05 May 2011

Characters I Like, Ep. 3

1945's The Lost Weekend might be the quintessential film about alcoholism. Drunkenness was hardly uncommon in films beforehand -- indeed, booze was a staple of pre-code films and and gangster dramas -- but alcohol was almost universally handled in one of two ways. Drinking was either played for laughs on the one hand or vilified as being symbolic of a greater moral failing on the other. The only sympathetic portrayals that readily come to mind are Lowell Sherman's Max Carey in What Price Hollywood? and Fredric March's Norman Maine in the original version of A Star is Born (given the similarities between the two films, these are almost the same character). What sets The Lost Weekend apart from these and other earlier films, however, is that the story is told from the perspective of the alcoholic protagonist, a struggling writer named Dan Birnam.

Dan Birnam -- played very ably by Ray Milland -- is the sort of character who might make easy fodder for a morality play. He lives with his brother, has no real job and goes on spectacular drinking binges with unpleasant regularity. Dan reveals that he dropped out of college in order to pursue a career as a writer, only to have that career stall out when he was unable to produce a successful piece. Increasingly distraught, he found solace in liquor. Don's story is true to life -- in writing the novel upon which the film is based, Charles R. Jackson drew significantly on his own experiences as a struggling writer during the Depression. This touch puts a very human face on Dan and his alcoholism, thereby making his story all the more compelling. Hardly if ever, one ought to understand, does someone take up serious drinking just for the hell of it; rather, alcoholism is more often than not a coping mechanism of one sort or another which evolves into a chemical and psychological dependency. This unfortunate series of events is precisely what has befallen Dan Birnam.

In one the film's most memorable bits of dialogue, Dan offers up a remarkably eloquent description of the allure of drinking:
It shrinks my liver, doesn't it, Nat? It pickles my kidneys, yeah. But what it does to the mind? It tosses the sandbags overboard so the balloon can soar. Suddenly I'm above the ordinary. I'm competent. I'm walking a tightrope over Niagara Falls. I'm one of the great ones. I'm Michaelangelo, molding the beard of Moses. I'm Van Gogh painting pure sunlight. I'm Horowitz, playing the Emperor Concerto. I'm John Barrymore before movies got him by the throat. I'm Jesse James and his two brothers, all three of them. I'm W. Shakespeare. And out there it's not Third Avenue any longer, it's the Nile. Nat, it's the Nile and down it moves the barge of Cleopatra.
To anyone with a particular fondness for the creature, this sensation described in this passage might seem eerily familiar (it certainly did to me). The painful irony of this is that an inability to write well drove Dan to drink, and yet a few drinks elicit from him a decidedly articulate streak. But when Dan, newly inspired, sits down at his typewriter to begin the book he's been meaning to write for so long, he loses his nerve -- he needs yet another drink to steady himself, which in turn leads to another and another, and further down the slippery slope he slides.

Dan's downward spiral leads him into some rather inglorious circumstances. He is thrown out of a ritzy club for attempting to steal a woman's purse (he wouldn't be able to pay his tab otherwise), he tries unsuccessfully to hock his typewriter for booze money (all the pawn shops are closed for Yom Kippur!) and eventually passes out, only to come to in the alcoholic ward of the local sanatorium. When the staff is distracted by several patients caught in the throes of delirium tremens, Dan manages to escape. He makes his way back to his brother's apartment, only to fall prey to the DTs himself. Dan eventually recovers with the help of his devoted girlfriend Helen (Jane Wyman), but realized that he cannot save himself and makes plans to end it all. Helen intervenes once more, however, and manages to convince Dan to try his hand at writing his book once more (as an aside, Helen must have a superhuman quantity of patience, having been with Dan for three years at this point. Most reasonable women, I imagine, would have walked out on him years ago, and quite rightly so).

To the casual observer, Dan Birnam is hardly an admirable figure. Indeed, in some regards he seems much like Patton Oswalt's Paul Aufiero in Big Fan. What sets them apart, however, is that while Paul lacks any significant direction and appears to care for little else but football, Dan aspires to great things but feels he is unable to achieve them. Further, Dan is well aware of -- and decidedly guilt-stricken by -- the drain he poses to his friends and family, whereas Paul was largely oblivious to anything beyond the boundaries of his insular world. Dan Birnam is, at heart, a good guy, and it is this aspect of his character that makes him so believable and sympathetic.

Anyone who has undertaken an ambitious creative endeavor will tell you that there are few things more soul-crushing that to wish to create without being able to. My own experience has taught me as much. I couldn't help but recognize in Dan Birnam's struggles an exaggerated reflection of my own, to the degree that I occasionally got the feeling that while watching The Lost Weekend I was also watching some sort of dystopian vision of my own future. Like Dan, I struggle with writing and, also like Dan, I have a greater fondness for the creature than I perhaps ought to (I hasten to add, however, that I am hardly as terminally dependent on the stuff as Dan is).

The hard-drinking protagonist has become a fairly commonplace trope in the sixty-odd years since the premier of The Lost Weekend, to the degree that heavy drinking plays significantly in a character's coolness factor (the same can be said of other self-destructive habits, smoking in particular, but I digress). Nevertheless, Dan Birnam's whiskey-soaked odyssey retains the same powerful effect it had back in 1945, in large part because it feels so sincere. Ray Milland won the Academy Award for best actor for his role as Dan Birnam, and well-deservedly so -- that Dan is so sympathetic a character is due as much to Milland's affecting performance as it is to the solid writing and direction of the film as a whole (Billy Wilder won the Award in both of those categories, and The Lost Weekend won Best Picture of the year). After only two viewings, The Lost Weekend has become one of my favorite films, and Dan Birnam is easily one of my favorite characters.