The Lost Weekend

By Jerry F. 

The Lost Weekend (1944) may be the most famous movie ever made about alcoholism. It’s certainly one of the most important movies to deal with the subject because it was the first movie to show alcoholism as a serious, ugly, debilitating condition. Before The Lost Weekend, movie drunks–often portrayed by Wallace Beery and W.C. Fields–were humorous characters. They were harmless to themselves or others. Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man, portrayed by William Powell, was suave, sophisticated, and always a little looped. The protagonist in The Lost Weekend is intelligent, charming, and tragic.

We have three stories to tell. The book, the movie, and the author. The director, Billy Wilder, read the bestselling book by Charles Jackson when it came out in 1944. He knew before he completed reading that it would be his next movie. Wilder had been working with Raymond Chandler on the script for Double Indemnity and he hoped that seeing this movie might prove cathartic for Chandler so that he would, at least, reduce his legendary drinking bouts.

The novel, highly autobiographical, depicts a struggling, alcoholic writer named Don Birnam, trying to complete a novel. His fiancée and brother tried to keep him sober and to understand what drove him to drink when it was clearly destroying him. The book, as stark and shocking as it was for its time, became a Book-of-the-Month selection. Book sales made Jackson wealthy for the rest of his life.

Billy Wilder wanted Jose Ferrer in the lead but Ferrer thought the script was too depressing and that portraying the character could damage his career. Cary Grant was considered unsuitable. But Wilder was convinced that he needed a matinee idol in the leading role. Ray Milland was a leading man, a bit of a lightweight but maybe he could pull it off. Milland was Welsh, a predecessor to Richard Burton and Anthony Hopkins who all, it was rumored, had a problem with … well, that’s another story.

Milland feared the damage that might be inflicted on his career by such a bleak movie about such a tormented character. Reputations were made in romantic or heroic leads, not by playing a lush. His wife, though, convinced him that it could be a career-defining part. In the end, Milland won the Oscar for Best Actor, Billy Wilder won for Best Director, and Charles Bracket (whose wife and daughter were hopeless drunks) and Billy Wilder won for best Screenplay Adaptation, and the film won for Best Picture of the Year. It also won for Best Picture at the Cannes Film Festival. Only one other film had ever done so.

The movie tagline was “How daring can the screen dare to be? No adult man or woman can risk missing the startling frankness of The Lost Weekend!” The question was rhetorical but it can be answered. The movie was as daring as it could be for the times in which it was made. The Hays censorship code imposed severe restrictions on the script.

The alcohol industry spent millions of dollars lobbying Paramount to not release the film. Ironically, temperance groups, believing the movie would actually promote excessive drinking, lobbied against it. And yet the movie evaded an important plot element because it was too daring for the times. In the novel, Don Birnam drank so heavily because of the shame caused by a homosexual incident in college. In the movie the cause appeared to be “writer’s block.” This is a relevant point to those of us in AA because the incident couldn’t be eradicated but “writer’s block” could be. Remove the cause and that will cure the problem. We know that alcoholism doesn’t work that way but many who watched The Lost Weekend didn’t and don’t know that.

There is much symbolism in the movie. When Don Birnam is at the opera he gets a craving for alcohol as he watches the drinking song in La Traviata. In the book Jackson referred often to the helplessness of Birnam’s alcoholism. He was sober for days and then drunk for days in an unending cycle. The movie opens with Birnam looking at the circle left on the bar by a shot glass. He called it the vicious circle and said it was “the perfect geometrical shape, no beginning or end.” In another scene Don Birnam watches the circles made on the bar as he downs shot glass after glass of rye whiskey. In another scene Don’s face is seen through the circle of the pull on a window shade with the implication that he is enclosed by this circle.

The ending of the book is tragic. Birnam was unable to stop drinking and would continue bingeing until he was incarcerated in a mental hospital or, mercifully, died of alcohol poisoning. The ending of the movie is ambiguous. Most people seem to think that Birnam is done drinking. He puts out his cigarette in a glass of booze. But there is a problem with this happy ending. Nothing has changed in his life from the beginning of the movie and his four-day binge until the end.

If his writer’s block has ended, we are given no clue as to how this happened. He has had his girl (Jane Wyman) all through this binge and through many others that preceded it but, at the end, she seems to turn away from him. He seemingly goes from a hopeless souse to a sober, hopeful writer on his way to writing the great American novel with no apparent intervention. But there is another interpretation of the ending. At the very end we see the same image as we saw at the start: a circle on a bar left by a wet shot glass. Is Don still in his circle? Is he coming out of a drunk or headed to his next one or both?

Charles Jackson sobered up on his own just like Don Birnam. He had his first drink at age 26. In the next seven years he had been to psychiatric hospitals including Bellevue as depicted in the movie. He spent seven nights in a psychiatric ward and then three days in a straightjacket on the violent ward. A doctor at one of his hospital visits suggested that Jackson try AA but he replied that he couldn’t bring himself to say the Lord’s Prayer and he didn’t have any spirituality in his makeup.

He married, had children, and wrote The Lost Weekend as well as other stories. He joined AA in spite of the religiosity and became an AA circuit speaker. He once spoke for six nights in one week in different states. But there were problems with his AA membership. He was in great demand because of his fame as the writer of The Lost Weekend but he was criticized for breaking his anonymity by appearing at the AA meetings. So Jackson was in a difficult position. AAers came to see him because of his fame and then blamed him for appearing publically. And Jackson was one of the first people in AA to speak openly of his drug use.

He was in and out of AA and sobriety, on a psychiatric ward 18 times. He could usually get Seconal on the wards and sometimes Nembutal and paraldehyde. He was treated at emergency rooms four times for having overdosed on barbiturates. He openly shared his drug use and was heavily criticized for that. Unlike most AA circuit speakers, Jackson wouldn’t take a fee and paid all associated expenses himself. He would sign copies of The Lost Weekend after every AA meeting. His wife left him and his drinking episodes increased. In AA he spoke of having acquired a “faith” but he never stated or implied that it was in a deity. It seemed to be a faith that he could get outside himself if only for awhile. It may have been a faith in the Fellowship. Whatever is was, it was insufficient to keep him clean and sober for more than a few years at a time. Regarding a higher power, he was probably a nonbeliever all of his adult life.

He was gay or perhaps bisexual. He wrote of homoeroticism in a later novel and seemed to still be suffering from shame. His sobriety was an on and off matter even while he was giving AA speeches. Eventually he seems to have come to terms with his sexuality but not with his apparent inability to maintain long-term sobriety. Jackson spent the last three years of his life living in a New York City hotel room with his male lover. It was there, at age 66, in 1968, that he took a large quantity of barbiturates and then hung himself. The coroner ruled his death a suicide caused by acute barbiturate poisoning.


About the Author, Jerry F.

Jerry F. is one of the founding members of We Agnostics in Tempe, AZ and was the instigator of the WAAFT-AZ Convention last November in Phoenix. He has served in many positions in his 27 years in AA and is currently treasurer of his traditional AA group, coffeemaker of his secular group, and is beginning a term as a board member of WAAFT-IAAC. He considers his greatest achievement as being responsible for a change to the Fourth Edition of the Big Book and his greatest asset as being relentlessly anal.

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  1. John the Drunkard September 17, 2016 at 4:34 pm - Reply

    In Joseph Kessel’s book ‘The Enemy in the Mouth’ (‘Avec les Alcooliques Anonymes’.Gallimard 1960; also issued in England with a different title) he reports his interviews and experiences with many Big Figures in AA in 1958-9. Many can be identified with a bit of knowledge. Bill W. and Marty M. are both present. And…I’m about 99% certain that Charles Jackson is another subject.

    The book is well worth a look. The English versions, on both sides of the Atlantic are weirdly re-translated from the French, so a lot of language from the Big Book and even the Serenity Prayer is garbled beyond belief.

  2. Annette K June 29, 2016 at 9:01 pm - Reply

    Intolerant of drugs? Bad enough intolerant of atheism, intolerant of drugs I wouldn’t stand a chance!!!!!!!! When I hear stuff like that, I become deeply concerned, even fearful for my own and others sobriety.

  3. John L. June 29, 2016 at 7:59 am - Reply

    Great article!  Jackson’s experience shows once again that alcoholism itself is the problem.  It’s not just a symptom of something else.  He needed the 24-Hour Plan and the Fellowship, not psychiatrists and drugs.

  4. Vic Losick June 27, 2016 at 4:25 pm - Reply

    Jerry,

     

    Interesting, informative and well written.

     

    Thanks so much.

  5. Lance B. June 26, 2016 at 9:23 pm - Reply

    Great job, Jerry.  Your article made an excellent meeting in Montana this morning.  Elicited more comment and a more extended secular meeting than I’ve seen before.  I read your whole article to a rapt 2 person audience and then asked if we wished to discuss why AA had not worked for Mr. Jackson–at least not very well.  That led to  identification with his homosexual situation and the circular symbolism of the movie plus several other observations of interest.

    Thank  you.

     

     

    • Jerry F June 27, 2016 at 10:49 am Reply

      You are welcome, Lance.

      See my response to Thomas below. I think it applies in Montana as well as AZ.

  6. life-j June 26, 2016 at 12:35 pm - Reply

    There are two or three movies from this point in time that are worth seeing, and I confess I have a hard time telling them apart in my memory. They used to be on youtube back when they weren’t so dilligent about removing copyrighted material.

    One I know by name, Hitchcock’s “Hangover”. There may just be these two movies, and the scenes which aren’t in The lost Weekend, may all be from Hitchcock’s movie

    Here are a few of the scenes that I have mixed up:  A guy wakes up, and finds a strange woman in his apartment. After a bit she tells him they are married. A guy makes an ass of himself with his boss as the supposedly hot-shot speaker in front of a bunch of colleagues. A guy is sitting in a drunken stupor when all these crepy-crawly things start coming out of the wall.

    I’m not including Days of wine and roses here, since while there are some good aspects to it, it seems more like a hollywood family drama than like amovie about alcoholism.

    • Jerry F June 26, 2016 at 2:45 pm Reply

      Waking up having married to a strange woman, making an ass of himself in front of the boss, insects coming out of the wallpaper.

      I think you’ve read my eighth step.

      • Doris A June 28, 2016 at 2:05 pm Reply

        That made me laugh loudly.

  7. life-j June 26, 2016 at 11:49 am - Reply

    ok, that went thru, so I’ll try again.

    There are 2 or 3 movies from that time that are difficult to keep apart. One has a lengthyscene where our hero makes an ass of himself with his boss in front of a bunch of clients, one a guy comes to, and there is a strange woman in his apartment, she eventually informs him that they are married, one the guysees strange apparitions coming out of the wall. I know one of them, besides this one is Hitchcock’s Hangover, but I think there is another one. They all used to be on youtube at one time. And I’m not including the days of wine and roses, that one, though it has some straight shooting in it, is more of a hollywood family drama than an alcoholic movie

  8. Thomas Boone June 26, 2016 at 11:06 am - Reply

    What did he change in the 4th edition?

    • Jerry F June 26, 2016 at 2:39 pm Reply

      That story is scheduled to appear here next month. I think it’s the 17th.

  9. Roger C. June 26, 2016 at 10:43 am - Reply

    I had, oddly enough, never heard of this movie. Thanks for sharing, and in such an engaging fashion. I want to see it and found several versions on YouTube. It’s not on Netflix (in Canada). Do you know which version is the best or might you have other recommendations for acquiring/viewing this film? Thanks!

    • John S June 26, 2016 at 11:50 pm Reply

      Roger, the version you can rent from Amazon is a good one. I actually bought it shortly after Jerry submitted this article. It’s a great movie. The mouse coming out of the wall, really freaked me out, but it’s a good movie.

    • Jerry F June 26, 2016 at 2:37 pm Reply

      Odd that Netflix doesn’t have it. Amazon does. Sorry, Roger, but I don’t know the difference between the YouTube versions.

  10. life-j June 26, 2016 at 10:29 am - Reply

    Hmm, I thought this movie plot was different, then I went online looking for the movie I must have been thinking of, but can’t find it, it’s one where a guy comes to and finds a strange woman in his house, and then she tells him they’re married. Maybe I’m mixing it up with another movie where a guy is supposed to give a speech for some important clients, and he ends up insulting both the clients and his boss. Then there is the one where a guy sits and starts seeing creepy things come out of the wall, that’s kind of toward the end.  Seems the guy looked different than Ray Milland. There is Hitchcock’s Hangover, but curiously there isn’t much on youtube about any of these movies. I remember seeing some several years ago when movies could still be posted and remain for quite some time before being taken down. This isn’t the first time I have been on a quest to find them.

    Anyone know about these other movies?

     

  11. Pat N. June 26, 2016 at 10:22 am - Reply

    Many thanks, Jerry-lots of new information about the genesis and history of the book/film/author.

    When I was 11 or so, my brother Dick, 13,  and I went to see The Lost Weekend, and it scared the pants off us. On the way home, we found empty booze bottles and angrily broke every one. We didn’t think we knew any alcoholics.

    Ironically, we much later learned our parents were undoubtedly alcoholic, and had somehow quit drinking during the Roaring Twenties.  My mother relapsed in her later years, but there was no open drinking at home when we were kids.

    More ironically, first Dick, then I, and eventually our oldest bro all became grateful members of AA. Dick died recently with about 38 years sober, and was an early member of We Alcoholics in Hollywood, where he was an aspiring actor. I think the well known Charlie P. was his sponsor. That’s what inspired me to help start a We Ags meeting in Olympia a few years later.

    I’m sorry Jackson had such a chaotic life. I think we alkies owe him a lot for helping humanize our disease in the public’s mind.

    • Jerry F June 26, 2016 at 5:15 pm Reply

      What an interesting reaction you had to the movie.

      My family watched Playhouse 90 every week. I only remember one of those TV shows. It was Days of Wine and Roses starring Cliff Robertson and Piper Laurie. I was 16 and just beginning my drinking career but I, like you and your brother, was deeply moved by that story.

      Years ago I took AA meetings into our main prison in AZ, in Florence, to the minimum and medium security facilities. I showed them movies like “Clean and Sober” and “Barfly.” When I showed them the Jack Lemmon/Lee Remick version of Days of Wine and Roses, some of them were very upset that the Lee Remick character didn’t get sober. And yet these cons knew better than most that we don’t all make it. But they were moved by the story as I was by the Playhouse 90 telecast and you and your brother were by The Lost Weekend.

  12. Thomas Brinson June 26, 2016 at 8:18 am - Reply

    Wonderful interweaving of three story strands into a strong rope demonstrating the devastation of the disease we in AA are graced and gifted to be reprieved from a day at a time, Jerry. Thanks for a wonderful reminder to be most grateful this morning to awaken sober and not suicidal as I was most days during my last five years of drinking.

    • Jerry F June 27, 2016 at 10:47 am Reply

      Thank you, Thomas.

      Interesting to speculate what life would have been like for Charles Jackson today. Post-Stonewall, the LGBT movement in AA has made that part of Jackson’s life more acceptable and the secular movement would have been beneficial to him as well. But drugs? I don’t know about NYC where he was but here in AZ the conventional AA meetings are severely intolerant of any mention of drugs in a meeting. The secular meetings are more liberal, though, and I believe Jackson would have been attending them.

      I think he would have had a chance at achieving long-term sobriety today.

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