THE LOST WEEKEND (1945)

The Lost WeekendThe Lost Weekend had me gnashing my teeth simply because it was such an adept, uncomfortable depiction of alcoholism. Walking with Don Birnam (lead character) throughout his day as he makes bad choice after bad choice allows us as viewers to slip into his quiet desperation, a desperation that is given more voice as his resources become slim. It becomes apparent quickly that Don’s worst enemy is himself, and his weekend-long binge serves as a summation for the past six years of his life. I tried to think of other movies I have seen that have so strictly focused on the pain of alcohol addiction, particularly through the lens of one individual, and I couldn’t think of another quite like this. The story line does not cut away from Don – thus we are offered no respite, and must go to sleep and wake up with the albatross around his neck.

Have you noticed that all of our movies so far have featured scenes with drinking? We may have figured out the secret to an Oscar winner. Drinking isn’t featured in the plot this time; it is the plot. This is a character study of a very sick man, maybe the first such portrayal. The only previous films I could find that specifically address addiction were preposterous cautionary films about illicit drugs like Reefer Madness. The Lost Weekend provides a much more sensitive and realistic portrayal. I can think of alcoholism (or what we now call alcoholism) being presented as a sociological problem or as a shortcoming of character much earlier, but at what point did it come to be regarded as an illness? My guess would be that the development of this view coincided with the growing practice of psychology. If so, the time would be just right in 1945 for a film depicting this infirmity. Indeed, at a certain point, the film’s action moves to a mental hospital.

It’s difficult to watch, to say the least. As a person who is herself just cresting the five-year sobriety mark, seeing an honest depiction of alcohol abuse can feel like a punch in the gut. I couldn’t look away, though, because this film almost gets it right. The havoc that addiction wreaks on relationships is crystal clear in our protagonist’s life – both with his girlfriend and his brother. In the first scene, Don is preparing to leave for a trip out of town with his brother Wick. His girlfriend Helen stops by on her way to a show, and Don encourages Wick to join her. It is revealed that he is doing so to get them both out of the house and drink rye whiskey from a rope hanging from the window. The quiet desperation and deception of this set the tone for the whole film. He’s discovered later, and Helen tries everything she can to make sure Wick watches over Don while she has to work. This dynamic hit home for me – I’ve been close to people for whom alcoholism constituted a legitimate disability. And I’ve rarely seen it depicted so realistically in film.

While I appreciated the depiction of Don’s sickness, and its effect on those close to him, the narrative of the film was one of the weaker aspects. True, we’re mostly seeing a slice of a man’s life as he hits bottom, but after the crushingly grim first 95 minutes, the positive resolution at the end just struck a chord out of key. Are we supposed to believe he is on a path to sobriety? I’m not convinced. Another component I was never sold on was his relationship with Helen. Why has she stuck by a man who is so very dysfunctional? Maybe she has reasons, but I don’t remember seeing any of them in the film. Compare this with the relationship with his brother. (We know he is the responsible one from the start- he wears eyeglasses.) As his flesh and blood, Wick supports Don, covers for his mistakes and eventually bends to the point of breaking. Helen, on the other hand, just seems like a plot device, a loving girlfriend who just won’t give up on Don, just won’t give up because…that’s her job in the movie.

I have to disagree a little on Helen’s devotion. Abusers and addicts can be some of the most compelling, heart-wrenching people you meet. He cements Helen to him by explaining his personal hell early on. I’d imagine she has a sense of pride in the pedestal he has put her on as a person able to pull him out of the darkness. Sometimes, we can get addicted to the feeling of being a hero – and it is incredibly dangerous and misguided. The part of the film that I was not sold on, though, was the end. After failed attempt after failed attempt to get sober and get his life together, one chance event (the return of his lost  typewriter to his house) and a two-minute conversation with Helen gets him straight. This is unbelievable. The movie resolves cheaply; and sadly, this makes Helen’s devotion seem prudent.

The saving grace of the weak resolution is the film’s coda, where Don reflects not only on his own thoughts, but contemplates how many others share his story. Probably quite a few, considering how often the movies have revisited the theme of addiction over and over, in the years since The Lost Weekend.

Next film: ROCKY (1976)

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