Billy Wilder’s “The Lost Weekend” is a movie much like “Citizen Kane” or “Judgment at Nuremberg,” in that it was so amazingly groundbreaking at the time that we can’t truly understand the context.
“The Lost Weekend” stars Ray Milland in an Oscar-winning performance as Don Birnam. Don was once a writer of some potential, but doubt led to drink, which led to just one alcoholic binge after another. His brother, Wick Birnam, lets Don stay with him. He’s grown wearied by all the lies, cleaning up the messes–literal and interpersonal–and trying to keep Don from completely ruining things with his long-suffering girlfriend, Jane Wyman. Holy crap. Jane freakin’ Wyman looked mighty good in 1945.
Sorry. Her character did have a name: Helen St James. Meow.
Helen works for Time Magazine, and loves Don far more than he has a right to expect.
What this film shows is not people getting drunk and having a party. Don is drinking to survive. He can’t start to function in the morning without a drink. He–a respectable guy–steals a woman’s purse, and robs a liquor store, just to get enough to make it. And he doesn’t have fun. There’s nothing celebratory.
“The Lost Weekend” is the first movie ever filmed in Bellevue. The scenes where some of the wet-brain ward denizens go through DT’s–and the scene where Don does at home–these are just amazing pieces of acting.
I’ve never had DT’s. We have things today like Ativan that keep them at bay. When this film came out in 1945, Alcoholics Anonymous was only 10 years old, and still in its infancy (AA’s birthday is June 10, 1935; mine is June 10, 1989 (Probably a typo in there–my eyes are tired))
Back in 1945, people like Don Birnam were DRUNKS. They weren’t alcoholics. They were drunks. The only steps they had were the ones they got thrown down when they could no longer pay their tabs.
Today, thank Dionysus, there is better care, better understanding and treatment for alcoholics.
Believe me, I’m glad I never had to go to Bellevue.
There are parts of this film that feel a little hokey, but it was a different time and place. And few performances show the glib charm and depraved wasteland of a true drunk’s soul better than Ray Milland did. Don’t miss it for that. Or for how pretty Jane Wyman is.