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The Lost Weekend(1945)

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teaser The Lost Weekend (1945)

SYNOPSIS

Don Birnam (Ray Milland) is a struggling writer. Everyday he bangs away at his typewriter, trying to compose something he can sell to meet the rent, and to keep his creativity alive. But instead of completing pages of manuscript, Don is only adept at finishing off bottles of liquor. Burdened with a severe case of writer's block, he turns to alcohol for inspiration and emotional support. Wick (Phillip Terry), Don's brother, tries to bring his sibling back from the abyss of alcoholic despair. Even the protestations of Don's girlfriend, Helen (Jane Wyman), are not enough to stop the writer's descent into a black hole from which he may never return.

Producer: Charles Brackett
Director: Billy Wilder
Screenplay: Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder, based on the novel by Charles R. Jackson
Cinematography: John F. Seitz
Film Editing: Doane Harrison
Art Direction: Hans Dreier, A. Earl Hedrick
Music: Miklos Rozsa
Principal Cast: Ray Milland (Don Birnam), Jane Wyman (Helen St. James), Phillip Terry (Wick Birnam), Howard Da Silva (Nat), Doris Dowling (Gloria), Frank Faylen ("Bim" Nolan), Mary Young (Mrs. Deveridge).
BW-101m. Closed Captioning.

Why THE LOST WEEKEND Is Essential

The mark of The Lost Weekend on American cinema was a lasting one, due in no small part to its controversial content and subject matter. But they say timing is everything, and when a movie that grapples with the subject of alcoholism shows up at the nation's theaters just as World War II is wrapping up, the cliche proves to be true. Americans fighting in Europe and the Pacific saw and experienced unprecedented inhumanity and violence. Thousands of returning soldiers suffered nightmares, trouble in their relationships, and difficulty in adjusting to civilian life. The premise that a talented man, such as Don Birnam, could seek comfort and confirmation for his own shaky self-confidence in the bottom of a liquor bottle was not too far-fetched for returning G.I.s. Thousands of them sought hard drink to drown out the din of combat and the loss of former comrades who did not return from the front. Many industry insiders were afraid that the relatively young director Billy Wilder (The Lost Weekend was his fourth directorial effort) and his movie would cross the line of proper subject matter for popular entertainment. Wilder and company did cross the line, only to prove that difficult or challenging content could be artfully and entertainingly created for a mass audience.

The issue of alcoholism affecting the lives of returning G.I.s can be found in director William Wyler's The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), particularly in Fredric March's character, a good man who is beginning to develop a drinking problem. Although Wyler's film doesn't sidestep the problems of alcohol dependency, it was The Lost Weekend that made the disease the central focus of the story and not a subplot, finally bringing the issue front stage and center for American moviegoers. The film was also the first to treat drinking seriously and not play it for laughs. Gone were the inebriated Nick and Nora Charles of The Thin Man movies. Gone was the laughter inspired by W.C. Fields imbibing a snifter of liquor in his coat pocket. Any laughter emanating from viewers of The Lost Weekend was ironic at best.

Billy Wilder also brought his appreciation of German expressionism to a melodrama that accurately conveyed the lead character's state of mind. German expressionist cinema was a highly visual approach to the medium that allowed filmmakers to present disturbed, insane, or alienated characters through warped surroundings or distorted camera angles. Some classic examples include The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) and M (1931). The film noir period in Hollywood also employed expressionist techniques to convey the menace of the city, while also showing the protagonist's point of view, such as detective Philip Marlowe (Dick Powell) in Murder, My Sweet (1944). Wilder was no stranger to noir, having directed one of the most important films in the genre, Double Indemnity (1944). But it was with The Lost Weekend that Wilder used German expressionism - not so much to show the corrupting influence of the city - but to show the psychological turmoil raging in Don Birnam's head.

By Scott McGee

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teaser The Lost Weekend (1945)

The ending to The Lost Weekend was certainly a "happy" one on the surface, but Billy Wilder left it ambiguous in one respect. As Wilder himself put it, "We don't say that the man is cured. We just try to suggest that if he can lick his illness long enough to put some words down on paper, then there must be some hope."

Later movies would capitalize on the new ground broken by The Lost Weekend. Smash Up, the Story of a Woman (1947), I'll Cry Tomorrow (1955), Days of Wine and Roses (1962), and many others all contributed in their own way to educating moviegoers about the problem of alcoholism.

Filmmaker Roman Polanski paid homage to the infamous bat and mouse sequence from The Lost Weekend in a scene in Repulsion (1965). Joel and Ethan Coen alluded to the film's bizarre, German expressionistic imagery in their nightmarish masterpiece, Barton Fink (1991).

Bob Hope quipped on finding a hidden liquor bottle in My Favorite Brunette (1947), "Ray Milland's been here."

By Scott McGee

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teaser The Lost Weekend (1945)

In order to avoid real intoxication on the set, iced tea was substituted for the hard stuff during the shooting of Milland's scenes in The Lost Weekend.

The legendary saloon, P.J. Clarke's, on New York City's Third Avenue, was reconstructed down to the smallest detail on Paramount's stage five. Promptly at 5:00 p.m. everyday, humorist, writer and New York aesthete Robert Benchley would walk through the stage door and saunter up to the fake bar. Actor Howard Da Silva, playing the bartender, would unearth a real bottle of bourbon, pour a shot, followed by Benchley belting said shot down before departing the stage. Apparently, the precise detail of the reconstructed saloon was too much for the native New Yorker to resist.

Phillip Terry, the actor playing Ray Milland's brother, was married to Joan Crawford at the time. Coincidentally, Crawford won the Best Actress Oscar for her work in Mildred Pierce (1945), the same year Milland won for The Lost Weekend.

The character of Mrs. St. James is played by screen newcomer Lillian Fontaine, mother of Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine.

Ray Milland's Oscar-winning role was the pinnacle of his career, but it also became a thorn in his side; he was the butt of alcohol jokes for years, starting on Oscar night. When Milland accepted his Oscar, emcee Bob Hope cracked, "I'm surprised they just handed it to him. I thought they'd hide it in the chandelier." When going out with his wife, Milland was accosted by drinkers who wanted to score him some drinks so that they could watch him fall over in a drunken stupor. He was also hounded by drunks looking for help in overcoming their addiction.

Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett decided to add a personal touch to Don Birnam's apartment by decorating the set walls with pictures of themselves. A three-year-old Wilder poses with his brother; Brackett, age two, stands in front of a Christmas tree with his mother. Unfortunately, they are impossible to see when watching the film itself.

FAMOUS QUOTES FROM THE LOST WEEKEND (1945)

Don Birnam: It shrinks the liver, doesn't it, Nat? It pickles my kidneys, yeah. But what does it do to my mind? It tosses the sandbags overboard so the balloon can sail. Suddenly I'm above the ordinary. I'm competent. I'm walking a tightrope over Niagara Falls. I'm one of the great ones. I'm Michelangelo, molding the beard of Moses. I'm Van Gogh, painting pure sunlight. I'm Horowitz, playing the Emperor Concerto. I'm John Barrymore before the movies got him by the throat. I'm W. Shakespeare. And out there is not Third Avenue anymore - it's the Nile, Nat, the Nile - and down it moves the barge of Cleopatra.

Don Birnam: Don Birnam died this weekend - of shame, the DTs, moral anemia. He wanted to kill himself.

Don Birnam: Most men lead lives of quiet desperation. I can't take "quiet desperation."

Don Birnam: What I'm trying to say is, I'm not a drinker. I'm a drunk.

Don Birnam: There are two Don Birnams. Don the drunk and Don the writer - I've tried to break away from that guy a lot of times, but it's no good - that other Don always wants us to have a drink.

Don Birnam: The way I stood there, packing my suitcase. Only my mind wasn't on the suitcase and it wasn't on the weekend. Nor was it on the shirts I was putting in the suitcase either. My mind was hanging outside the window. It was suspended just about eighteen inches below. And out there in that great big concrete jungle, I wonder how many others there are like me. Those poor bedeviled guys on fire with thirst. Such comical figures to the rest of the world as they stagger blindly towards another binge, another bender, another spree.

Compiled by Scott McGee

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teaser The Lost Weekend (1945)

Even though Billy Wilder was quite content with Ray Milland as the lead in The Lost Weekend, his first choice for the role had been Jose Ferrer. Wilder had just seen the actor as Iago opposite Paul Robeson in a Broadway production of Othello. But because the project was so much against the grain of Hollywood's usual fare, Paramount said audiences would reject the lead character, not to mention the movie, if he was not played by a well-known actor. So Milland was chosen over the lesser-known Ferrer.

Ray Milland had been a popular matinee idol for several years in Hollywood, making his mark in romantic comedies and adventure films, so the decision to cast him in The Lost Weekend was a surprise to many, especially him. Milland was given the Charles Jackson novel to read by Paramount chief Buddy De Sylva, with a note attached reading: "Read it. Study it. You're going to play it." Milland read it, and was struck by its dramatic dimensions as a social document, but he could not see much of a film in the bleak story, nor could some of his friends and associates. If Milland took on the role, they felt he would be committing professional suicide. On top of that, Milland doubted he had the acting chops to pull it off, but his wife encouraged him to take a chance. Additionally, Milland was tempted to star in the film because Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett were currently riding high from previous successes. So the actor finally agreed to appear in what would become his most famous role.

To achieve the gaunt, haggard look of a drunk on a whopper of a bender, Ray Milland went on a crash diet of dry toast, coffee, grapefruit juice and boiled eggs, and subsequently took off many pounds. Not a heavy drinker, Milland even tried getting drunk, but he usually ended up on his knees in a bathroom.

Ray Milland actually checked himself into Bellevue Hospital with the help of resident doctors, in order to experience the horror of a drunk ward. Milland was given an iron bed and he was locked inside the "booze tank." He recalled in his autobiography, Wide-Eyed in Babylon, "The place was a multitude of smells, but the dominant one was that of a cesspool. And there were the sounds of moaning, and quiet crying. One man talked incessantly, just gibberish, and two of the inmates were under restraint, strapped to their beds." That night, a new arrival came into the ward screaming, an entrance which ignited the whole ward into hysteria. With the ward falling into bedlam, a robed and barefooted Milland escaped while the door was ajar and slipped out onto 34th Street where he tried to hail a cab. When a suspicious cop spotted him, Milland tried to explain, but the cop didn't believe him, especially after he noticed the Bellevue insignia on his robe. The actor was dragged back to Bellevue where it took him a half-hour to explain his situation to the authorities before he was finally released.

After director Billy Wilder learned of Milland's nightmare, he gleefully employed the same ward for his Bellevue scenes. Of course, the administration at Bellevue was not happy with the negative depiction of the hospital and vowed never to cooperate with Hollywood again. In fact, director George Seaton ran into a brick wall when he wanted to use Bellevue for scenes in Miracle on 34th Street (1947). Said Seaton, "The hospital manager practically threw me out because he was still mad at himself for having given Wilder permission to shoot at the hospital."

Milland's extracurricular research once landed him in an embarrassing spot. During his trek down Third Avenue to pawn his typewriter, Milland, who had perfected a deathly-ill appearance for the role, stopped to look into a window. At that moment, two friends of Milland's wife spotted him and mistook him for a real drunk. Both friends dutifully reported back to their Hollywood contacts that Ray Milland was drinking himself to death. Gossip columns soon placed items in the West Coast papers reporting the news tidbit, prompting Milland's wife to call him, telling him that he had better set the record straight. Paramount's publicity department was soon working overtime trying to correct the misunderstanding.

In an effort to the make the unrelenting story more bearable, Brackett and Wilder added a love interest for Don Birnam in the script. Katharine Hepburn was offered the relatively small role and her curiosity was piqued, but the timing was all wrong, since she was due to start filming Without Love (1945) with Spencer Tracy. After Jean Arthur nixed the idea too, the producers went after Warner Bros. contract starlet, Jane Wyman. Jack Warner was glad to loan Wyman to Paramount for what he called "that drunk film." The Lost Weekend was to be Wyman's first movie on which she received co-star billing above the title. Moreover, Wyman earned a great deal of recognition for her acting ability, after years of playing light romantic comedies.

Doris Dowling was cast as the tempting siren Gloria in The Lost Weekend. It marked the chorus girl's first movie role, and the beginning of her affair with Billy Wilder, who was on the verge of a divorce from his wife. However, Wilder later became infatuated by a brunette extra who was hired to play a coat check girl in the scene where Don Birnam gets thrown out of a bar for stealing money from a woman's purse. It proved to be a non-role for the extra, since only her arm can be seen giving a coat to Birnam, but no matter. The extra's name was Audrey Young, and she eventually married the smitten director. After so many other Hollywood marriages hit the rocks or the ashcan of history, Billy and Audrey Wilder are still married to this day.

When The Lost Weekend was given its first public showing at a sneak preview in Santa Barbara, California, the audience reaction to the intense film was not good. The audience laughed. Wilder recalled, "The people laughed from the beginning. They laughed when Birnam's brother found the bottle outside the window, they laughed when he emptied the whiskey into the sink." The theater lost viewers like a broken sieve. Preview cards were handed out, and the opinions of the flick ranged from "disgusting" to "boring." Wilder even claimed that one patron left the theater proclaiming, "I've sworn off. Never again." "You'll never drink again?" he was asked. "No, I'll never see another picture again." Another preview card said that the movie was great, but that all the "stuff about drinking and alcoholism" should be omitted!

After the negative response to the controversial picture, some Paramount executives were ready to cut their losses, but studio president Barney Balaban said, "Once we make a picture, we don't just flush it down the toilet!" Balaban was right, there was still some room for major improvements in the picture, particularly in the music department. Composer Miklos Rozsa thought that the temporary music score, which was in the George Gershwin vein, was the chief reason for the unexpected reactions. Rozsa got the green light from Wilder and Brackett to bring to the soundtrack some experimentation with the eerie sounds of the electronic instrument known as the theremin.

While the fate of The Lost Weekend hung in the balance, the liquor industry made a move to have the film's negative destroyed. With gangster Frank Costello serving as their broker, the liquor industry made a secret offer of $5 million for Paramount to remove The Lost Weekend from their release slant.

In light of the questionable future of The Lost Weekend, Billy Wilder made a surprising decision: he joined the Army. The military's Psychological Warfare Division needed someone in Germany to oversee a program to expose Nazi supporters in the German movie and stage industry. Given Wilder's German film background and his command of the language, he proved to be a perfect fit. Wilder served with distinction until he learned that The Lost Weekend was experiencing a renewal of interest among Paramount's executives. To encourage their enthusiasm for the project, Wilder flew back from Germany after his discharge, having served in the Army during the spring and summer of 1945.

Once Paramount became a believer in The Lost Weekend, the director made the famous quip - "If To Have and Have Not (1944) established Lauren Bacall as The Look, then The Lost Weekend certainly should bring Mr. Milland renown as The Kidney."

Some temperance unions incorrectly accused The Lost Weekend of promoting or publicizing drinking. The Ohio temperance board objected to a line in the script attributed to the sadistic orderly, Bim. He says, "Prohibition-that is what started most of these guys off." Bim also makes a slam against "narrow-minded, small-town teetotalers." Paramount refused to remove the line, but Ohio won in the end. Paramount was also warned that the delicate sensibilities of the British might be offended by The Lost Weekend. The studio nixed any potential trouble by adding a subtitle for the British release, The Lost Weekend: Diary of a Dipsomaniac, and producing a special trailer alerting Britons of the film's harsh subject matter. The disclaimer read: "Ladies and gentlemen, as this is a most unusual subject for screen presentation, we have been requested to warn you of the grim and realistic sequences contained in this unique diary carrying such a powerful moral."

By Scott McGee

back to top
teaser The Lost Weekend (1945)

Even though Billy Wilder was quite content with Ray Milland as the lead in The Lost Weekend, his first choice for the role had been Jose Ferrer. Wilder had just seen the actor as Iago opposite Paul Robeson in a Broadway production of Othello. But because the project was so much against the grain of Hollywood's usual fare, Paramount said audiences would reject the lead character, not to mention the movie, if he was not played by a well-known actor. So Milland was chosen over the lesser-known Ferrer.

Ray Milland had been a popular matinee idol for several years in Hollywood, making his mark in romantic comedies and adventure films, so the decision to cast him in The Lost Weekend was a surprise to many, especially him. Milland was given the Charles Jackson novel to read by Paramount chief Buddy De Sylva, with a note attached reading: "Read it. Study it. You're going to play it." Milland read it, and was struck by its dramatic dimensions as a social document, but he could not see much of a film in the bleak story, nor could some of his friends and associates. If Milland took on the role, they felt he would be committing professional suicide. On top of that, Milland doubted he had the acting chops to pull it off, but his wife encouraged him to take a chance. Additionally, Milland was tempted to star in the film because Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett were currently riding high from previous successes. So the actor finally agreed to appear in what would become his most famous role.

To achieve the gaunt, haggard look of a drunk on a whopper of a bender, Ray Milland went on a crash diet of dry toast, coffee, grapefruit juice and boiled eggs, and subsequently took off many pounds. Not a heavy drinker, Milland even tried getting drunk, but he usually ended up on his knees in a bathroom.

Ray Milland actually checked himself into Bellevue Hospital with the help of resident doctors, in order to experience the horror of a drunk ward. Milland was given an iron bed and he was locked inside the "booze tank." He recalled in his autobiography, Wide-Eyed in Babylon, "The place was a multitude of smells, but the dominant one was that of a cesspool. And there were the sounds of moaning, and quiet crying. One man talked incessantly, just gibberish, and two of the inmates were under restraint, strapped to their beds." That night, a new arrival came into the ward screaming, an entrance which ignited the whole ward into hysteria. With the ward falling into bedlam, a robed and barefooted Milland escaped while the door was ajar and slipped out onto 34th Street where he tried to hail a cab. When a suspicious cop spotted him, Milland tried to explain, but the cop didn't believe him, especially after he noticed the Bellevue insignia on his robe. The actor was dragged back to Bellevue where it took him a half-hour to explain his situation to the authorities before he was finally released.

After director Billy Wilder learned of Milland's nightmare, he gleefully employed the same ward for his Bellevue scenes. Of course, the administration at Bellevue was not happy with the negative depiction of the hospital and vowed never to cooperate with Hollywood again. In fact, director George Seaton ran into a brick wall when he wanted to use Bellevue for scenes in Miracle on 34th Street (1947). Said Seaton, "The hospital manager practically threw me out because he was still mad at himself for having given Wilder permission to shoot at the hospital."

Milland's extracurricular research once landed him in an embarrassing spot. During his trek down Third Avenue to pawn his typewriter, Milland, who had perfected a deathly-ill appearance for the role, stopped to look into a window. At that moment, two friends of Milland's wife spotted him and mistook him for a real drunk. Both friends dutifully reported back to their Hollywood contacts that Ray Milland was drinking himself to death. Gossip columns soon placed items in the West Coast papers reporting the news tidbit, prompting Milland's wife to call him, telling him that he had better set the record straight. Paramount's publicity department was soon working overtime trying to correct the misunderstanding.

In an effort to the make the unrelenting story more bearable, Brackett and Wilder added a love interest for Don Birnam in the script. Katharine Hepburn was offered the relatively small role and her curiosity was piqued, but the timing was all wrong, since she was due to start filming Without Love (1945) with Spencer Tracy. After Jean Arthur nixed the idea too, the producers went after Warner Bros. contract starlet, Jane Wyman. Jack Warner was glad to loan Wyman to Paramount for what he called "that drunk film." The Lost Weekend was to be Wyman's first movie on which she received co-star billing above the title. Moreover, Wyman earned a great deal of recognition for her acting ability, after years of playing light romantic comedies.

Doris Dowling was cast as the tempting siren Gloria in The Lost Weekend. It marked the chorus girl's first movie role, and the beginning of her affair with Billy Wilder, who was on the verge of a divorce from his wife. However, Wilder later became infatuated by a brunette extra who was hired to play a coat check girl in the scene where Don Birnam gets thrown out of a bar for stealing money from a woman's purse. It proved to be a non-role for the extra, since only her arm can be seen giving a coat to Birnam, but no matter. The extra's name was Audrey Young, and she eventually married the smitten director. After so many other Hollywood marriages hit the rocks or the ashcan of history, Billy and Audrey Wilder are still married to this day.

When The Lost Weekend was given its first public showing at a sneak preview in Santa Barbara, California, the audience reaction to the intense film was not good. The audience laughed. Wilder recalled, "The people laughed from the beginning. They laughed when Birnam's brother found the bottle outside the window, they laughed when he emptied the whiskey into the sink." The theater lost viewers like a broken sieve. Preview cards were handed out, and the opinions of the flick ranged from "disgusting" to "boring." Wilder even claimed that one patron left the theater proclaiming, "I've sworn off. Never again." "You'll never drink again?" he was asked. "No, I'll never see another picture again." Another preview card said that the movie was great, but that all the "stuff about drinking and alcoholism" should be omitted!

After the negative response to the controversial picture, some Paramount executives were ready to cut their losses, but studio president Barney Balaban said, "Once we make a picture, we don't just flush it down the toilet!" Balaban was right, there was still some room for major improvements in the picture, particularly in the music department. Composer Miklos Rozsa thought that the temporary music score, which was in the George Gershwin vein, was the chief reason for the unexpected reactions. Rozsa got the green light from Wilder and Brackett to bring to the soundtrack some experimentation with the eerie sounds of the electronic instrument known as the theremin.

While the fate of The Lost Weekend hung in the balance, the liquor industry made a move to have the film's negative destroyed. With gangster Frank Costello serving as their broker, the liquor industry made a secret offer of $5 million for Paramount to remove The Lost Weekend from their release slant.

In light of the questionable future of The Lost Weekend, Billy Wilder made a surprising decision: he joined the Army. The military's Psychological Warfare Division needed someone in Germany to oversee a program to expose Nazi supporters in the German movie and stage industry. Given Wilder's German film background and his command of the language, he proved to be a perfect fit. Wilder served with distinction until he learned that The Lost Weekend was experiencing a renewal of interest among Paramount's executives. To encourage their enthusiasm for the project, Wilder flew back from Germany after his discharge, having served in the Army during the spring and summer of 1945.

Once Paramount became a believer in The Lost Weekend, the director made the famous quip - "If To Have and Have Not (1944) established Lauren Bacall as The Look, then The Lost Weekend certainly should bring Mr. Milland renown as The Kidney."

Some temperance unions incorrectly accused The Lost Weekend of promoting or publicizing drinking. The Ohio temperance board objected to a line in the script attributed to the sadistic orderly, Bim. He says, "Prohibition-that is what started most of these guys off." Bim also makes a slam against "narrow-minded, small-town teetotalers." Paramount refused to remove the line, but Ohio won in the end. Paramount was also warned that the delicate sensibilities of the British might be offended by The Lost Weekend. The studio nixed any potential trouble by adding a subtitle for the British release, The Lost Weekend: Diary of a Dipsomaniac, and producing a special trailer alerting Britons of the film's harsh subject matter. The disclaimer read: "Ladies and gentlemen, as this is a most unusual subject for screen presentation, we have been requested to warn you of the grim and realistic sequences contained in this unique diary carrying such a powerful moral."

By Scott McGee

back to top
teaser The Lost Weekend (1945)

AWARDS & HONORS:

The New York Film Critics Association awarded The Lost Weekend Best Director, Best Actor, and Best Picture.

The liquor industry, at first hostile to the picture, decided to praise The Lost Weekend, once it became clear the picture was a unanimous critical and popular success. A House of Seagrams ad went to bat for the picture during its Oscar campaign, when it said, "Paramount has succeeded in burning into the hearts and minds of all who see this vivid screen story our own long-held and oft-published belief that...some men should not drink!, which might well have been the name of this great picture instead of The Lost Weekend."

The Lost Weekend also made its way into the winner's circle at the Academy Awards ceremony. Ray Milland won Best Actor, and deservedly so, while the film also received Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Screenplay. The film also received nominations for Best Score, Best Editing, and Cinematography.

When Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett returned to the studio after the pair's big Oscar win, their colleagues paid them a special tribute by hanging dozens of liquor bottles outside the windows of their Paramount offices.

THE CRITICS CORNER:

Film Daily found The Lost Weekend to be the "Best Film of the Year," while the message film placed #2 and #9 respectively on the "Ten Best" lists over at the National Board of Review and the New York Times. The New York Daily News raved that it was "the most daring film that ever came out of Hollywood."

Gossip columnist Hedda Hopper claimed The Lost Weekend "tops them all. Ray Milland's portrayal is an engraved invitation for an Academy Award."

Variety hailed it as an "outstanding achievement," one that is "intense, morbid, and thrilling." The review, wielding the vernacular of the day, said that the film "atom bombs" in its depiction of the Bellevue hospital alcoholic ward. The trade was also taken with Ray Milland's performance, calling it a portrayal that would be "reckoned with when filmdom makes its annual awards."

Jane Wyman was recognized for her honest portrayal which went against the grain of her stereotyped screen persona - the sunny, perky screen ingenue. Bosley Crowther of the New York Times commented that Wyman "assumes with great authority a different role," while the World-Telegram stated that she displayed "unsuspecting talent."

Crowther ended his glowing review of the film itself with a helpful postscript: "We would not recommend this picture for a gay evening on the town. But it is certainly an overwhelming drama which every adult moviegoer should see."

The New York Herald Tribune proclaimed it "a milestone in moviemaking...every inch a cinematic masterpiece." Cue compared the "deeply stirring and memorable picture" to The Informer (1935), The Grapes of Wrath (1940), and The Ox-Bow Incident (1943).

James Agee, the influential critic with Nation, attributed both accolades and caveats for The Lost Weekend when he called the movie "unusually hard, tense, cruel, intelligent, and straightforward," and yet a picture that was nothing "new, sharply individual, or strongly creative." Agee ended his review with a wink, though, when he commented on the heat the picture was getting from the liquor industry: "I understand that liquor interesh...innerish...intereshtsh are rather worried about thish film. Thash tough." Ironically, Agee had a serious drinking problem himself, one that contributed to his early death at the age of 45.

Charles Jackson praised the film version of his novel, The Lost Weekend, when he said, "They thought of things I wish I had thought of first - they were that good."

Life magazine claimed The Lost Weekend inspired the popular saying, "Let's lose a weekend," a catchphrase for going out for a drink.

Compiled by Scott McGee

back to top
teaser The Lost Weekend (1945)

Don Birnam (Ray Milland) is a struggling writer. Every day he bangs away at his typewriter, trying to compose something he can sell to meet the rent, and to keep his creativity alive. But instead of completing pages of manuscript, Don is only adept at finishing off bottles of liquor. Burdened with a severe case of writer's block, he turns to alcohol for inspiration and emotional support. Wick (Phillip Terry), Don's brother, tries to bring his sibling back from the abyss of alcoholic despair. Even the protestations of Don's girlfriend, Helen (Jane Wyman), are not enough to stop the writer's descent into a black hole from which he may never return.

The mark of The Lost Weekend (1945) on American cinema was a lasting one, due in no small part to its controversial content and subject matter. But they say timing is everything, and when a movie that grapples with the subject of alcoholism shows up at the nation's theaters just as World War II is wrapping up, the cliche proves to be true. Americans fighting in Europe and the Pacific saw and experienced unprecedented inhumanity and violence. Thousands of returning soldiers suffered nightmares, trouble in their relationships, and difficulty in adjusting to civilian life. The premise that a talented man, such as Don Birnam, could seek comfort and confirmation for his own shaky self-confidence in the bottom of a liquor bottle was not too far-fetched for returning G.I.s. Thousands of them sought hard drink to drown out the din of combat and the loss of former comrades who did not return from the front. Many industry insiders were afraid that the relatively young director Billy Wilder (The Lost Weekend was his fourth directorial effort) and his movie would cross over the line of acceptable subject matter for movie audiences. Wilder and company did cross the line, only to prove that difficult or challenging content could be artfully and entertainingly created for a mass audience.

The liquor industry, at first hostile to the picture, decided to praise The Lost Weekend, once it became clear the picture was a unanimous critical and popular success. A House of Seagrams ad went to bat for the picture during its Oscar campaign, when it said, "Paramount has succeeded in burning into the hearts and minds of all who see this vivid screen story our own long-held and oft-published belief that...some men should not drink!, which might well have been the name of this great picture instead of The Lost Weekend."

At the Academy Awards ceremony in 1945, The Lost Weekend swept the major categories with Ray Milland winning the Best Actor award while the film also received Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Screenplay. In addition, it garnered nominations for Best Score, Best Editing, and Cinematography.

Producer: Charles Brackett
Director: Billy Wilder
Screenplay: Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder, based on the novel by Charles R. Jackson
Cinematography: John F. Seitz
Film Editing: Doane Harrison
Art Direction: Hans Dreier, A. Earl Hedrick
Music: Miklos Rozsa
Principal Cast: Ray Milland (Don Birnam), Jane Wyman (Helen St. James), Phillip Terry (Wick Birnam), Howard Da Silva (Nat), Doris Dowling (Gloria), Frank Faylen ("Bim" Nolan), Mary Young (Mrs. Deveridge).
BW-101m. Closed Captioning.

by Scott McGee

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