The Cause Of, And Solution To, All Of Life's Problems
This is my second post for filmscreed's Billy Wilder Blog-A-Thon. The first one can be found here. For some great reading, check out the homebase.
In the history of the Academy Awards, only one film that won Best Picture has been classified as film noir. That one is The Lost Weekend, directed by one Billy Wilder. And so, it must be asked, what is so special about this particular film noir? Hell, the film doesn't even really kick into full film noir style until an hour into it. So what is it?
Probably because it is a "message movie" the Academy likes so much. This time around, the message is that alcoholism is bad. And yet, The Lost Weekend sneaks a great deal of other ideas to its audience besides that simplistic moral statement. After watching it, the audience can't even be sure that Wilder believes what he is saying. As I showed in my last post, the most impassioned lines of the film talk about the glorious release that alcohol gives Don Birnam (Ray Milland). Don loves rye whiskey, but like most doomed film romances, he loves too much.
Don is a hopeless alcoholic, and yet he does not receive the audience's scorn. That is reserved for the low-lifes who look down on him. Bim (Frank Faylen), the nurse who treats Don when he ends up in the hospital, takes a sick pleasure from watching his patients suffer. Gloria (Doris Dowling), the prostitute who works Don's usual bar, can only scream at him when he asks for a loan. Mrs. Deveridge (Mary Young), Don's landlady, looks down on Don, only letting him live there because his brother pays the rent on time. All of these people are typical of a holier than thou society who will gladly point out a person's flaws without helping or looking at its own.
It is this society that led Don back to the bottle, as explained in a flashback to the first time he was supposed to meet the parents of his girlfriend, Helen (Jane Wyman). And it is this society that Wilder is truly criticizing, not alcoholism. This isn't to say that Wilder simply paints Don as the victim. There are plenty of moments, near where he reaches rock bottom, that he does horribly despicable things. He lies to his loved ones. He tries to steal from a woman at a bar. He even tries to sell his typewriter for extra money for booze. And yet, everytime he does something to earn our scorn, society rears its ugly head and puts him back in the place of the victim.
The rest of this piece discusses the ending of the film, so as a warning to those who have not seen the movie: SPOILERS!!
I would put money on the fact that the ending of the film is not the ending originally planned by Wilder. This ending, like It's a Wonderful Life and The Night of the Hunter after it, pulls back from the edge of darkness the rest of the film toes so nicely. But, unlike those other films The Lost Weekend adds ambiguity to the happiness that threatens to smother the film. Don's speech at the end of the film bears a similar tone to the one he gave to Nat the bartender (Howard Da Silva) when he swears himself off of alcohol earlier in the film. Yes, there is more of a reason to believe he will stay on the wagon this time, but there is no way of knowing how long he can go without a drink. What happens when his publisher thinks his novel is terrible? Does he return? It is a strong possiblity, and it embues the ending with a hint of melancholy that elevates the film overall.
Certainly the film I have described here doesn't sound like the sort of film that would be awarded Best Picture from the Academy. But that is where Wilder reveals his genius. Most of the points I have talked about are masked in some way. Don's speech about alcohol could just as easily be read as a drunk's rant. Bim may look down on his patients, but they are all alcoholics, and in the 1940s, that gave Bim the right to feel however he wanted. And the ending is mostly happy. Don swears off alcohol and begins the write his novel with Helen by his side. This is what got The Lost Weekend the Academy Award. But what makes it still worth watching is the way Billy Wilder embedded his feelings through subtlety and double meanings.