Ray Milland in The Lost Weekend (1945)

Ray Milland won the Oscar for playing Don Birnam, an alcoholic writer in the best picture winning film, The Lost Weekend.

The Lost Weekend can be considered an unusual winner for that decade, given its grittiness and subject matter. It is a good, but a bit dated film that has a mixture of great and strange directing choices. That scene where Don hallucinates the floating coats on stage is just bizarre, but I love how Billy Wilder plays with angles to make the bottles seem like some malevolent, omnipresent force that is always watching over Don. The screenplay is okay: I appreciate that it doesn’t sugarcoat the subject matter and try to sentimentalize it, but there are a couple of a bit too convenient solutions that I don’t exaclly buy, especially the ending. The performances are range from solid to good, but this movie is pretty much Ray Milland’s show.

The main strength of Milland’s performance is pretty much its rawness. Alcoholics can be pretty damn hard to get right, and they can lead to some pretty weird acting if handled wrongly. Milland manages to use the character’s troubles as the source of his problems, showing how the drinking is being driven by his inner demons. His shrieks and breakdowns are rightfully praised – the rawness and intensity is brilliant, and one cannot help but feel sorry for Don when he is reduced to a pathetic, paranoid and mentally unstable creature at the end of the film. However, I think what’s even more worthy of praise is the way he builds up the severity of Don’s alcoholism; I especially loved how he starts of with minor gestures like the way he holds the glasses and how he places the cigarette wrongly in his mouth. There’s a surprising attention to detail that makes the performance all the more believable and captivating.

My main qualm is the slightly straightforward characterization. Don is essentially a failed writer who is constantly haunted by his own failures and his alcoholism. There isn’t much beyond this, and I wished there could have been more complexity and layers in his relationships with Helen (Jane Wyman) and his brother Wick (Philip Terry). Still, I think very highly of this performance and it is actually one of the best portrayals of alcoholism I’ve seen (Just FYI, I kinda hate Jack Lemmon’s performance in Days of Wine and Roses). A strong and deserving winner. 4.5/5.

 

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