Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The Lost Weekend: The Downward Spiral

Just so nobody is misled, the subtitle here is referring to depression—stage four on the Kübler-Ross five stages of grief—and not the brilliant 1994 Nine Inch Nails album. Spirals are an apt image to use when discussing Billy Wilder’s 1945 Best Picture winner, as the film deals with the cyclical nature of alcoholism (of which in this film depression is most certainly a symptom). The film was released in November of 1945—a season after the United States won victory on both fronts in the Second World War—and it signals a turning point in subject matter for Oscar-winning films. The Lost Weekend is the first Best Picture winner to directly confront A Very Serious Issue, and three of the remaining four Best Picture winners of the decade have social issues as their subject matter (the period of readjustment for homecoming veterans, anti-Semitism, political corruption, and hell—Hamlet is a Very Serious Play). I don’t think that the mood of the county was necessarily that of depression at the time of the release of The Lost Weekend, but I do think that the country—having lived through nearly half a decade of bloody armed conflict, was ready to have films reflect the issues facing Americans at home.

The Lost Weekend opens with a left-to-right pan of the Manhattan skyline. The camera settles on an open window of an ordinary apartment, a bottle of whiskey dangling outside, tied to the window crank. Inside is Don Birnam, a permanently blocked writer (played by Welsh-born actor Ray Milland, in a performance completely and totally worthy of the Best Actor Oscar he was awarded for it). Don and his brother Wick (Phillip Terry) are packing for “a long weekend” to a country farm away from the city. At this point, Don has been on the wagon for ten days, and the bottle of booze tied to the window is a temptation he can bear no longer to resist. Almost immediately he starts lying. His girlfriend, Helen (Jane Wyman, an ex-Mrs. Ronald Reagan) has stopped by to see Don and Wick off, and Don fobs off a pair of concert tickets onto her and Wick—thus delaying their departure on the 3:15 train out of town to 6:30—claiming he wants to have a couple of hours to assemble himself. Wick, who is no fool, finds the dangling bottle, drains it and leaves with Helen after an oft-repeated and always unsuccessful argument with Don about his drinking.

After the pair leave, Don searches high and low through his usual hiding places in the apartment, but Wick has been successful in cleansing the apartment of booze. Don catches a break when their cleaning lady drops by. Wick has left her ten dollars in wages, but Don spins a lie to her, shoos her off, and absconds with her wages. His first destination: the liquor store, where he promptly buys two bottles of the cheapest rye (“none of that twelve year old aged in wood—not for me”). His next destination: Nat’s Bar, where he strikes up a conversation with the eponymous bartender (Howard Da Silva). Nat knows the depth of Don’s alcoholism, but Don is able to charm him into serving him a glass of whiskey. Director Wilder focuses on the circular impression the condensation on the glass leaves behind on the bar (no coasters at Nat’s, apparently). Don observes: “Don't wipe it away, Nat. Let me have my little vicious circle. You know, the circle is the perfect geometric figure. No end, no beginning.” Don is keenly aware of the imprisoning nature of his alcoholism, but he is unable and certainly unwilling to break the cycle. He reflects, “What you don't understand, all of you, is that I've got to know it's around. That I can have it if I need it. I can't be cut off completely. That's the devil. That's what drives you crazy.”

Hours pass, and the circles pile up on the bar—first six, then twelve (Wilder uses this image not only as a visual metaphor but also as a clever way to signify both the passage of time and how sauced Don is)—and Don has completely forgotten about the 6:30 train and blown off his commitment to his brother. He manages to return to the apartment—sober enough to narrowly avoid Wick and Helen as they leave in disgust—satisfied that he will be alone for a long weekend with his two bottles of booze. Don hides one of the whiskey bottles in the overhead lamp fixture. Early the next morning, Don rises—bottles empty now and compulsively walks over to Nat’s, for in Don’s eyes, a minute without alcohol is time wasted. Nat doesn’t want to serve him, but Don replies “I can't cut it short. I'm on that merry-go-round. You gotta ride it all the way. Round and round until that blasted music wears itself out and the thing dies down and comes to a stop...” Again, Don is aware that he is trapped in a self-repeating loop, and the brilliant script by Wilder and co-writer Charles Brackett gives another brilliant metaphor for addiction.

Gloria (Doris Dowling), a call-girl enamored with Don, comes into Nat’s. They flirt, and he makes a date with her. Nat chides Don for making a date with Gloria when he knows that Helen is in love with him, and the conversation turns to Don telling the story of when he first met her. In the first of two extended flashbacks (undoubtedly the influence of Citizen Kane), Don tells of the night when he took in a performance of La Traviata. Don is already entwined in the throes of his addiction. He has stashed a bottle of rye in his raincoat, but he checked the raincoat before the performance started. When the singers perform “Libiamo ne’lieti calici (The Drinking Song)" Don hallucinates seeing his raincoat on each of the singers, each drinking from his bottle of rye, he becomes overwhelmed by the urge to drink. When he returns to the coat check, he finds out he has been misticketed and is given a woman’s leopard print coat. Don cannot retrieve his coat until the person who has his claim ticket returns, so he is forced to wait through the remainder of the performance and until all the rest of the coats are claimed before he can retrieve his bottle. The leopard print coat belongs to Helen, and although Don is very rude at first (he’s been deprived of his booze for an extended period of time, after all) they strike up an easy rapport. Helen invites him to a cocktail party, to which Don declines—he’s an alcoholic, but he prefers relative solace when drinking. However, his bottle accidentally smashes to bits on the street, and Don reconsiders Helen’s invitation and leaves with her, caring far less about her company than the booze fix that will be available to him.

Don continues his conversation with Nat, and goes into further detail on the background of his relationship with Helen. The film’s second extended flashback finds Don waiting in a hotel lobby for Helen. She is introducing him to her parents, who are in town from Toledo, Ohio. Don hasn’t met Helen’s folks, but he overhears a couple talking about a 33 year-old writer with no job who never graduated from Cornell University. Don quickly deduces that the older couple is Helen’s parents, and his eavesdropping smashes his self-confidence and Don again bolts for booze. He returns home and confesses his insecurities to Wick, but hides when Helen—whom Don ditched—comes calling for him, Wick covers up for his brother, confessing that he is an alcoholic, and that Don is away on an interview. In a rare moment of nobility, Don emerges from hiding, and confesses to Helen that he is a drunk. He explains that there are two Dons—Don the Writer and Don the Drunk—and that his life vacillates between the creative highs he feels when drinking and the drudgery of the lows when the booze has worn off. Helen believes that Don can overcome his addiction, but he tells her, Come on, let's face reality. I'm thirty-three. I'm living on the charity of my brother. “Room and board free. Fifty cents a week for cigarettes and an occasional ticket to a show or a concert –all out of the bigness of his heart. And it is a big heart and a patient one...I've never done anything, I'm not doing anything, I never will do anything. Zero, zero, zero!”

The zero Don describes himself as is yet another circle. When the scene dissolves back to Nat’s, Don becomes resolute, and vows to begin writing his novel. Don returns home, and begins typing. His novel is titled The Bottle, and it is dedicated to Helen. Don is again seized by his alcoholic cravings, and again completely overturns the apartment in search of booze, forgetting that only yesterday he stashed a bottle of rye in his light fixture. Don again leaves, is unsuccessful in trying to steal money for liquor, and returns home, dejected. He finds solace only when he turns on the lights, sits down, and sees the shadow of the whiskey bottle projected onto the ceiling, its hiding spot illuminated.

The film is wise to show Don repeat behaviors. He is constantly lying or wheedling his way into a drink. He steals. He cheats. He blows off engagements (Nat proves prophetic when he says that Don will stand up Gloria). He forgets where he hides his bottles of rye. Don’s life plays like a record on repeat. The scene that does the best job of illuminating the spiral that Don is caught in and cannot escape from comes the next day in the film. Don has decided to hock his typewriter for cash to buy alcohol. He desperately searches for an open pawnshop, but finds that they are all closed because it is Yom Kippur. Wilder pioneered a technique using rear-projection to illustrate this scene, by squaring Don in the middle of the frame as neon signs and storefronts flash and rush by him. This technique has been used in countless films and television shows since it was first used here.

Another technique pioneered in The Lost Weekend is the use of the Theremin in a film score for the first time. Miklós Rózsa liked the instrument for the eerie, wailing effects the Theremin produces. The instrument is ubiquitous in science-fiction and horror films, and in many ways the Theremin is absolutely appropriate because The Lost Weekend is a horror film, with an uncontrollable, two-faced monster at the center. Don falls in an accident, and awakens in the detox ward of New York City’s infamous Bellevue Hospital (Wilder secured permission to film in the actual detox ward, lending the picture tremendous authenticity). He doesn’t take the pills to ward off the DT’s, although he is warned of their effects, and he is warned of the consequences of escape: “You just hit the nearest bar and bounce right back again. What we call the quick ricochet...” During a commotion, Don recklessly slips out of the hospital, steals a bottle of booze, and returns to his apartment. Once there he experiences terrifying hallucinations (it is here where Rózsa’s Theremin really kicks in full throttle)—a rat emerges from a hole and a bat (deliberately phony looking), swoops down and snaps its neck, its blood oozing down his apartment walls—and Don, overwhelmed by the phantasmagoria he sees, howls into the night. Helen—who has been working with Don’s landlady to try and catch him while he’s home—runs in and comforts Don, but he feels that his death is imminent.

Originally, The Lost Weekend was set to end after this scene. However, the film has an upbeat coda. Don attempts suicide but is rescued by Helen. The theme of “the love of a good woman” saving a broken man is used time and again in Hollywood (and in several Best Picture winners), and it is milked to maximum effect. Don is able to start writing again, beginning by describing the whiskey bottle dangling out of his window. Wilder ends the film by panning right-to-left out the apartment window, mirroring the opening shot of the film and closing the circle of the film.

On one hand, I think the ending betrays Don’s character. No evidence is given within the film that he makes a fundamental change, and while Helen’s belief in him never wavers, I don’t know if Don ever has a moment of clarity. On the other—nothing suggests that Don will be able to stay sober either, and with Wilder choosing to end the film with a closing shot that mirrors the opening, it can be inferred that Don is never able to break the cycle. I think also, that a socially responsible choice is made by showing it is possible to overcome alcoholism. Either way, the “tacked on happy ending” can be looked at in more than one way.

The Lost Weekend represents a point in the history of Oscar-winning pictures when it became okay to have a representation of reality move and entertain audiences as much as a period epic or a feel good film. Wilder directed a frank, uncompromising and depressing film. With America coming out of WWII, it would seem natural that a sentimental, feel-good picture like Going My Way would capture the Oscar (its sequel, The Bells of St. Mary’s, was one of the five films The Lost Weekend triumphed over). With the victory of The Lost Weekend the award winning films of America looked to conquer the social issues that plagued the country. (The Lost Weekend isn’t overtly political, but Wilder, in the scene at Bellevue Hospital, includes a line where the blame for the rise of alcohol addiction in the country is placed squarely at the feet of Prohibition.) There were battles on the homefront that still needed to be fought, and Hollywood was accepting of that challenge.


The Lost Weekend (1945)

Director: Billy Wilder

Starring: Ray Milland, Jane Wyman, Philip Terry, Howard Da Silva, Doris Dowling

Studio: Paramount Pictures (though Universal now owns the rights)

Total Oscars: 4 (Best Picture, Best Director—Billy Wilder, Best Actor—Ray Milland*, Best Adapted Screenplay—Wilder and Charles Brackett) from 7 total nominations (Best B&W Cinematography, Best Editing, Best Score—Miklós Rózsa**)
*Milland gave the simplest speech ever at an Oscar ceremony—he simply bowed and walked off stage.
** Miklós Rózsa was also nominated for his Theremin heavy score in Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound . He took home the first of three Oscars for Hitchcock’s film.

NEXT BLOG: The Best Years of Our Lives

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