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.