You see, the world looks so dirty to me when I’m not drinking Joe, remember Fisherman’s Wharf? The water when you looked too close? That’s the way the world looks to me when I’m not drinking.
–Lee Remick in “Days of Wine and Roses”
Like all sensation-center behaviors that can lead to addiction, alcohol consumption can be an escape, not from reality but from the nightmarish illusion of P-B. Ironically, alcohol used as an anesthetic numbs us to the very “feeling” that would ease our pain. Rather than an escape, drinking alcohol can lead us through the very gates of hell that we are seeking to avoid.
To further clarify the distinction between P-B and Simple Reality let us now enter the world and art of the filmmaker with the help of Journalist Stephen Whitty. Like all art forms film has evolved and become more sophisticated. So has the depiction of the drunk in films. “‘It’s hard to imagine now,’ says Stephen Whitty, ‘in a world of Twelve Steppers, enablers, substance-abuse clinics and MADD, but alcoholics were a source of fun once. In silent movies, they showed up regularly, top hats askew, to fall up a staircase or flirt myopically with statues. In screwball comedies, they ran the show. The liquor consumed in ‘The Thin Man’ and ‘Holliday’ and ‘The Philadelphia Story’ alone could float the old Queen Mary.’” The “sophisticated” drunk in those days was romanticized. It’s still part of our worldview today as we shall see.
John Furia Jr., chairman of the division of writing at USC’s School of Cinema and Television, agrees that: “Drunks and heavy drinking were seen as fun and funny and sophisticated in ‘30s Hollywood; to stand for sobriety was to align yourself with the reactionary forces that had pushed through Prohibition.” What a bunch of wet blankets!
The effect of these films on the societies’ narrative was toxic. “‘It was a drunkard’s dream,’ says Whitty, ‘the world the way they wanted to see it. It was the water at Fisherman’s Wharf, all sparkling and pretty and sweet.’” It was P-B.
Whitty continues: “So Hollywood writers such as the alcoholic Dashiell Hammett, Dorothy Parker and Robert Benchley, wrote scenes in which characters polished off seven martinis and still traded sparkling bon mots. Hollywood stars and directors, like the alcoholic Spencer Tracy, Errol Flynn, W. C. Fields and Busby Berkeley, made pictures in which tough guys held their liquor and every chorus girl had a flask of gin.”
What about the serious films, the tragedies? They tended to move closer to reality but still had a long way to go. “When talkie tragedies had an alcoholic character, they often cast him as young and weak and harmless. In this new, more modern view, alcoholics weren’t bad per se; they were bad because they couldn’t hold onto a job, or support their families. Luckily for the heroines, this sort of drunk tended to die suddenly, or kill himself, leaving her free to remarry or get on with her own career.”
So, the alcoholic for the first 50 years in film was characterized as either a villain, a comedian, or as tragic losers. Then came the Lost Weekend, “‘as brave a movie in 1945 as ‘Leaving Las Vegas’ and ‘Georgia’ are 50 years later. It was more avant-garde for its time, because at that time we didn’t speak about such things,’ says Furia. ‘There was an attempt to show a realness, and the destruction of the individual. There was a different presentation of the nature of addiction. At that time a lot of people still would have just told you, ‘Get hold of yourself, man. Straighten up.’”
Whitty agrees that: “‘The Lost Weekend,’ however, was willing to see alcoholism as a disease not a moral failing. After ‘The Lost Weekend,’ movie alcoholics had to be desperate, but charming. Their stories needed to feature a horrifying scene of the DTs, and some helpful medical information about the sickness. And, of course, the movie needed to end on a note of hope.’”
Light comedians such as Ray Milland, Jack Lemon, Michael Keaton and Meg Ryan in movies like Days of Wine and Roses, Clean and Sober and When a Man Loves a Woman played characters that had a problem, hit bottom and then solved their problems. These films were like The Lost Weekend in that “they tended to wrap everything neatly up by the final frame.”
Next, we have films depicting an aspect of the human condition closer to reality in which there are no clowns, no recovery and no happy ending. The characters in Leaving Las Vegas and Georgia hit bottom and stay there. “They don’t look like other movies because in both cases, the filmmakers were consciously exploring new territory. ‘Leaving Las Vegas’ and ‘Georgia’ go far in their portrayals of alcoholism. Perhaps we can go no farther. Perhaps the subject is too close for pure, documentary realism.”
Our inability to look at our story because it is too painful explains why we continue to act out a script that is unsustainable. We have come a long way in this relatively young art form of filmmaking but: “Even now, it seems, we don’t want to see all the dirty details. We’d like to preserve at least some fiction [and] maybe, like Lee Remick, we’re still not quite ready to see things as they are.”
References and notes are available for this essay.
Find a much more in-depth discussion in books by Roy Charles Henry.