The Best Picture Project – The Lost Weekend (1945)

The Lost Weekend (1945)

Directed by Billy Wilder

Screenplay by Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett, based on the novel by Charles R. Jackson

Starring Ray Milland and Jane Wyman

I must apologize for the delay in making this post, because it has been a few weeks since the last, to say the least.  When I started this project, and this blog, I always imagined I’d do weekly updates, maybe bi-weekly at worst, and yet here it is that I’ve been several weeks between.  In most cases I could blame work and other commitments and to a certain extent that’s true here as well.  Unfortunately, it’s not the only culprit.

Just as responsible, though, was that the subject of this post – The Lost Weekend – eluded me, to a certain extent.  No, it wasn’t that I didn’t like the film, because I do like it.  Or that I couldn’t understand its deeper, hidden meanings, because that’s really not an issue – The Lost Weekend wears its meanings clearly on its sleeves.  No, it’s because I just couldn’t reconcile myself to a single, viable vision of how to discuss the film.

Normally, when sitting down to write these assessments I tend to come up with one idea I want to talk about in terms of the film and how it colors my viewing of it.  For instance, with Gone With The Wind it was a bit of the racism.  For You Can’t Take It With You, it was that the film seemed like a dry run for It’s A Wonderful Life.

On the one hand I tried to expound upon how, amongst all of Billy Wilder’s cynical films, and he’s made a good many of them– Ace in the Hole, Double Indemnity and Sunset Boulevard, just to name three – that The Lost Weekend might be the most cynical of them all.  Granted, to make this assertion I’d have to argue that the happy ending the film currently has  wasn’t really happy at all, but was really a reverse-commentary on society and its belief that all problems have a quick fix to them, when clearly, some do not.

Think about it this way, after watching Ray Milland, as Don Birnam, spend the previous 90+ minutes of film wallowing in degradation and disease, and coming to the point of suicide, the film suddenly finished off with a pat, 60 second ending where Milland is ‘cured’ and everybody smiles.  But given that the previous 90 minutes makes it clear that no quick cures or fixes are possible for alcoholism, the sudden ‘cure’ basically laughs in the face of all those who believe it does happen, all at the same time giving them the ending they want.  Cynicism.

On the other hand, I wanted to write about The Lost Weekend in terms of Ray Milland.  After all, the film rests entirely on his shoulders and should he fail, the film will fail.  And given that I’ve never seen Milland in anything else where I’ve thought he was particularly good – in fairness, I’ve only ever seen him in this and Panic at Year Zero – all indications are that Milland was setting himself up for a disaster.  And it wasn’t simply me that thought so, because Milland himself didn’t think himself capable.  After all, after Cary Grant and Jose Ferrer turned the film down, Milland did too, thinking he didn’t have the acting chops to hack it

Curiously, though, Milland is magnificent here and The Lost Weekend is proof that occasionally you find yourself witness to the perfect alignment of the planets and an actor who previously did not have the stuff for a role comes out of nowhere to win an Academy Award – let’s call it the Broderick Crawford Honorary Winners Circle, because he’s the most notable member in the group.  If nothing, Milland is proof that, given the right material, and the right director, any old actor can shine.

Incidentally, could the Academny Awards have possibly been more serious-minded than during the mid-1940s, when The Lost Weekend (alcoholism), The Best Years Of Our Lives (problems of returning vets), and Genetleman’s Agreement (anti-semitism) won Best Picture?

Trivia:

Yes, co-star Jane Wyman was indeed Ronald Reagan’s first wife.

For a list of other winners and films seen, click here.

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