#398) The Lost Weekend (1945)
OR “My Name Is Don B.”
Directed by Billy Wilder
Written by Wilder and Charles Brackett. Based on the novel by Charles R. Jackson
Class of 2011
The Plot: Over the course of six days, New York writer Don Birnam (Ray Milland) avoids his brother Wick (Phillip Terry) and girlfriend Helen (Jane Wyman) and succumbs to his chronic alcoholism. While confiding in bartender Nat (Howard Da Silva), we learn that Don’s drinking comes from his writer’s block and fear of failure. After a traumatizing night in Bellevue’s alcoholic ward, can Don control his demons? And is Hollywood ready for a serious look at alcoholics that doesn’t resort to cartoon stereotypes?
Why It Matters: The NFR praises the film for its “uncompromising look at the devastating effects of alcoholism” and cites “Lost Weekend” as the movie that “established [Billy Wilder] as one of America’s leading filmmakers.”
But Does It Really?: This is another one of Wilder’s “minor classics”: a triumph at the time, but Wilder’s best work was still ahead of him. Naturally, the film’s direction and screenplay are flawless, and while the film isn’t the emotional gut-punch it was in 1945, it still has enough powerful moments and prescient comments about alcoholism to warrant a view today. A pass for “Lost Weekend”, the key turning point in Billy Wilder’s legendary career.
Everybody Gets One: Alfred Reginald Jones chose the stage name Raymond (later Ray) Milland after being inspired by the mill lands he grew up near in Wales. By the end of the 1930s, Milland was one of Paramount’s top leading men, known for his romance and adventure pictures. Playing a dramatic role like Don intimidated Milland, but he recognized the chance to play against-type. To prepare for Don, Milland went on a crash diet, spent a night in Bellevue, and learned the hard way that he didn’t have the stomach for heavy drinking.
Wow, That’s Dated: Alcoholism is still very much a serious issue, but thankfully the stigma behind it has lessened in the last 75 years, and treatment has vastly improved beyond the “cold turkey” practices of this movie. Side note: AA was around in 1945, but wasn’t the nationwide powerhouse it is today.
Seriously, Oscars?: Despite pushback from Paramount, the Hays office, and the liquor industry, “The Lost Weekend” was a hit, and received seven Oscar nominations (one behind that year’s front-runner “The Bells of St. Mary’s”). “Lost Weekend” took home four big ones: Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, and Actor for Ray Milland. Miklós Rózsa’s score lost to…Miklos Rózsa’s score for “Spellbound”, though Rózsa always felt his “Lost Weekend” composition was better.
- Billy Wilder was inspired to make “Lost Weekend” during “Double Indemnity”, seeing the effect Raymond Chandler’s drinking had on the production. The movie is more or less faithful to the novel, except for the removal of a homosexual experience Don had in college; his repressed homosexuality being another reason for his drinking (shades of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof”).
- Miklos Rózsa’s score was among the first in Hollywood to prominently feature the Theremin. Known for its eerie, electronic sound, the Theremin was used in “Lost Weekend” to represent Don’s illness. The Theremin became a staple of ‘50s sci-fi soundtracks, making its use here sound retroactively out of place. It sounds like the aliens are in Don’s head!
- I didn’t realize Ray Milland is Welsh, which explains why he sounds like low-rent Cary Grant. Is he even attempting an American accent?
- Nat the bartender does a lot of enabling for Don and his drinking. Surely bartenders have their own version of “First do no harm”.
- Ooh, a flashback. And back when you had to set up a flashback with a pan-dissolve and dialogue like “I remember when we first met…”. Today you could just cut to the flashback and make the audience piece it together.
- For those of you playing along, that’s the Drinking Song from “La Traviata”.
- “You drink too much, and that’s not fatal.” Umm…yes it is?
- For added realism, Wilder filmed several travelling shots of Milland on the actual streets of New York, with a camera crew hidden in a truck. Allegedly one such shot was ruined when a passerby recognized Milland and asked for an autograph.
- “One’s too many and a hundred’s not enough.” There’s your movie in a nutshell. This is followed by the film’s most heartbreaking shot: Don being so impaired from drinking he can’t even lift the shot glass, resorting to sipping the glass like an animal.
- “The Lost Weekend” was the first movie permitted to film at the real alcoholics ward in Bellevue. After its striking appearance here, the hospital denied all future productions permission to film there. And I get it; this movie makes it appear that Bellevue is run by antagonistic nurses and inefficient security.
- Shoutout to Milland’s performance. He makes sure you see the glimmer of Don’s sober charm, making it all the more devastating when he becomes a desperate drunk. Also worth shouting out is Jane Wyman’s work as Helen, a woman who supports the leading man without it being her sole defining trait. Wilder and Brackett were always good at writing strong, dimensional female leads.
- Things get a bit meta at the end, where Don decides to make his lost weekend the subject of his novel “The Bottle”. I wonder if the film version of that is any good…
- “The Lost Weekend” opened the door for more films to seriously tackle alcoholism. “Days of Wine and Roses” and “Leaving Las Vegas” immediately come to mind.
- Billy Wilder’s directing career picked up after “Lost Weekend”, and he and longtime partner Charles Brackett collaborated on three more screenplays before their falling out during production of “Sunset Blvd.”
- While Ray Milland never repeated his “Lost Weekend” acclaim, he remained in-demand on film and television for the rest of his life. Highlights include “Dial ‘M’ for Murder”, “Love Story”, and that one where he shares a body with Rosey Grier.
- “Lost Weekend” has become a cultural shorthand for either someone’s alcoholic bender, or for extended time “off the grid”. Wilder gives the phrase a shoutout in “The Apartment”.
- Several scenes of Ray Milland from the film were repurposed in the Steve Martin comedy “Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid”.
- There have been two remakes of “The Lost Weekend”, both of them TV productions in the mid-‘50s. Surely it’s time to squeeze a few extra dollars out of this IP.