Ten Decades of Oscars: THE LOST WEEKEND (1945)

Hello! And welcome to Ten Decades of Oscars where each week I watch the Best Picture winners in a given decade and then choose one to discuss at length. In case you haven’t done the math yet, that means ten movies in one week! And in case you’ve forgotten, there are seven days in a week! Haha! Ha! Splendid!

This week was the winners of the 1940s. Here I noticed a significant progression into more modern filmmaking styles—sometimes even from the same directors like William Wyler’s MRS. MINIVER (1942) and THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES (1946). In fact, THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES was the close second for this week’s spotlight. It’s a carefully paced, intimate look at post-WWII American vets—endlessly interesting and moving in its subject matter for the time, and an impressively digestible three-hour entrée for a film that’s just about characters trying to become normal members of society again. And then, of course, there’s CASABLANCA (1943), which was a joy to revisit after so many years, and is still the most-remembered of the decade’s winners for reasons that haven’t diminished over time. Everyone must watch CASABLANCA at least once.

But this week I couldn’t steer my mind away from Billy Wilder’s winner from 1945: THE LOST WEEKEND. A film that I’ve always been aware of since my early cinephile days, but never took the time to watch. The film is kind of treated this way today: still lauded, still patted on the back by film freaks, but not really given much daylight otherwise. And true enough, though the film’s subject of brutal and unrelenting alcoholism may have been a shock to the cultural system in 1945, it’s not exactly a fresh topic for today’s audience. But THE LOST WEEKEND still packs a wallop. It’s a methodical descent—the kind we know is inevitable; from the first scene of a whisky bottle hanging out our protagonist’s window, we know the film’s content won’t become more layered than a man’s addiction. But the descent is captivating thanks largely to Ray Milland’s full-bodied performance. And it’s grand to watch a film from this era where the main character is so bluntly made the antagonist to his own story. Milland does try to stay sober, but also he doesn’t. It’s well-conceived and believable addiction at every stroke of the clock as his weekend ticks by, and when he begins to indulge and beg and lie and cheat, falling further and further, it’s still kind of shocking. These days we watch all sorts of terrible people do terrible things in films. I’m used to that. But I’m not used to someone from 1945 doing them.

Wilder’s direction is fairly standard to begin with, but as the spiral deepens, he finds ways to infuse added paranoia and fatigue. Hard pushes and dissolves and beautiful uses of light and shadow. I may never forget the shot of a whisky bottle’s shadow on Milland’s ceiling as it sits in the light fixture. There’s an extreme closeup on Milland’s eye at one point, which feels extremely avant-garde for mainstream American cinema in the 1940s. But Wilder is considered a giant of his time not just because he delivered so many classics, but because his visions were often so interweaved with the given subject matter of each film. He was always conscious of what kind of film he was making.

THE LOST WEEKEND is also just dark. It’s dark for 1945. The era isn’t known for its particular warmth—and who could blame it with WWII snatching up half its time—but THE LOST WEEKEND stands out from the pack in its atmosphere and filmic approach, especially as the winner from the year WWII ended—the same year soldiers would be returning home and, much like the ones portrayed in THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES (or worse), would turn to drink to quell the images and memories that crossed the ocean with them.

I can’t deny this film also spoke to me on multiple fronts. A writer with a proclivity for alcohol? I did something this year that I don’t often do: I made a couple New Year’s resolutions. Most of them are financial, but there’s one other that I haven’t touted much to friends or family, and that’s my decision to stop drinking for the entire year. I wouldn’t call myself addicted—certainly nothing like what’s portrayed in THE LOST WEEKEND—but for reasons beyond the basic health ones, it began to feel like a tool more than a way to have a fun evening. I began to rely on a glass of wine to write anything. I found myself bored at work in the middle of the day wishing I could be home with a strong cocktail and an episode of THE SIMPSONS I’ve seen seventy times. The want can become a need so gradually it’s easy not to notice. I haven’t had a drink yet this year. Most days I’m okay without. Some days I miss it. Then the odd day I consider breaking down. THE LOST WEEKEND is a reminder that the easiest endorphins are usually activated by the worst habits. I hope Billy Wilder was proud of it.

That’s my time for this week. Let’s meet back here again next Sunday and we’ll dig into the 1950s. The contestants for that decade are:

ALL ABOUT EVE
AN AMERICAN IN PARIS
THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH
FROM HERE TO ETERNITY
ON THE WATERFRONT
MARTY
AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS
THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI
GIGI
BEN-HUR

THE LOST WEEKEND is available on Blu-Ray from Kino Lorber, which is how it was viewed for this review. It is also available for digital rental on Google Play.

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