Today’s post is a contribution to the 31 Days of Oscar Blogathon, hosted by three great gals, dedicated fans of classic movies. Please visit their sites to read other great posts covering all things Academy Awards: Once Upon a Screen, Outspoken and Freckled, and Paula’s Cinema Club.
When I learned about the annual Oscar Blogathon, I knew I wanted to participate again. This time I decided to write about a specific Best Picture winner and I chose 1945’s The Lost Weekend. I scoured for an online source in order to re-watch it, but struck out with that source. I checked our Netflix and Amazon sites, via our Roku box, and again, struck out! The local Family Video store didn’t have it. I finally went to Rolla’s Public Library and bless them-they had the newest dvd of it!! I settled into our comfy tv room, popped that movie into the dvd and became mesmerized again by this bleakest of dramatic offerings. If you are not familiar with The Lost Weekend, it is a realistic look at an alchoholic and his horrific weekend, seeking out alchohol, and the broken relationships and self-harm he leaves in his wake.
Hollywood, from early silent films until 1944, usually depicted an alchoholic character as a comedic, bumbling joke. However, in 1944, writer Charles Jackson wrote his first best-selling novel, The Lost Weekend, an autobiographical, unflinching look at the horrors of being an alchoholic. Jackson’s novel was published in early 1944 and that spring, director Billy Wilder was on a train trip from LA to NYC and while on a layover in Chicago, he bought Jackson’s novel. Wilder was so enthalled with the book that he stayed up all night reading the book, re-reading it, and taking notes. When Wilder arrived in NYC, he quickly contacted Paramount Production Head Buddy De Sylva, and told him that The Lost Weekend was to be Wilder’s next movie, so please quickly buy the rights! De Sylva had heard about the book and he had a lot of doubts that any movie about an alchoholic could be a financial success, but lucky for Wilder, the rights were purchased.
Wilder set to work. His friend and collaborator Charles Brackett agreed to help write the screenplay and agreed to be the film’ s producer. Now to find the lead actor. Wilder was interested in having Jose Ferrer, currently getting raves on Broadway, to play the lead role of Don Birnum. De Sylva nixed that idea as Ferrer wasn’t that well-known. The scuttlebut in Hollywood was that any actor who agreed to play the lead would be committing career suicide. Wilder knew that that wouldn’t be the case and even said, “Not only did I know it was going to make a good picture, I also knew that the guy who was going to play the drunk was going to get the Academy Award!” In 1942, Wilder had been allowed to direct his first movie, a romance comedy, The Major and the Minor. The lead actor in that film, Ray Milland, had worked well with Wilder and so he was asked to consider the lead in The Lost Weekend. Milland gladly accepted the challenge that this role would provide his career.
One tiny production problem popped up: Milland didn’t drink alchohol! He didn’t know what it was to be drunk or to be craving a drink. The actor turned to the author, Charles Jackson, for advice on the inner mind of the alchoholic, how to act drunk, and Milland also decided to stay for 24 hours at Bellevue Hospital, in NYC, in the drunk ward. He went incognito as a patient, and during the night, a new patient was ushered into the drunk ward. The patient was agitated and began howling and since he wouldn’t settle down, the staff had to come and try to restrain him. Milland decided he had had enough so he left the hospital during this commotion but forgot about grabbing his street clothes. A cop saw him as he exited Bellevue, still wearing the robe patients were given at that time to wear, and the cop nabbed Milland and took him back inside the hospital! It took Milland a good chunk of his time to finally convince the officer and the hospital that he was really there just to do research for an upcoming movie role! Also, a few weeks prior to the film’s start date, Milland decided to go on a crash diet. He figured that an alcoholic probably doesn’t concern him or herself with eating 3 nutritious meals a day, so he lived on hard-boiled eggs, dry toast, grapefruit juice, and black coffee. Milland went from his normal weight of 168 lbs. down to 160 lbs.
Katherine Hepburn was shown the script to possibly sign her on as Helen St. James, Don Birnum’s long-suffering girlfriend. Hepburn was intrigued by the script but was already preparing to shoot another movie and wasn’t going to be available to work on The Lost Weekend. Jean Arthur was then offered the role but she turned it down. That led to discussions, of hiring an ingenue, and Brackett contacted Jack Warner, head of Warner Brothers, about letting them borrow Jane Wyman. Warner agreed and Wyman got her chance to have her name above the title, and to also play in a more dramatic part then she had ever done before.
Rounding out the cast were the very capable Phillip Terry, as Wick Burnham, Don’s long-suffering brother, Howard Da Silva as Nat, the owner and bartender of Nat’s, Don’s favorite bar, Doris Dowling as Gloria, a flirt who hangs out at Nat’s and has a huge crush on Don, Frank Faylen as Bim, the male nurse who explains the reality of being an alcoholic to Don when he is at Bellevue. Lilian Fontaine(mom of Olivia de Haviland and Joan Fontaine) has a small part as Helen’s mom and Lewis L. Russell plays her father. William Newell also has a bit part as a liquor store owner whom Don robs for a quart of rye. Gordon Jennings is good as the opera house’s coat room clerk who won’t let Don search for his coat when he is handed Helen’s by mistake, and Douglas Spencer-better known as reporter Scotty in The Thing From Another World, is quite good as an alchoholic with a horrible case of the dt’s, sharing the drunk ward with Don.
The Lost Weekend begins on a Thursday afternoon, with a wonderful opening shot of New York City, a long view of the tall buildings as they sweep by our eyes. It must be spring or fall, as we see apartment buildings with opened windows, curtains billowing in the breeze. We meet the characters that tell us the story of this weekend, which begins on a Thursday afternoon and ends on a Monday morning. There is Wick Burnham. the sensible brother, but he’s getting so very tired of trying to help his brother Don dry out. He lets Don share his apartment, but pays all of the rent, the utilities, pays for their food, because Don, who aspires to be a writer, has no job. Don’s girlfriend is Helen St. James. A sweet lady, who left behind a loving home in Toledo, Ohio to make her way in the exciting environs of NYC. Helen works at Time magazine and often is given tickets to the theatre or opera. We see in a flashback that the opera is where she met Don, over a mixing up of their coat check tickets. Helen is sweet, honest, tough, and not willing to give up on Don or the possible future they could have together.
At Nat’s bar, we meet Nat. He’s a good-natured guy, but not one to push around. He sees the downward spiral Don is in and tries to counsel him to get help, especially since Don has that nice St. James lady who loves him. Also at Nat’s is Gloria. A very pretty gal, who is very attracted to Don and lets him know it. She doesn’t seem to understand that he is an alchoholic, and is ready to loan him some cash when he visits her apartment, desperate for money. It is here that Don has a horrible fall down a flight of stairs that lands him at Bellevue.
Then there is Don, the main character of this story. Milland really gave a tour de force performance. We can see glimpses of the jovial and charming man that Don Birnum could be. We see the huge frustrations and desperation in his eyes when he can’t find anymore hidden bottles of liquor in the apartment, or when there isn’t anymore money to buy that quart of rye. We see his fear at waking up in Bellevue’s drunk ward, not knowing where he is at first and then being caustically lectured by Bim, the head male nurse, as to what he sees all the time in dealing with alcoholics. Echoing those horrors is Don’s own experience of the dt’s or delirious tremens, when he thinks he sees a mouse that has chewed a hole in the wall of the apartment, only to be attacked by a bat and blood running down the wall! Milland looks hagard, ill, is unshaven and sweats profusely. He staggers around NYC and in one scene, he practically cries out to some businessmen why are the pawn shops closed??? Don’t they realize he has to pawn his typewriter for money??? When he is told it’s because of Yom Kippur that the stores are closed, he looks devasted, like he’s lost his last friend and there won’t be anymore in his lifetime.
Miklos Rozsa needs to also be mentioned due to his musical contributions to the score. When test audiences saw the film in California, they didn’t like it. Rozsa noticed that a jazzy, George Gershwin type of tone was being used in different scenes and he told Wilder that he thought musically that that was the wrong approach. Wilder told him to come up with another musical score and Rozsa did. He used the instrument, the theremin, whenever Don was having one of his alcoholic crises. That sound immediately gave the movie an other worldly feel, to symbolize that the alcoholic’s world isn’t normal. You can hear that sound for yourself in this clip from Youtube, the movie’s trailer. The theremin is apparent at the 23 second mark.
After The Lost Weekend was seen by the American movie going public, and the movie viewers abroad, it cleaned up nicely in the awards categories for 1945. Billy Wilder and Ray Milland won Best Director and Best Actor, and the movie won Best Picture from the New York Film Critics Circle. Milland won Best Actor from the National Board of Review. At Cannes, Milland won Best Actor and Wilder won the Grand Prize. The Lost Weekend won the Golden Globe for Best Dramatic Film, Milland for Best Actor, and Wilder for Best Director. For the Academy Awards, The Lost Weekend had garnered 7 nominations: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Writing(screenplay), Cinematography, Music, and Editing. It won 4 Oscars: Best Actor, Best Director, Best Writing, and Best Picture. Since Wilder had also co-written the screenplay, he actually won two Oscars for The Lost Weekend. As Milland took the stage to accept his award, emcee Bob Hope joked that Milland’s Oscar was hidden away in a ceiling light, as that was one place Don Birnum had hidden a liquor bottle in the film!
If you have never seen The Lost Weekend, do find it and view it. It really is a remarkable feat in the motion picture arts and was added in 2011 to the National Film Preservation Board.
Credited articles that helped in the writing of this blog topic: “Weekend in the Sun”, Bailey, Blake. March, 2013, Vanity Fair.
“Why The Lost Weekend is Essential”, McGee, Scott. Turner Classic Movies website.