Oscar Actors: Milland, Ray–Lost Weekend (1945), First and Only Nomination

A second-tier movie star, Ray Milland benefited from the news-making status and critical and commercial success of Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend, for which he won his first Best Actor at his first and only nomination.
Wilder’s The Lost Weekend, which won the 1945 Best Picture Oscar, is an important work, because it was the first major Hollywood film to deal seriously with the problem of alcoholism. Prior to that, alcoholics in film were depicted in comedic way and were usually secondary characters but seldom the protagonists.

“The Lost Weekend,” from a screenplay by Wilder and Charles Brackett, based on a novel by Charles R. Jackson, depicts the inner degradation and torment of Don Birnbaum (Ray Milland in an Oscar-winning performance) who, unable to realize his writing ambitions, turns to the bottle.

Despite a stark portrayal of alcoholism in all its misery and horror, the changes made in the adaptation of Charles Jackson’s novel to the screen are instructive, because they shed light on Hollywood’s morality standards at the time and on the conventions of portraying screen heroes. In the book, Birnbuam’s frustration derives from an indecisive sexuality; he is a troubled bisexual. However, in the film version, Don suffers from a writer’s creative block. The picture also changed the book’s ending by providing a solution to his drinking problem, using the ploy of a patient, loving girl (played by Jane Wyman) who helps to regenerate him.

Even so, by standards of the time, there are powerful moments, such as when Ray Milland tells Jane Wyman (his girlfriend): “What I’m trying to say is, I’m not a drinker–I’m a drunk.”

And the last speech, by Milland, referring to his old habit of keeping bottles in various hiding places, is also strong: “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.”

Paramount realized that the film was dealing with a taboo issue for the big screen and so decided to make the most out of it.  The studio ad campaign stated: How daring can the screen dare to be? No adult man or woman can risk missing the startling frankness of ‘The Lost Weekend.’”

“The Lost Weekend” had earlier won the New York Film Critics Circle Award (NYFCC), then under the leadership of the N.Y. Times’ middlebrow critic Bosley Crowther, who found the film “most commendable distinction in being a straight objective report, unvarnished with editorial comment or temperance morality.”

Oscar Nominations: 7

Picture, produced by Charles Brackett
Director: Billy Wilder
Actor: Ray Milland
Screenplay: Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder
Cinematography (b/w): John F. Seitz
Editing: Doane Harrison
Scoring (Dramatic or Comedy): Miklos Rozsa

Oscar Awards: 4


Oscar Context

“The Lost Weekend” won over Hitchcock’s suspense-thriller “Spellbound” and Leo McCarey’s comedy “The Bells of St. Mary’s,” both starring Ingrid Bergman. The other two nominees were the MGM musical “Anchors Aweigh” and Warner’s noir melodrama “Mildred Pierce,” for which Joan Crawford won the Best Actress for a comeback performance.

The most nominated film was “The Bells of St. Mary’s” (8), though it won only one award, for Stephen Dunn’s Sound Recording, perhaps because it was a sequel to “Going My Way,” which swept most of the 1944 Oscars.

Ray Milland was one of the few actors to win the Oscar at his first nomination and not to be nominated again, despite giving many reliable performances.

Ace composer Miklos Rozsa, whose specialty was film noir, was nominated in 1945 for three Oscars. The other two were: “A Song to Remember,” on which he collaborated with Morris Stoloff, and Hitchcock’s “Spellbound,” for which he won.