Monday, November 16, 2015

Nothing But the Best: "The Lost Weekend" (1945)

Ray Milland in The Lost Weekend
Welcome to the series Nothing But the Best in which I chronicle all of the Academy Award Best Picture winners as they celebrate their anniversaries. Instead of going in chronological order, this series will be presented on each film's anniversary and will feature personal opinions as well as facts regarding its legacy and behind the scenes information. The goal is to create an in depth essay for each film while looking not only how the medium progressed, but how the film is integral to pop culture. In some cases, it will be easy. Others not so much. Without further ado, let's start the show.

Background Information

The Lost Weekend
Release Date: November 16, 1945
Director: Billy Wilder
Written By: Charles R. Jackson (Novel), Charles Brackett & Billy Wilder (Screenplay)
Starring: Ray Milland, Jane Wyman, Phillip Terry
Genre: Drama
Running Time: 102 minutes

Oscar Wins: 4
-Best Picture
-Best Director
-Best Actor (Ray Milland)
-Best Adapted Screenplay

Oscar Nominations: 3
-Best Cinematography (Black and White)
-Best Editing
-Best Original Score

Other Best Picture Nominees

-Anchors Aweigh
-The Bells of St. Mary's
-Mildred Pierce

And the winner is...

If there's one thing that has been brandished as "Oscar Bait" over the course of The Academy's entire lifespan, it's message movies. These aren't just films that entertain. They also have messages regarding the value of their subjects, often imbuing strong side effects that are either negative or positive. Among the bigger message movies of the 1940's is director Billy Wilder's The Lost Weekend - which chronicled the life of a writer as he spirals into an alcoholic bender. It was considered cutting edge, even controversial, during the time it was made. To some extent, it still is. Even if it seems tame by later comparisons, it was one of the first films to tackle drinking from a dramatic standpoint, and thus resulting in something more pure and heartbreaking. It may not often be considered one of Wilder's greatest films, but it definitely is one of his most important.

The idea came to film "The Lost Weekend" came during a train ride to New York. Upon reading the book, he became enthralled by its text, finding its portrait of alcoholism to be visceral and important. Upon arrival, he immediately called his writing partner Charles Brackett to see if they could obtain the rights. When they did, they gave $50,000 to the author Charles R. Jackson (of whom meant to call it "The Last Weekend," but was forever altered by a type-o). Wilder claimed that it was going to be an important story, citing film's history of portraying drunks as a comical type akin to W.C. Fields. He felt that it would change the conversation. In less egotistical reasons, Wilder wanted to make it to better understand writer Raymond Chandler, of whom he worked with on Double Indemnity and was a flagrant drunk.

The ideal role for the film's protagonist, Don Birnam, was supposedly a matinee type. Wilder pursued Ray Milland. When Milland was approached, he received the novel with a note claiming "Read it. Study it. You're going to play it." While he was initially turned off by the fear that it was career suicide, he took the role and committed to the part in his everyday actions. He spent an evening at a drunk ward. He ate less in order to appear more haggard. He was so committed that he once ran into old friends on the street randomly who were terrified of his appearance. Milland's wife would reprimand him, telling him to get back in shape. He wasn't the only one who faced backlash. Wilder was attempted to be coaxed out of it, even with liquor companies offering $5 million for the studio not to make the film. There were also temperance groups that attempted to stop it as well.

While the story's structure remains largely intact, Wilder changed the motivation for the bender. In the book, Birnam is drinking due to a homosexual love affair. In the film, he is drinking to attempt to solve his writer's block. The film was shot on two different coasts. All of the exterior shots were set in New York while the interiors were done in California. In the case of one iconic bar, the scene was replicated with almost perfectly mimicked details. Writer Robert Benchley served as an extra who continually ordered drinks, thanks to his homesickness from New York. Wilder also met a few women on set that he had random affairs with. The first Doris Dowling, who made her film debut. The other was Audrey Young, who "appears" in the movie as a coat check girl. By "appear," this means that her arm shows up, but never her face or the rest of her body. This was also the first film to use actors walking aimlessly as neon signs flashed.

The film had two releases. The first was disastrous, as it didn't have a score. It left audiences laughing the entire time. They went to find composer Miklos Rozsa, who used the theremin to imitate the haunting nature of drinking. This version was a lot more popular. It also is credited as the first film to feature a theremin in the score, though it wasn't Rozsa's only contribution that year. He also used the instrument for Spellbound. Producer David O. Selznick attempted to sue Wilder for using the theremin before understanding that using specific instruments was itself not copyrighted. The rerelease was a bigger success, even earning it the Grand Prix du Festival at Cannes (now the Palme d'Or). It would be one of only two (the other being Marty) to win the Palme d'Or and Best Picture awards. The film connected with soldiers returning from World War II, of whom were recovering from traumatic experiences with alcohol.

The Oscars rewarded the film kindly. Due to the war, the statues were bronze with gold plating. The ceremony was also more lively, thanks to the war being over. The aforementioned conflict regarding Rozsa's score didn't stop both Spellbound and The Lost Weekend from competing against each other in the Best Original Score category. While the former won, Rozsa claims to be prouder of the latter. Having also won the acting prize at Cannes, Milland also won Best Actor. When he went to accept the award, he didn't make a speech. Instead, he commented on the crowd's applause before taking off. For a film that famously bombed on its first run, it impressively was able to bounce back nicely. Even the studio was leery of its chances, feeling thankful that it ended up becoming a success.

The impact of The Lost Weekend was massive, but not total. From then on, there would be dramas made that would explore addiction from a more mature standpoint. This wouldn't stop comedies from using it as a comedic prop. The phrase "The lost weekend" became iconic for those who similarly had benders, including The Beatles' John Lennon. Even if the depiction of Milland's alcoholism seems tame by later standards, it still has a powerful effect on those who have had that experience. For all of the differences from the book, it got the essence down correctly, which was enough. The famous neon sign scene has since been parodied countless times, including on The Simpsons. However, the film's most iconic legacy is probably that of the theremin. While traditional dramas would stray from using it, sci-fi movies would adopt it as their own, as if to create worlds of intense weirdness.

Even if The Lost Weekend isn't the most recognizable Wilder film of his career, it is one that definitely stands out as one of his most important. While made under partial notions shared by "Oscar Bait" theorists, the film ended up explaining addiction in a manner that served as powerful, gut wrenching drama. While it isn't the most bleak thing that he has ever done, Wilder's work definitely struck a chord with audiences at the time. If one is to suggest that cinema can change the world, then The Lost Weekend is worthy of some consideration for changing how the public talked about addiction. Without it, who knows what the conversation would look like. Thankfully, we'll never have to know.

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