Oscar: Alcoholics Rule Nominees and Winners

Twenty years ago, while attending a popular culture conference, I was asked by some sociologists whether heavy drinking was rampant in Hollywood. The motivation behind the question was simple: They have noticed that alcoholics dominated the American screenboth the big and the small one. I was just beginning to study the Oscars for a book, and the question prompted me to examine more carefully the most shared attributes of the Oscar-winning roles, for males and females.

You did not have to look far for evidence. Rather shockingly, in 1983, all five Best Actor nominees played drunks, of one kind or another. The versatile Robert Duvall won Best Actor for “Tender Mercies,” Bruce Beresford’s intimate drama about an alcoholic country singer who’s rehabilitated by the love of a decent woman (Tess Harper). Duvall had earlier received a Best Actor nomination for playing an alcoholic and abusive father in “The Great Santini.” And he would receive yet another lead nomination for the indie, “The Apostle,” in which he played an abusive and violent alcoholic.

That year, Tom Conti played a drunken Scottish poet on a lecture tour in “Reuben, Reuben,” written by Julius Epstein, the Hollywood vet, best-known for “Casablanca” Oscar-winning script. Brits Albert Finney and Tom Courtenay achieved the almost impossible task of receiving Best Actor nominations for the same film, “The Dresser,” in which Finney played an aging alcoholic Shakespearean actor (based on the life of Donald Wolfit), and Courtenay played his abused and alcoholic dresser.

Indeed, the most common trait of both male and female Oscar roles is heavy drinking, or sheer alcoholism. Actors love to play dipsomaniacs because these roles allow them to have “big” attention-grabbing scenes, and to display a wide gamut of emotions and behaviors. Drug-addiction has also characterized many Oscar-winning and nominated roles. Often, it’s a combo of booze and drugs.

This season we are likely to see nominations for many artists, afflicted by such wide range of problems as drinking, mental illness, and physical disability — call it “The Genius With a Problem.” Jamie Foxx is a sure-candidate for playing the drug-addicted Ray Charles in “Ray.” In “Beyond the Sea,” Kevin Spacey embodies singer-actor Bobby Darin (Mack the Knife), who, long plagued by heart failure, died at the young age of 37. It’s noteworthy that Darin himself was nominated in the supporting league for playing a shell-shocked GI in “Captain Newman, M.D.” Following his first Oscar nomination, as a Cuban writer afflicted with AIDS, in “Before Night Falls,” Javier Bardem deserves a second Actor nomination for “The Sea Inside,” as invalid Spanish poet, who fought for 30 years to terminate his life with dignity.

Just in case you thought being tipsy and out-of-control is a male domain, think again. Major actresses, in both the lead and supporting leagues, built their entire careers by playing troubled women, often alcoholics. Take five-time nominee Susan Hayward, who specialized in playing drunken, morally dubious, “sexually loose” women. In Hayward’s first Oscar nomination, “Smash-Up-The Story of a Woman,” based on a schmaltzy story by Dorothy Parker and Frank Cavett, Hayward plays an aspiring singer who sacrifices her career for her husband’s. As he becomes famous, she grows bored and frustrated and begins to drink. Hitting bottom, she’s unable to restart her singing career and her alcoholism breaks up her marriage.

For the weepy “My Foolish Heart,” written by the Epstein brothers, Hayward received a second nomination, as a long-suffering wife, married out of necessity when she gets pregnant in a wartime romance. Inspired by the life of stage and screen star Lillian Roth’s life, “I’ll Cry Tomorrow,” garnered Hayward an Actress nomination, as yet another woman who descends into the hell of alcoholism and bad marriages that destroy her career. In 1958, Hayward won the Oscar at her fifth nomination for “I Want to Live!” embodying the real-life criminal Barbara Graham, a boozy thief and prostitute who was executed in the gas chamber of the San Quentin prison.

The all-time record for female alcoholics was in 1962, when no less than four of the Best Actress nominees played alcoholics and/or drug-addicts: Bette Davis in “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane” Geraldine Page in “Sweet Bird of Youth,” Lee Remick in “Days of Wine and Roses,” and Katharine Hepburn in Sidney Lumet’s version of Eugene O’Neal’s masterpiece, “A Long Day’s Journey into Night.” That year, the winner was the only actress who played a sober woman, albeit an eccentric one too. Anne Bancroft grabbed the trophy as Anne Sullivan in “The Miracle Worker,” as the extraordinarily tough teacher of the deaf and blind Helen Keller (Patty Duke). Needless to say, Duke received the Supporting Oscar.

The list of alcoholics among Oscar-winners is extremely long:

Lionel Barrymore won Best Actor in “A Free Soul,” as Norma Shearer’s alcoholic lawyer-father.

Van Heflin played the alcoholic friend of Robert Taylor (miscast as a gangster) in “Johnny Eager.”

Ray Milland in Billy Wilder’s “The Lost Weekend,” a film that changed the novel’s protagontist from homosexual to alcoholic writer suffering creative block.

In “The Razor’s Edge,” Anne Baxter played Tyrone Power’s old girlfriend, Sophie, a self-destructive woman who loses her husband and child and becomes a prostitute.

Claire Trevor was Edward G. Robinson’s alcoholic mistress in “Key Largo.”

A Nick Nolte’s abusive, alcoholic father in “Affliction,” James Coburn gave a chilling, career-capping performance that garnered him his first nomination–and Supporting Oscar–at the age of 70.

Ed Harris much deserved his first lead (and third) nomination in “Pollock,” for embodying painter Jackson Pollack, the noted abstract expressionist whose short life (he died by running his car into a tree) was afflicted with alcoholism, insecurity, and a turbulent marriage. As his long-suffering wife, Marcia Gay Harden won the Supporting Oscar.

Oscar-nominated alcoholics can be poor or rich, like Dudley Moore’s millionaire in “Arthur.” They can be sad or happy, as Thelma Ritter in “Pillow Talk,” playing Doris Day’s perpetually hung-over housekeeper. Alcoholics can be amateurs or professionals, like Paul Newman’s lawyer, who’s in desperate need for redemption, in the courtroom drama, “The Verdict.” Male alcoholics can cure themselves by attending AA meeting, like Jack Lemmon in “Days of Wine and Roses,” or die stubbornly and proudly, as Nicolas Cage did in “Leaving Las Vegas,” a film that was faulted by some critics due to its glamorization of alcoholics.

Female Oscar alcoholics go beyond social class. They could be unemployed teachers, like “A Streetcar Named Desire’s” Vivien Leigh, who wants “magic rather than realism,” or a Spanish countess, like Simone Signoret, in Stanley Kramer’s pretentiously metaphoric, “Ship of Fools,” set aboard a German ship circa 1933.

A closer look at the Oscar’s annals reveals that the most prevalent Oscar female parts combine showbiz with victimization and suffering. The prototype for this role is still the movie “A Star Is Born” (in its various reincarnations), the tale of a young actress who ascends to stardom while her husband’s career goes on the skids. Janet Gaynor and Judy Garland were both Oscar-nominated for the same role in the 1937 and 1954 versions, respectively. Based on simplistic formulas, showbiz pictures encourage the audience to believe that fame takes a heavy price on one’s life, and that stardom doesn’t last long due to its damaging effects on artists and their significant others.

Consider the following Oscar-nominated roles:

Greta Garbo, as opera singer conflicted between the love of a wealthy “patron” and a young clergyman, in “Romance.”

Eleanor Parker, as the crippled singer Marjorie Lawrence in “Interrupted Melody.”

Katharine Hepburn, as Mary Tyrone in “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” a morphine-addicted woman who’s unhappily-married to a pompous and fading actor (Ralph Richardson).

Vanessa Redgrave as Isadora Duncan, a dancer who dies prematurely in an accident, in “Isadora.”

Diana Ross, as the heroin-addicted, racially oppressed singer Billie Holliday in “Lady Sings the Blues.”

Julie Christie as the opium-addicted prostitute-madame, in “McCabe and Mrs. Miller.”

Bette Midler, as the drug-addicted rock star, loosely based on Janis Joplin’s life, in “The Rose.”

Marsha Mason, as an alcoholic actress and irresponsible mother, in “Only When I Laugh.”

Jessica Lange, as the doomed, anti-establishment actress Frances Framer in “Frances,” who, tormented by an overbearing mother, turns to the bottle and is put in an asylum.

Jessica Lange, as country singer Patsy Kline who finds her untimely death in a plane crash in “Sweet Dreams.”

Jane Fonda gave one of her most accomplished performances in “The Morning After,” as an alcoholic actress who wakes up in bed with a corpse.

Mary McDonnell, as the selfish paralyzed soap opera star, in “Passion Fish.”

Debra Winger, as Joy Gresham, an American divorcee who falls for Oxford literary critic, C.S. Lewis (Anthony Hopkins) before dying of cancer, in “Shadowlands.”

Angela Bassett, as abused singer Tina Turner in the schmaltzy biopicture, “What’s Love Got to Do With It.”

Meryl Streep, as a pill-popping actress caught in a problematic relationship with her mother-celeb, in “Postcards from the Edge.”

Judi Dench, as Altzheimer-afflicted writer-philosopher Iris Murdoch, in “Iris.”

Nicole Kidman, as the Camille-like courtesan-actress, dying of tuberculosis, in “Moulin Rouge.”

Nicole Kidman again, this time winning the trophy, as the suicidally depressive but brilliant writer Virginia Wolf in “The Hours.”

If knowledge about American life was strictly based on Hollywood movies, one could easily get the impression that we are a nation of drunks.

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