.

The commercial success of The Lost Weekend would only be surpassed by its monumental critical achievements. Billy Wilder’s picture would win nearly every major “Best Picture” awards there were. The lone exception was the National Board of Review, who gave Best Picture to the World War II documentary The True Glory, which fed off the heels of Allied victory. Wilder himself took home two Oscars for his directing and his writing. Ray Milland was nervous about taking on the role of Don, but it proved to be the immense peak of his career. He would be given Best Actor at the Oscars, the Golden Globes, the New York Film Critics Circle, and National Board of Review. He was the top of the acting word critically speaking for 1945 which turned Milland into the top paid man in Hollywood after new contract negotiations. The film brought the actor to heights he never dreamt as he humbly accepted his Oscar without even being able to drum together even an acceptance speech in his shocked skyrocketing in the acting world.
The Lost Weekend would be a quite transformation for Hollywood as the once taboo concept of addiction and alcoholism was being talked about in a very serious manner. Billy Wilder had turned himself from being one of Hollywood’s leading writers, to respectable writer/director, to THE leading writer/director. And Ray Milland was now the talk of Hollywood with his award-winning performance, so much so that he had to disprove alcoholism rumors, as if a real life affliction was the reason his performance was so strong.

The picture would be one of American cinema’s finer works, honored in 2011 by being named to the National Film Registry. Billy Wilder’s filmography would be among one of the most successful and admired, and with The Lost Weekend being a massive milestone in his journey through fimmaking.

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