Oscar: Alcoholics Welcome Denzel Washington

As the alcoholic, ace pilot in the thriller-“Flight,” Denzel Washington gives a dominant performance that won him yet another Oscar nomination.

The Academy voters love alcoholics and drug-addicted characters. Washington joins a distinguished group of actors and actress, who have been nominated for or actually won the award for playing boozy, temperamental figures.

Jeff Bridges won the Best Actor Oscar—and I think he will—he’ll find himself in very good company–Call it the Oscar alcoholics. A distinguished actor, Bridges, a four-time Oscar nominee, gives an amazing performance in “Crazy Heart,” and being drunk is just one element (though major) of his multi-faceted turn. In a previous piece, I showed the many similarities between “Crazy Heart” and “Tender Mercies.

Artistically speaking, “Crazy Heart,” with Bridges as a broken-down, hard-living country music singer, is not a major film—it’s too generic. The story centers on Blake’s moral and identity crises, at the age of 1957, which is turning point in his life. Bridges imbues his performance as Bad Blake with richly comic, semi-tragic, semi-romantic touches, which remarkably is devoid of self-pity or pathos, and the same could be said about the whole movie, which steers clear of

In the Company of Drunks
The list of actors nominated for playing an alcoholic (artists or not) is too long to recreate here. But suffice is to say that it’s one of the most recurrent attributes of the Oscar-winning roles, both male and female, as I have shown in my book, All About Oscar: The History and Politics of the Academy Awards.

Some context is in order: Years ago, in a popular culture conference, I was asked point blank by a sociologist whether heavy drinking is rampant in Hollywood since alcoholics in various forms and shape are dominating our big (and small) screens. I was just beginning to study the Oscar Awards, and the question prompted me to focus on the most shared attributes of the Oscar-winning roles.

Oscar 1983: Year of the Boozy Actors
I didn’t have to look far for evidence.  I realized, quite shockingly, that in 1983, all five Best Actor nominees played drunks of one kind or another. The versatile Robert Duvall won the Best Actor Oscar for “Tender Mercies,” Bruce Beresford’s intimate drama about an alcoholic country singer who’s rehabilitated through the love of a decent woman (Tess Harper). Duvall had earlier received a Best Actor nomination for playing another alcoholic, the abusive father in “The Great Santini.” And he would receive yet another one, for the indie “The Apostle,” which he also produced and directed.

Tom Conti played the drunken Scottish poet on a lecture tour in New England in “Reuben, Reuben,” written by Julius Epstein, the Hollywood vet best-known for his Casablanca Oscar-winning script.

In the same year, Albert Finney and Tom Courtenay achieved the almost impossible task of receiving Best Actor nominations for the same film,The Dresser.” Finney played an aging, alcoholic Shakespearean actor (based on the life of Donald Wolfit), and Courtenay played his abused and alcoholic dresser.

The most common “deviant” trait of both male and female Oscar roles is heavy drinking, or sheer alcoholism. Actors love to play dipsomaniac because it allow them to have “big,” attention-grabbing scenes, and to display a wide gamut of behavior. Drug-addiction has always characterized many Oscar-nominated roles.

Just in case you thought being tipsy and out-of-control is a male domain, think again, some major actresses built a career out of playing troubled, often alcoholic women. Take five-time nominee Susan Hayward, for example, who specialized in playing drunken, often morally dubious and 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 list of alcoholics among Oscar-winners, which is extremely long, includes.

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 (vastly miscast as a gangster) in “Johnny Eager”;
A Nick Nolte’s abusive, alcoholic father in “Affliction,” James Coburn gave a chilling career-capping performance that garnered him his first nomination–and first Supporting Oscar at the age of 70;
 
Ed Harris very 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.
 
Oscar-nominated alcoholics can be poor or rich (Dudley Moore’s millionaire in “Arthur”), sad or happy, amateurs or professionals, like Paul Newman’s lawyer, in desperate need to redeem himself, in the courtroom drama, “The Verdict.” 
My Pantheon of Oscar Alcoholics: Male Roles
 
Ray Milland, “The Lost Weekend” (won)
James Mason, “A Star Is Born” (nom)
Jack Lemmon, “Days of Wine and Roses” (nom)
Lee Marvin, “Cat Ballou” (won)
John Wayne, “True Grit” (won)
Dudley Moore, “Arthur” (nom)
Paul Newman, “The Verdict” (nom)
Albert Finney, “The Dresser” and “Under the Volcano” (nom)
Laurence Fishburn, “What’s Love Got to Do With It” (nom)
Nicolas Cage, “Leaving Las Vegas” (won)
Robert Duvall, “The Apostle” (nom)                           
Nick Nolte and James Coburn, “Affliction” (won)            
Jamie Foxx, “Ray” (won)