I’m attempting to see all of director Billy Wilder‘s works who (alongside Elia Kazan) I cite as one of my favorite directors. One of Wilder’s most prominent films is the 1945 film The Lost Weekend. It’s a frequent problem for me in watching “classic” films like The Lost Weekend if I’ve seen a similar movie; so it was in watching this film. I love the 1962 Blake Edwards film Days of Wine and Roses, and much like my recent review on Born to Be Bad, I kept comparing the two which I think really lessened my enjoyment of this movie. Sure there’s some amazing moments including the mental hospital scene, and Ray Milland‘s Academy Award winning performance as the alcoholic Don Birnham, but I just didn’t find The Lost Weekend to be as “epic” as described.
Don Birnham is a writer suffering from writer’s block. He also is a full-blown alcoholic who has ruined his relationships with his brother Wick (Phillip Terry) and girlfriend Helen (Jane Wyman). Within the span of four days Don goes on a binge that will either force him to change, or claim his sanity.
The Lost Weekend is a landmark movie and I can’t begrudge the film its status. In a time where drinking was seen as funny or glamorous (look at the Charles’ of The Thin Man series), this was one of the first films to attempt to cast an eye on the dark side of alcoholism. It’s timing is even more opportune considering that with the end of WWII many men were coming home with a slew of addictions, alcoholism being one of them. So I can’t say that The Lost Weekend is a film one should avoid entirely. It definitely shows the world of an addict (and having known a few in my personal life) the character of Don Birnham is spot-on.
Ray Milland is the entire reason to be engaged in this film. The man conveys every emotion in an alcoholic; hell he exhibits the traits of an addict. This is the film that garnered Milland an Oscar nomination and I thought he was engaging throughout. He’s a man who constantly considers himself a victim, a man who doesn’t want people to judge him yet he’s compelled to feed his addiction which forces people to judge him. The film opens with him getting angry at his brother Wick for believing he won’t stay on the wagon, yet Don starts to pull up a bottle of alcohol he’s been hanging outside his window! Addicts by their nature tend to be hypocritical (in my experience) and this scene in particular would be comedic if it were in a comedy. Here though it shows how sad his life has become and that his family has every reason not to trust him. His character can be annoying and a jerk but it’s to Milland’s credit as an actor that he showcases the struggle that the character feels. The audience is supposed to sympathize with him to a point. There’s a definite turning point where I felt I couldn’t give Don the benefit of the doubt and wanted him to either quit drinking or leave his family in peace.
The subject of drinking is presented as a common, everyday enjoyment in our society (which has endured to this day). As the movie progresses Don is constantly surrounded by liquid whether it’s alcohol or in the dialogue of other character. Friends constantly bring up Don’s drinking and Wick even mentions Don will soon be able to drink “safe” liquids (coffee, milk) once they’re on vacation. Don even goes to see a play where everyone is standing around, drinking (again mimicking The Thin Man). The very idea of a beverage, no matter what, seems to invade Don’s mind and compel him to seek refuge in alcohol further.
They say that one is an addict when a person doesn’t get enjoyment out of their addiction, they simply need it to function and we see that with Don. Drinking doesn’t give him enjoyment like it did before. He mentions in a conversation to Helen that drinking once gave him confidence, that he could do more while drunk than sober, yet this scene comes later in the film during Don’s need to rationalize his addiction. In the beginning when Don first goes to the bar he tells the bartender he doesn’t want any expensive, “aged” alcohol; liquor’s “all one brand anyone.” Most people want expensive vintages or brands but no, Don knows he drinks to get drunk and why lie.
I think that’s what I found most enjoyable and accurate about the script, written by Charles Brackett, how drinking is glamorized in society. When Don first meets Helen and she discovers he drinks she laughs it off and says “You’re not an embezzler, you’re not a murderer. You drink, it’s not fatal.” What’s distressing is that even she is unaware of the dark side of drinking (even sadder considering more than a few Hollywood stars have met their ends because of alcohol). The question of the film becomes “What is the limit?” How far does one have to go to be labeled an alcoholic? The bartender character makes an excellent observation when he says Don’s drinking philosophy is “one’s too many and 100’s not enough.” Wherever Don goes there are bars; drinking is seen as commonplace, fashionable even. How can Don be to blame for following what society dictates is what people do to relieve tension or have fun? By the end of the film it becomes a struggle for Don to get out of bed or leave his house.
Furthermore, the movie doesn’t answer the questions of what Don is supposed to do (I love movies that don’t present an ending wrapped in a bow). The problem seems to lie in the fact that alcoholism isn’t spoken aloud. Wick is cavalier about saying his brother “is a hopeless alcoholic,” and the rest of the neighborhood seems to know as evidenced by a woman walking by and describing Don as “the nice man who drinks too much” but it’s not something that’s spoken aloud. That’s essentially what the movie itself is, opening up the taboo subject and making it something to discuss with others.
The film hits its chilling climax when Don details his drinking to Helen and Wick and it opens them up to Don’s mindset. In describing his life of alcoholism Don becomes manic, almost entering the madness or delirium of drunkenness only pushed to the brink. When he starts to describe voices in his head, and particularly in the DT’s scene of small animals coming at him, his alcoholism mimics schizophrenia or other mental illnesses. The fact that alcoholism is stronger in those genetically predisposed to it makes the mental illness symbolism defined. The asylum sequence impersonates a horror movie as its shot with little light, shadows, and patients maniacally laughing and screaming. It’s a bit over-the-top but as the audience is meant to see it from Don’s viewpoint it makes sense.
I didn’t find the supporting cast to be on the same level as Milland. Phillip Terry was good as Wick but there’s nothing more to Wick’s character than the disapproving brother. I seem to know Jane Wyman’s personal biography better than her filmography but this would be the first film I’ve seen her in. She’s gorgeous all right but I found Helen to be too whiny. She’s one of those “I hate that I love you” type of characters who Don treats bad but she let’s him off the hook. Wyman is left to work with what she’s got.
Before I end this review I have to discuss this alongside Days of Wine and Roses. DWR (as it will be known) follows a couple played by Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick as they devolve deeper into alcoholism. I think what made me love that film so much is the dynamic between Remick and Lemmon’s characters. Remick was a teetotaler propelled to drink to impress Lemmon, whereas Lemmon was already a bit too friendly with booze. By the end you don’t know how these two will repair their relationship. The fact you see two people suffering, as opposed to one makes the connection stronger. And the fact that they equate Don’s drinking with mental illness in this could imply that all drinkers are mentally ill. Whereas in DWR that’s not the case. Either way both are amazing in their own right, but I do prefer Days of Wine and Roses.
The Lost Weekend is a seminal film in history and presents a sobering (pun not intended) portrait of an alcoholic. Ray Milland is astounding! I just don’t know if I consider it as fantastic as it’s often claimed. I recommend watching this alongside Days of Wine and Roses and making your own decision. Also something to consider while watching this: Originally Cary Grant was offered the role of Don Birnham and he turned it down. I’d have personally loved that!
A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.