The Sophisticated Cinema of Alcoholism

Clinical Psychiatry News, December 2007 | Go to article overview

The Sophisticated Cinema of Alcoholism


Foremost among the major psychiatric syndromes, alcohol dependence (for narrative ease, I'll take the liberty of using the terms "alcoholism" and "alcoholic" from now on) has been well depicted onscreen in several memorable films over the years, from Charlie Chaplin's "City Lights" to the sendup of residential treatment, "28 Days." Who can forget Chaplin's 1931 gem, in which his little tramp is only recognizable to his wealthy drinking partner and benefactor while this man is soused, which is the state he was in when the two first met. This scenario provides a splendid, even though parodic, demonstration of what drug researchers call "state dependent" memory.

Classic Narratives

Among early realistic portrayals of alcoholics, roles that stand out include those played by Ray Milland in Billy Wilder's "The Lost Weekend" (1945), Susan Hayward in "I'll Cry Tomorrow" (1955, directed by Daniel Mann), and Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick in "Days of Wine and Roses" (1962, Blake Edwards). These movies feature over-the-top melodramatic performances, with all the subtlety of mortar fire. But from the standpoint of clinical authenticity as well as dramatic style, they need to be judged in the context of their times.

"Weekend" is perhaps Hollywood's earliest frank treatment of the subject of alcoholism and may be the first narrative film to characterize this disorder as a health problem. The movie offers lurid details of compulsive drinking and delirium tremens (D.T.s), but also ably demonstrates "codependent" and "enabling" relationships--as does "Wine and Roses"--decades before those notions permeated popular culture. (Milland won a best actor Oscar for his turn. Trivia buffs will also know that, in addition to winning a best film Oscar, "Weekend" was judged the best film at the very first Cannes Film Festival.)

"I'll Cry Tomorrow," a biodoc about the actress Lillian Roth, introduces the role of Alcoholics Anonymous in recovery efforts. "Wine and Roses"--despite some flawed details including, for example, neglectful management of D.T.s, and use of last names at an AA meeting--somberly and realistically depicts progression from heavy drinking through problem drinking to destructive, high-dose alcoholic drinking, and the problems arising when one partner seeks help and the other won't.

Filming Alcoholic Behavior

That many nuances of alcoholism should apparently be so accessible to filmmakers is, on the one hand, no great surprise, for notorious examples certainly abound in Hollywood. Recalling some famous alcoholics of filmdom is easy enough, whether screenwriters, actors, or directors: Think of William Faulkner, Richard Burton, or John Huston. On the other hand, most people--in and out of film--also know individuals who have depression or schizophrenia. Yet these "types" are not often portrayed well onscreen, compared with alcoholics. Why the difference?

Intimacy with the subject may be one factor, but another may simply be that alcoholic behavior is so photographable. Schizophrenia, after all, is largely a disorder of internal experience (thinking, feeling, perceiving), while people having an episode of depression by definition tend to constrict their emotional expression and behavior. It may be harder for the average filmgoer to identify with a character who is afflicted with schizophrenia. And depression is, well, depressing, not much fun when portrayed in a leading role. Alcoholics, on the other hand, often behave extravagantly while intoxicated, manipulate other people in provocative ways, and frequently cause major social and physical damage. (In this sense the melodramatic nature of the early classics is justifiable.) There can be a lot for the camera to see while tracking an alcoholic.

More Recent Narrative Films

Here are five more dramas that view alcoholism from different perspectives. In "Clean and Sober" (1988, Glenn Gordon Caron), Michael Keaton plays a restless, cocky real estate salesman who is hooked on cocaine and alcohol.

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