Oscar: Best Picture–Lost Weekend (1945)–Hollywood First Major Film about Alcoholism

Billy 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, 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.”

Detailed Plot

To illustrate the daily ordeal of an alcoholic, the story spans five days, from Thursday to Tuesday.

Thursday:

New York writer Don Birnam is packing for a weekend vacation with his brother Wick, who is trying to discourage his drinking. When Don’s girlfriend Helen comes to see them off, she mentions in passing that she has two tickets for a concert. Don heads for Nat’s Bar,  missing his train, and then sneaks back into the flat to drink some cheap whisky he has bought, avoiding the worried Helen.

Friday:

Back at the bar, the owner (Nat) criticizes Don for mistreating Helen, and Don recalls their first meeting. There was a mix-up of cloakroom tickets at the opera, where he had to wait for the person who was given his check in error. This was Helen, with whom he strikes up a romance. When he is due to meet her parents for lunch at a hotel, he phones a message to her.  He confesses of his dual identity, ‘Don the writer,’ who can only write while drunk, and ‘Don the drunk,’ who is bailed-out by his brother. Helen tries to help him.

Back in the present, Don is in another bar, and caught stealing money to pay his bill, he is thrown out. He finds a bottle he had stashed the previous night and gets drunk.

Saturday:

Don, broke, is upset as all the pawnshops are closed for the holiday. At Nat’s Bar, he is refused service. In desperation, he visits a girl who had given up on him, but now feels sorry for him. Leaving her flat, he falls down the stairs and is knocked unconscious.

Sunday:

Don wakes up in an alcoholics’ ward, where a staff member mocks him and other guests at ‘Hangover Plaza,” but offers to help. Don refuses help, and escapes from the ward.

Monday:

Still broke, Don steals a bottle of whisky and drinks it. Helen returns, alerted by Don’s landlady. Finding him in a delirious state, she vows to look after him.

Tuesday:

Don slips out and pawns Helen’s coat, the very item that brought them together, to buy a gun. As they struggle for the weapon, she reminds Don of her love and her concern, trying to convince him that ‘Don the writer’ and ‘Don the drunk’ are the same man. He finally commits to writing his novel The Bottle, dedicated to her, an account of the weekend events.  To prove his new determination, he drops a cigarette into a glass of whiskey.

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

Picture
Director
Actor
Screenplay

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.