Jack Lemmon was another early inductee into the Veronicas, and it’s his day on the site. So many people are quick to review the Lemmon’s comedic work, of which there are countless good ones! I decided to review the film that had me seeing him in a different light; as a serious dramatic actor. Days of Wine and Roses is an essential film in charting the history of alcoholism in media. The Thin Man glamorized it, The Lost Weekend demonized it, and Days of Wine and Roses finds a comfortable middle ground. Much of this has to do with the astounding performances from Lemmon and Lee Remick who connect with the audience, looking like an average American couple who wins the “lottery” of alcohol dependency. It’s far from a perfect movie, particularly in its dealings with Remick’s character by the end, but the movie lifted Lemmon into being taken seriously as a man who did more than make you laugh.
Joe Clay (Lemmon) is a public relations man who meets the naïve Kirsten Arensen (Remick). Kirsten is a teetotaler while Joe can’t spend an evening without liquor. In order to be on the same level, Kirsten takes up drinking as well. The two end up on a bleak road where one cannot stay sober while living with the other.
It’s easy to compare and contrast this with The Lost Weekend, a film I reviewed last year. In the 1940s, when The Lost Weekend came out, drinking had moved past the glamorous social pastime it became in The Thin Man series, but even then it was romanticized and stood in the place of the main character’s unspoken homosexuality. In Days of Wine and Roses, the problem is drinking and drinking alone. Joe and Kirsten are bad together when they drink, they’re bad when they’re drinking alone, and they’re bad drinking period. The highly realistic approach to events leaves you disappointed; not in the movie, but in the fact that these characters can’t end up together in spite of their happy beginnings.
Well, I shouldn’t say happy because alcohol makes itself known from the start when Joe is forced to procure women for a client and runs into Kirsten (who is one of the client’s secretaries). The audience understands the dark role drinking plays in Joe’s life; he uses it to be flirtatious and to open the door to “magic time.” He originally believes that Kirsten is a “dumb broad;” an opportunist like the other woman he’s procured countless times before. Instead, she’s a smart, bubbly, bright-eyed woman – with a touch of naïvety; not the sort of girl Joe’s met before. Unfortunately, because Kirsten is different Joe has to find a way to impress her, and he does so by turning her into an alcoholic. I hate to say that because Joe isn’t a villain; he’s a scared man who uses drinking as a crutch and believes he’s loosening Kirsten up. During their first date, Joe takes a thing that Kirsten loves (chocolate) and abuses it by turning it into something he loves (Brandy Alexanders). The script never concisely explores Joe’s creation of Kirsten into an alcoholic; we’re never sure if she would have become one eventually or not (although Joe’s sponsor, played by Jack Klugman, mentions it). From there, the couple jumps on a merry-go-round, where each forces the other to drink so they can be together.
To them, drinking is like the water in the bay. Kirsten explains that “If you look up close its filthy. I like to look out further, where it’s clean.” Neither one wants to analyze themselves and see what they truly are, so they deflect and look at the perceived “beautiful” relationship they have while drunk. Lemmon and Remick are perfection together and individually. You desperately want them to succeed because they look like the American Dream; an average couple, free of embellishments, who have such a darling rapport with each other. I’m sad that the duo never made another movie together because there’s something so normal about them that’s watchable. However, when they drink you see dark demons inside of them; some I never knew Lemmon even had. The first angry drunk we see is Joe. You know the adage that drunks don’t lie, they just tell the truth? That’s the case here. When Joe gets drunk he unearths the resentments he has about fatherhood and marriage to Kirsten. He blames the baby for “ruining” Kirsten’s shape, and preventing her from drinking (Kirsten is breastfeeding). The only way he can prevent her from being upset with his drunkenness is for her to be drunk as well; to him, it’s the only way they can bond with each other. Deep down he feels he’ll lose Kirsten to being a mother; a typical feeling in marriage.
Later on, Kirsten’s drinking becomes uncontrollable and dangerous (she sets the apartment on fire). I had mixed reactions to the drunk Kirsten becomes. Is her drinking dangerous because she’s a female, or because she’s so childlike? I go with the latter, but I’m sure an argument could be made for the former. Remick is disturbing in the role, not because she’s gorgeous but because of the various outlets she uses while drinking; she propositions her father to “kiss” her, the aforementioned house fire, all before eventually ending up in a dingy motel with the allusion that she’s been with other men. When Joe confronts her, after becoming sober, she treats it as “an accusation to her;” mimicking Joe’s angry insults from the beginning.
It’s been stated that both actors became consumed in their drunken sequences, and it shows! I can’t think of another dramatic role for Lemmon that’s been this powerful. You want to cry for both of these characters, watching how far they’re willing to debase themselves to get a drink. It’s their daughter’s first birthday and Kirsten and Joe are the ones who do all the “celebrating;” Joe eventually moseying into work hungover. Kirsten ends up turning into a bored housewife, evocative of the 1960s, with a cigarette in one hand and a drink in the other. Because the movie is Joe’s story of sobriety – you need one character to make it – the script shies away from showing the dissatisfaction and malaise of the housewives of the time. The next year would see the publication of Betty Friedan‘s groundbreaking book, The Feminine Mystique, which lifted the veil on the housewives of the period who lived “lives of quiet desperation.” Remick’s smutty hotel scene is upsetting, but the worst sequence has to be Joe’s destruction of Kirsten’s father’s (Charles Bickford) greenhouse. As Joe indiscriminately smashes pots and plants – the life’s blood of the Arensen family – you’re not watching a man; you’re witnessing the birth of a monster. And yet, Joe ends up reverting back to childhood as he finally finds the bottle and starts sucking on it like a baby. The subsequent scene has Joe in a sanitarium; wrapped up in a straitjacket in a moment that’s far more frightening than Ray Milland in The Lost Weekend.
Days of Wine and Roses is a painfully authentic movie about two people who become utterly lost to each other; swathed in the sweet embrace of alcohol. When the ending comes, and one of the characters forsakes their life for their next drink you’re left angry and tormented. Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick will baffle you while simultaneously daring you to love them.
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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.