WEIRDLAND

Thursday, September 11, 2014

The Book and the Film: The 70th Anniversary of Charles R. Jackson’s ‘The Lost Weekend’

“Suddenly I could see the whole thing – the tragic sweep of the great novel, beautifully proportioned. But before I could really grab it and throw it down on paper, the drink would wear off and everything be gone like a mirage.” – Don Birnam in The Lost Weekend (1944)

It’s been 70 years since the publication (by Farrar & Rinehart) of the groundbreaking novel The Lost Weekend in 1944, written by Charles R. Jackson and praised as the seminal addiction study in American literature and “the Uncle Tom’s Cabin of alcoholism,” a precursor to such works as Augusten Burroughs’ Dry and David Carr’s The Night of the Gun. Paramount paid $50,000 for the rights to adapt it for the screen.

The protagonist of the celebrated film The Lost Weekend (directed by Billy Wilder), released the next year, on November 16, 1945, is Don Birnam (a superlative Ray Milland), a writer who has never achieved the success he expected and has drowned his frustrations in rye whiskey. His brother Wick (Phillip Terry) and his girlfriend Helen St. James (Jane Wyman) have done everything possible to rehabilitate him, but it has been in vain and Don has no real hope of recovering. The film focuses on a weekend when Don is making a feeble attempt at writing whilst he recalls the beginnings of his relationship with Helen. Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett’s script conveys perfectly the feeling of irreversibility cast by clinical alcoholism, a terrifying spiral of self-destruction that leads Don to continue drinking and cheating without caring about anything else.

The film’s relentless depiction of Don’s moral decline explains why it has survived particularly well through today. Although Jackson reckoned Wilder’s sharp talents as responsible for improving on his novel on several points – a more sympathetic protagonist, more witty banter – he nevertheless complained that Wilder had drastically altered his original ending, having Birnam redeemed and beginning to write an autobiographical novel of his tortured long-lost weekend instead of the far bleaker alcoholic relapse depicted in the book. Wilder admitted to composing the screen version of Don’s story as a way of addressing Raymond Chandler’s peculiar influence, and also as an homage to F. Scott Fitzgerald.

At any respect, the movie was a huge hit and garnered four Oscars, including Best Actor for Ray Milland. Although previously he had played a mental patient in Fritz Lang’s The Ministry of Fear, Milland had been reluctant to accept this challenging role, considering the story very depressing. Brackett had commented on the novel: “It had more sense of horror than any horror story I have ever read – lingering like a theme in music.” Jackson continued to write sporadically over the next decades, publishing his final novel A Second Hand Life in 1967, an account of another kind of addiction (sexual) voiced by a nymphomaniac heroine. Sadly, Jackson never completely escaped the grips of alcoholism and his private torments, committing suicide in 1968.

Enhanced by John F. Seitz’s low-key lighting, Wilder’s mise-en-scène uses some objects as key dramatic signs. For example, the typewriter is the most important object of Don’s (the writer), so when he decides to sell it, he’s willing to bury definitively his future as a writer, defeated by his other part (Don the alcoholic). Paramount convinced Wilder that the only way they could sell such a film was with a matinée idol in the lead, so the audience would not be revolted by the sordid experience. Jackson had Robert Montgomery in mind to impersonate his tortured character. After Wilder’s first choice, José Ferrer, was rejected, other famous actors – Cary Grant, Alan Ladd – refused to tackle such a risky role. Encouraged by his wife Mal, Milland committed thoroughly to fleshing out what would be the most affecting character of his film career.

For the role of Helen, Jackson liked Jean Arthur – who had played opposite Milland in Mitchell Leisen’s Easy Living – but the part (based on Jackson’s wife, Fortune's editor Rhoda Booth) was assigned to Jane Wyman, who offers one of her most memorable performances. By the time the novel was reprinted in 1963, Jackson had confessed it was autobiographical and only a couple of “minor incidents were pure invention” (Jackson did not pawn his girlfriend’s expensive leopard coat or stand up a goodtime girl as shown in the film). In this light, the parallels between Birnam and Jackson are astounding. In 1952, Jackson had attempted suicide and was confined to Bellevue Hospital. After his release, he went on an alcohol and paraldehyde binge while suffering from continuous writer’s block. In 1953, he joined Alcoholics Anonymous, and his wife got a job at the Yale Center of Alcohol Studies. Literary critic Philip Wylie termed Jackson’s novel “the most compelling gift to the literature of addiction since De Quincey,” referring to Confessions of an English Opium Eater (1822).

In Farther and Wilder: The Lost Weekends and Literary Dreams of Charles Jackson (2013) Blake Bailey recounts Jackson’s life and analyzes his soaked literature, revealing his bisexuality and wounded narcissism. Jackson’s idols were Shakespeare and Fitzgerald, and he saw himself destined for literary glory, “a kindred of Poe and Keats and Chatterton.” “Don is both tragic clown and audience staring back at the performer in silent contempt and ridicule, while hovering above is the triumphant novelist –Jackson – and hence the implicit irony of Don’s self-loathing,” muses Bailey. Every chapter in his book (“The Start,” “The Wife,” “The Joke,” “The Dream,” “The Mouse,” “The End”) is equally persistent narrating Don’s fight against “the old Demon of Ennui,” frantically approaching his conflicted concept of suicide: “a refusal to submit, to conform, a demonstration that the spirit with honor is unwilling to go on except in its own way… Romantic rubbish! An end like this was abject, immoral, worse than unmanly.”

The more grueling scenes related to Don’s delirium tremens are still wrenching seen today, aided by Miklos Rozsa’s theremin score (which replaced the original jazz soundtrack), provoking a nightmarish discomfort without using any modern tricks, just showing an attack by a bat on a panicky mouse stuck on the walls at Don’s apartment, as Don’s arcane fears lead him to imagine a mouse emerging from the hole in his wall. The moment of the bat leaving a trail of blood on the wall is bloodcurdling. That emblematic scene is interpreted cleverly by Jackson’s biographer Bailey: “In the early chapters there’s a kind of black comedy to Don’s misadventures, grading subtly into tragedy until the climactic horror of his delirium tremens as his wheeling, drunken bat-self murders and seems gruesomely to copulate with (‘the more it squeezed the wider and higher rose the wings’) the passive mouse. This is the consummation of Don’s narcissism, subject and object merging in death, though at the novel’s end we leave him alive, preparing for another binge. Birnam remains the definitive portrait of an alcoholic in American literature, a tragicomic combination of Hamlet and Mr. Toad.” As mentioned above, Jackson thought Wilder’s film opening was “brilliant” but protested the redemptive ending in the last scene.

Doris Dowling (Alan Ladd’s unfaithful wife in The Blue Dahlia scripted by Raymond Chandler) plays here a plucky hooker with élan. (Dowling, who had been suggested by Jackson to play Gloria during a lunch with the director, had an affair with Wilder during the filming.) Gloria relishes dishing out her hepcat jargon out – abbreviating words, as in “ridic” and “def” – and flirting incessantly with Don whom she considers more an eccentric gentleman than a self-destructive drunk. In the novel, Gloria is less funny, more of a pitiful creature clueless about Don’s haughty aspirations: “Gloria came out, her copper-satin dress shining in the dark back part of the room. She looked as pretty as a picture. Her orange-colored hair was as lively and vivid as her dress; she was color itself, yet with all that there was something pathetic about her. Child of nature, so unnatural.” Dowling’s Gloria is more cynical, sometimes bordering on a femme-fatale figure, especially in her presentation and her casual quips: “Goodbye, not” and “Thanks a lot, but no thanks.” She is intriguing and her entrances create a tension with Don’s character that is not merely sexual.

After Don’s intimacy with Gloria, it’s a bit strange he forgets to include her in his list of people who will receive copies of his anticipated cautionary-tale novel: “I’ll send one copy to Bim, one to that doctor who loaned me his coat, and one to Nat. Imagine Wick standing in front of a book store,” says Don, reassuring Helen of his new-found sobriety. In some ways, Helen symbolizes the comforts and moral establishment of America, whilst Gloria is the poster girl for the bohemian hustler scene.

Don oscillates between the two women, because his personality has become inconsistent due to his abuse of alcohol and subsequent loss of ambition. The horror scene of the bat flying over and killing the mouse can also be seen as a metaphor of Helen “killing” Gloria. Helen has always wanted to suppress Don’s suffering at any cost, but when she demands he stop drinking for good, she is also killing the part of his personality which is the source of his individuality and inspiration for writing. Article first published as The Book and the Film: The 70th Anniversary of Charles R. Jackson’s ‘The Lost Weekend’

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Ray Milland video


Ray Milland video: A video featuring stills and pictures of Ray Milland and his co-stars: Claudette Colbert, Jean Arthur, Doris Dowling, Jane Wyman, Audrey Totter, Jean Peters, Constance Moore, Lana Turner, Rita Johnson, Paulette Goddard, Anna Neagle, Ellen Drew, Elsa Lanchester, Olympe Bradna, Ann Todd, Dorothy Lamour, Marjorie Reynolds, Maureen O'Sullivan, Jan Sterling, Veronica Lake, Frances Farmer, Ginger Rogers, Patricia Roc, Ruth Hussey, Gail Russell, Joan Fontaine, Teresa Wright, Loretta Young, Barbara Stanwyck, Grace Kelly, Hedy Lamarr, Barbara Britton, Florence Marley, Charles Laughton, Heather Angel, Steffi Sidney, Barbara Read, Rita Gam, Marlene Dietrich, Mary Beth Hughes, Gene Tierney, Susan Hayward, Patricia Morrison, John Hodiak, Sally Eilers, Wendy Barrie, Maureen O'Hara, Isa Miranda, Sonja Henie, Olivia De Havilland, Margaret Hayes, Ray Milland's wife Muriel Webb, etc.

Ginger Rogers and Ray Milland in Billy Wilder's comedy "The Major and The Minor" (1942)

Friday, September 05, 2014

Grace Kelly DVD Collection, her romantic liaision with Ray Milland


The Grace Kelly Collection features Mogambo (1953), The Country Girl (1954), The Bridges at Toko-Ri (1954), Dial M for Murder (1954), To Catch a Thief (1955) and Kelly’s last film High Society (1956). This collection also includes the 'Princess Grace de Monaco: A Moment in Time' documentary/interview, as well as numerous other bonus features, including documentaries about the two included Alfred Hitchcock films, radio spots for High Society, a Droopy cartoon from MGM, a documentary about Edith Head’s Paramount Years, special commentaries and trailers for all six films.

While Kelly’s career didn’t last as long as many other starlets, there’s no question she left a vivid mark on Hollywood. It’s certainly easy to see why Kelly was one of Hitchcock’s favorite actresses to direct, as well as one of Edith Head’s favorites to dress. Source: cliqueclack.com

“It was very serious between Ray and Grace,” [Grace's sister] Lizanne recalls. "They began to see each other, making little effort to conceal their romance." “I was aware of it,” Mel Dellar (Dial M for Murder's assistant director) says. “My wife and I saw them out having dinner a couple of times, and late in the evening, after we finished filming, they’d go to some little place and have a few drinks.” Milland surprised Lizanne one day by confiding the depth of his feelings for Grace. “I flew back from Hollywood on the same plane with him,” she recalls, “and we had a long talk. He told me he really was very much in love with her.” The Millands separated; Grace and Ray discussed marriage. He took an apartment in Hollywood and Grace spent a great deal of time there. Teet Carle, a publicist at Paramount at the time, says, “I don’t know if they were living together, but the story got back to me that someone from the studio went over to Ray’s apartment and Grace answered the door.”

Studio publicist Andy Hervey recalls that Mrs. Milland had an ace up her sleeve: “Mal told Ray, ‘You go ahead and get a divorce and marry Grace Kelly. That’s okay with me, because all the property is in my name.’ Needless to say, it wasn’t long before the marriage plans were off.” The previously quoted friend of the Millands adds, “Jack finally came to his senses and realized that he had a wonderful woman in Mal. Mal referred to the Grace Kelly period as ‘those agonizing days.’” In its colorful style, Confidential magazine detailed Ray’s infatuation with Grace and the domestic discord it caused: “After one look at Gracie he went into a tailspin that reverberated from Perino’s to Ciro’s. The whole town soon hee-hawed over the news that suave Milland, who had a wife and family at home, was ga-ga over Grace. Ray pursued her ardently and Hollywood cackled. Then mama Milland found out. She lowered the boom on Ramblin’ Ray and there followed one of the loudest, most tearful fights their Beverly Hills neighbors can remember.” -"Grace Kelly: The Secret Life of a Princess" (2012) by James Spada

“Ray Milland is only sheer heaven,” Grace Kelly wrote. As a teenager, back in Philadelphia, she had swooned over Milland in 'The Lost Weekend.' Now she was costarring with him. And what greater triumph for her than to seduce the hero of her teenage years and to make him her own? There was only one problem. Ray Milland had been married for thirty years, and he and his wife, Muriel —known to friends as “Mal”— had a son Daniel born in 1940 and a daughter, Victoria, adopted in 1949.

Ray Milland was twenty-four years older than Grace, suave, sophisticated, and an inveterate seducer of young actresses. “You had to run past ‘Jack’ Milland’s dressing room or else,” remembered actress Pat Medina, who went on to marry 'The Third Man' actor Joseph Cotten. With Grace, however, Milland was every inch the gentleman, urbane and charming. Grace was in love with him within days of first meeting him. Years later, she insisted to Gwen Robyns that at the time of her affair with Milland, she genuinely believed that he was separated from his wife. Soon Ray Milland was squiring Grace all over Hollywood. Ultimately, the salacious gossip magazine Confidential exposed Milland’s illicit affair with Grace, whereupon he and his wife separated, and Grace was branded a home wrecker.

Muriel “Mal” Milland, one of the most popular Hollywood wives, quickly marshaled the support of all her friends, including powerful columnist, Hedda Hopper. “Mal was in a desperate situation,” remembered Doreen Hawkins, the widow of 'Bridge on the River Kwai' actor Jack Hawkins. “She and Ray had had a long marriage and they’d been through a lot together. So everyone was on her side and against Grace. Soon after, Grace gave a Hollywood press interview in which she virtually begged the town for forgiveness.

“I think Grace probably wanted to go on with her career and knew she couldn’t if she carried on with Ray. She said she was ashamed,” recalled Pat Medina Cotten. “She made a public statement, ‘I have done the most terrible thing. I have fallen in love with a married man. And I am distraught. I never want to do anything like that again.’

Arlene Dahl, however, has another interpretation of the Milland affair: “The Ray Millands were very good friends of mine. Mal hated Grace like poison. Grace didn’t know he was married? Oh, please. Everyone knew he was married. He was one of the most married film stars in Hollywood. Mal was very jealous and they had been married for years and years. I made a film with Ray. Everybody knew he was married.”

Hollywood siren Hedy Lamarr also lambasted Grace Kelly for her promiscuity. “Hedy told me Grace slept around,” her friend Arlene Roxbury said. “Hedy said Grace would sleep with anyone in Hollywood to get ahead. Hedy said that was a known fact, actors, directors, producers, Grace would sleep with them at the drop of a hat.” -"True Grace: The Life and Times of an American Princess" (ekindle, 2014) by Wendy Leigh

"Ann Sothern's Secret: She Blew the Whistle on Grace Kelly and Ray Milland": The Globe. November 17, 1987. Ann Sothern confessed that she sent Grace Kelly an annonymous letter, urging Grace to stop her affair with Ray Milland in 1953. Because Ray's wife, Mal, was Ann's best friend, Ann did not want to see her hurt. Ann said that the affair ended shortly after she sent the letter, and Ray went back to his wife. -"Ann Sothern: A Bio-Bibliography" by Margie Schultz

Thursday, September 04, 2014

Nightmarish Affairs: "Detour", "The Lost Weekend", Stiegler's diagnosis

The Best of Film Noir: #1. "Detour" (dir. Edgar G. Ulmer, 1945)
A masterpiece of Poverty Row, Roger Ebert called this film "the guilty soul of film noir." Detour is that rare film whose brevity somehow communicates a tome's worth of ideas and themes. The staging is bare-bones —Ulmer used a total of four sets (three interior, one exterior) and used stock footage and rear projection for everything else— and the narrative is stripped to virtually nothing, so all that exists is a creeping, paranoid mood and deep sense of alienation. How Ulmer achieved so much with so little is something of a marvel, but credit the milieu's deliberate artificiality and the unconventional, oddly stilted performances. This is one of very few films rightly described as a "fever dream." Source: www.chicagoreader.com

Bernard Stiegler's argument for the cinematic character of consciousness: Cinema amounts to a process of the selection and assembling of retentions, a process engaging the secondary retentional sphere of imagination/desire. Stiegler discusses the standardisation of perception and protentions, and the impact of this standardisation on the realm of secondary retentions (memory). In 'Technics and Time 3' he draws on accounts of the significance of Hollywood to the formation of American cultural identity to argue that it was through the cinema that the adoption of American values was largely transacted. What Stiegler calls “hyper-synchronization” (an excessive, preemptive industrial production of the collective through, above all, industrial temporal objects) can trigger “hyper-diachronization:” a breakdown of the individual-collective dynamic, a loss of self and collective, leading to, in psychoanalytic terms, the liberation of the drives in lieu of the mediations of the symbolic and the imaginary. For Stiegler, Husserl’s (and Turing’s) dream of pure presence, and hence of realtime as its ultimate mastery, is illusory, albeit powerfully concretised in contemporary technoculture. “Retentional finitude” is a concept that Derrida elaborates in his critique of Husserl to name the limitation of individual human memory, the limitation necessitating reliance on the prosthetic supplementation of living memory by writing. The necessary distinction between primary retention (lived experience) and tertiary retention (essential factical prosthesis of experience) tends to become “formal and void” in this circumstance.

A dangerous uncoupling of the dynamic of individual and collective individuation results. The individual loses faith in the protentional horizon of collective becoming that is borne in the factical stock of tertiary retentions as heritage, cultural tradition, and orientation. Tertiary retention in turn loses its connection to the singularity of experience. The immediate passage of the event into a processed and re-presented “already-there” for the viewer and for viewers in general tends to prevent, or preempt, the individuation of experiences in the interchange with “our” others. In Stiegler’s diagnosis what is increasingly lacking today are ways of re-engaging with the profound complexity of temporal objects, ways of regaining the potential for individuation in eventfulness. -"Thinking Cinematically and the Industrial Temporal Object: Schemes and Technics of Experience in Bernard Stiegler's Technics" (2007) by Patrick Crogan

1940s Psychological Horror/Thriller: "Frighteningly Real". In the first half of the 1940s, commentators claimed that they were witnessing a major new cycle of horror films that were ‘fresh psychological efforts’ and included films that are not commonly identified as horror today but as examples of the paranoid woman’s film, film noir and the thriller. Consequently, during this period, the horror film and the psychological film were almost interchangeable. For example, in its review of "Phantom Lady" (1944), the New York Times stressed the significance of its director, Robert Siodmak, and his background, a background in which he was described as ‘a former director of German horror films’ or ‘the old German psychological films’

However, in the mid-1940s, there was a shift in the evaluation of psychological films. During this period, these films gained greater legitimacy as they began to be distanced from an association with horror and Gothic fantasy and came to be increasingly associated with the values of cinematic realism. Today, the shift in critical values that led critics to champion cinematic realism is often associated with the release of Rossellini’s "Open City," but it was clearly evident at least a year earlier in responses to Billy Wilder’s "The Lost Weekend," a psychological study of alcoholism that was overtly identified as horror on its release in the United States. It was only after the release of "The Lost Weekend" that the horror film and the thriller began to become distanced from one another. As critical tastes shifted, critics began to dissociate the thriller from Gothic fantasy, and to identify it with contemporary settings and notions of realism.

Similarly, "Body and Soul" (1947) was praised as a film that ‘hits an all time high in throat-catching fight films’. While it is claimed to borrow heavily from a range of films, plays and literary fictions, it is also supposed to transcend them due to its realism. It has a ‘slashing fidelity to the cold and greedy nature of the fight game’, and has been directed with ‘an honest regard for human feelings’. However, once again, it is the atmosphere of terror and despair that is supposed to distinguish the story, in which a young fighter finds that ‘the fates close inexorably in, until the wraps are torn from his illusions and he finds himself owned, body and soul’.

Of course, there were disagreements over such distinctions and, while the New York Times dismissed "Nightmare Alley," which was said to ‘traverses distasteful dramatic ground’, both Time and the Nation praised its daring: James Agee even gained the ‘added pleasure of thinking, “Oh, no; they won’t have the guts to do that.” But they do’ (Agee, 1947). However, even here, it was claimed that this ‘hair-raising carnival sideshow’ was only justified due to its ‘malign social observation’.

In contrast, there was general critical consensus in the condemnation of "Black Angel" (1946). Certainly, it was explicitly compared to "The Lost Weekend" due to a character that ‘goes through a couple of drunken bouts of “Lost Weekend” variety’. But in this film the drunkenness was supposed to lack purpose and to only enhance an ‘atmosphere’ that is ‘redolent of the lower depths’. Even "The Big Sleep" was described by the New York Times as a ‘poisonous picture’ (Crowther, 1946) and, for all its tough urban action, it was hardly seen as a realistic film. For some critics, this was not necessarily a problem and Manny Farber clearly relished the film for its ‘surrealist excitement’ and for its ‘fantastic quality’. Not only did he claim that the film had ‘the feeling of an opium smoker’s fantasy’, but he also continued the identification with horror present in the reviews of the earlier films associated with Raymond Chandler, referring to it as a ‘nightmarish affair.’ -"European Journal of American Culture vol. 31" (2012) by Marc Jancovich

Charles Jackson (author of "The Lost Weekend") was especially smitten with Charles Brackett (“the nicest man I have met here”), who in turn was even more fascinated by "The Lost Weekend" than Billy Wilder was: “It had,” he said, “more sense of horror than any horror story I have ever read—lingering like a theme in music.” A few days later, Wilder “dragged [Jackson] away” from a party to attend a screening of his latest movie, "Double Indemnity", after which he stood up—before a group including Groucho Marx, Dick Powell, and Buddy DeSylva—and announced, “Next picture coming up, The Lost Weekend!”

Hollywood columns had buzzed with rumors about who would play Don Birnam, the genteel alcoholic who ends up howling with delirium tremens. The role had been turned down by everyone from Cary Grant to Gary Cooper before the Welshman Ray Milland took it, refusing to heed an all but universal warning that he was committing “career suicide.” Milland, a near teetotaler, was coached in the ways of drunkenness by Jackson himself, first in Hollywood and then on set in New York.

Production began in October, and the first sequence to be shot was Don Birnam’s slog along the pawnshops of Third Avenue, which Wilder had decided to shoot on location in New York rather than try to re-create that particular jumble of scenery—including the El and its jagged shadows—on a Paramount soundstage. Lest a crowd of pedestrians interfere, cameras were concealed inside delivery trucks and empty storefronts, and for three weeks a disheveled, unshaven Milland waited in a cab for his cue to shamble along for another block or two while the cameras furtively rolled. (Once, he was recognized by a motorist who happened to know someone at Paramount. “I just want to tell you,” the man reported, “that I saw your friend Ray Milland dead drunk on Third Avenue. If I were you I’d try to get hold of him and straighten him out.”) Source: www.vanityfair.com

According to his autobiography "Wide-Eyed in Babylon" (1974), Ray Milland was allowed to spend a night in a psychiatric ward of Bellevue Hospital where the patients were suffering from alcoholism and delirium tremens. He found the experience extremely disturbing and left at three in the morning. Between the strain of acting and the morbidity of the subject Milland's home life deteriorated and he left for a period of two weeks. When the shoot was over, he left for a vacation in Canada with his wife Muriel.

He takes a pack of cigarettes from his pocket and shakes one out, lights it. As he puts the match in the ashtray, his eyes fall on that jigger of whiskey. It's hard to resist it any longer. He takes a handkerchief from his pocket, wipes his forehead, then his parched mouth. The time has come now. He puts the handkerchief back in his pocket, lifts the glass and drains it in one gulp. Actually, Don doesn't like the taste of liquor, actively hates it indeed, as a one-legged man might hate the sight of his crutches but need them in order to walk.

Gloria is back from the powder room. On her way to her gentleman friend at the table, she runs her finger through the neckline of Don's hair. She is almost past him when he catches her hand and pulls her towards him. DON: Shall we dance? GLORIA: You're awfully pretty, Mr. Birnam. DON: You say that to all the boys. GLORIA: Why, natch. Only with you it's on the level.

DON: That's my novel, Nat. I wanted to start writing it out in the country. Morbid stuff. Nothing for the Book-of-the Month Club. A horror story. The confessions of a booze addict, the log book of an alcoholic. (Holding out the jigger) Love's the hardest thing in the world to write about. So simple. You've got to catch it through details, like the early morning sunlight hitting the gray tin of the ashcans in front of her house. A ringing telephone that sounds like Beethoven's Pastoral. A letter scribbled on her office stationery that you carry in your pocket because it smells of all the lilacs in Ohio.
-extracts from "The Lost Weekend" (1945) script by Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder, based on the novel "The Lost Weekend" (1944) by Charles R. Jackson.

Monday, September 01, 2014

Ray Milland in "The Lost Weekend" (Perennial Nostalgia for a Time)

Née Alfred Reginald Truscott-Jones in the Welsh town of Neath, the author went on to become a jockey, seaman and trooper in the Household Cavalry before breaking into films as a trick sharpshooter. Later rescued from a gas station job by Paramount during the Depression, Ray Milland was typecast as a light leading man until he won acclaim and an Oscar for his portrayal of a harrowed alcoholic in quest of a pint. Far from the typical merry stroll down memory lane, the actor's autobiography is as incisively outspoken and wryly humorous as it is intensely personal. Nostalgic evocations of childhood days at Gnoll Hall School are counterbalanced by a feeling of malaise which Milland attributes to contemporary society ("If there is cynicism in me it has been engendered by disillusion. Most of my pedestals stand empty and the world seems filled with predators.") The Hollywood scene --"this glittering pastiche, this Circus Maximus, this lubricious slave market"-- is as wickedly readable as always. Not a lost weekend, nor even a couple of hours. -Kirkus Reviews, 1974

"Most of my pedestals stand empty and the world seems filled with predators, so that I have come to the conclusion that my periennial nostalgia is not for a place but for a time. A time of good manners, of elegance and modesty, of honor and pride and self-respect. Many of these qualities remain with me only faintly, but I remember them and know that if I can recapture and polish then I shall be safe." -"Wide-Eyed in Babyloon: An Autobiography" (1974) by Ray Milland

Mr. Milland's performance in ''The Lost Weekend'' was so compelling that for years, many people confused the actor with the role he had brought to life. It propelled him into the popular folklore as a national symbol of alcoholism. The starkly realistic film, which is still forceful, broke many enduring movie taboos and won an Academy Award as best film; Billy Wilder also won an Oscar for his direction.

Mr. Milland, a 6-foot, 1-inch, sharp-featured, debonair Welshman, portrayed nimble, self-assured characters in more than 120 movies: sophisticated comedies, thrillers, Westerns and horror films. He was widely regarded as one of the most competent and intelligent film actors, one who never gave an inferior performance.

The actor played a noble brother in ''Beau Geste'' (1939), a squid-wrestling ship-salvager in ''Reap the Wild Wind'' (1942), a ghost-chaser in ''The Uninvited'' (1944) and a spy-chaser in ''Ministry of Fear'' (1944). He was an 18th-century Pygmalion-like dandy in ''Kitty'' (1946), a man falsely accused of murder in ''The Big Clock'' (1948), a homicidal husband in ''Dial M for Murder'' (1954) and a self-destructive surgeon in ''The Man With the X-Ray Eyes'' (1963).

Of the actor's towering portrayal of the dipsomaniac Don Birnam in ''The Lost Weekend,'' Bosley Crowther of The New York Times concluded, ''He catches all the ugly nature of a drunk, yet reveals the inner torment and degradation of a respectable man who knows his weakness and shame.''

At the age of 24, Milland had no idea what career to pursue. At a party he met a popular film star, Estelle Brody, who invited him to her studio for lunch. A producer spotted the dashing young man and hired him for a bit part. That led to another role, and another, and the actor, first billed as Spike Milland, appeared in a half-dozen British films. A year later, he was invited to Hollywood, and for the next four years he had featured roles, mostly second leads, in both American and British movies.

In 1934, he won a contract at Paramount Pictures and stayed with the studio for 20 years, free-lancing after that. Mr. Milland's films include ''The Jungle Princess'' (1936), which introduced Dorothy Lamour and her sarong; ''Easy Living'' (1937), a top-drawer screwball comedy; ''The Major and the Minor'' (1942); ''Lady in the Dark'' (1944); ''Golden Earrings,'' an absurd camp favorite (1947); ''Alias Nick Beal'' (1949); ''The Thief'' (1952); ''The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing'' (1955); ''Love Story'' (1970) and ''Oliver's Story'' (1978) - in both as Ryan O'Neal's dour father - and ''The Last Tycoon'' (1976).

In World War II, Mr. Milland entertained Allied troops in the Pacific, sometimes in combat zones. In leisure time, he was a yachtsman, hunter and fisherman who culled wide information from regular reading of the Encyclopedia Britannica. He and his wife of 54 years, the former Muriel Weber, had two children, Daniel and Victoria Francesca. His philosophy on acting, Mr. Milland told an interviewer, was, ''Do what you can with what you've got. I know actors from my generation who sit at home and cry 'Why don't they send me any scripts?' I tell them, 'Because you still think of yourself as a leading man. You're 68, not 28. Face it.'" Source: www.nytimes.com

"The Lost Weekend" (1945) was a breakthrough novel for author Charles Jackson, who based protagonist Don Birnam’s debilitating dipsomaniacal tendencies on his own personal history. 'The Lost Weekend' was a runaway success, and one of the first novels to deal with the ravages of the hardcore boozehound. Within five years it had sold nearly half a million copies, including a Modern Library edition. Walter Winchell praised it as “the Uncle Tom’s Cabin” of alcoholism. Malcolm Lowry’s devastating “terminal drunk” novel 'Under The Volcano' had not yet been published when Jackson’s book hit the bestseller lists, and Charles Bukowski’s “cult of blotto” literary personality was decades in the future.

Billy Wilder’s film adaptation of 'The Lost Weekend' maintained enough fealty to the source material to inspire raves from Charles Jackson. Wilder’s biographer Maurice Zolotow suggests that the great director was inspired to film the book as a way “to explain Raymond Chandler to himself” after the exhausting experience of dealing with the terminally self-destructive Chandler during the making of 'Double Indemnity' (1944). Wilder’s co-writer Charles Brackett later claimed that the scenario was “the easiest script we wrote, thanks to the superb novel.” Wilder agreed, saying that the more they took the book apart, the better it seemed. Wilder and Brackett consulted closely with Jackson, who advised the film’s star Ray Milland on the finer points of a down-and-out drunkard’s behavior.

Milland skimped on food in preparation for the role, giving himself a haggard, beaten-down look. Jackson was, for the most part, extremely pleased with the result of this Brackett-Wilder collaboration. He thought the script’s opening was “brilliant”. The liquor industry was less pleased, however. Several of Wilder’s biographers report that gangster Frank Costello, representing distilleries concerned about negative publicity, offered to pay $5 million to suppress the film. Wilder told a journalist: “If they’d offered me the five million, I would have.”

Played by an adorably spunky Doris Dowling, who’d had an affair with Wilder during filming (later becoming the seventh Mrs. Artie Shaw), the character Gloria is drenched in hepcat jargon, including “ridic” for “ridiculous.” Dowling’s character probably would have appreciated the soundtrack music used for the film’s preview screenings. That upbeat jazz, more appropriate for a screwball comedy, helped leave audiences perplexed by the film. Ultimately it was replaced by Miklos Rozsa’s theremin-dominated score, which was a much more effective counterpoint to Birnam’s grueling bender. Wilder, ably assisted by ace cinematographer John F. Seitz, captured New York street scenes via a hidden camera in a vehicle that followed Ray Milland.

Wilder and Seitz shot footage of Milland prowling for an open Third Avenue pawnshop and haunting Harlem sidewalks, and even gained access to Bellevue Hospital, where Milland spent a night in the psychiatric ward to get a feel for what Birnam went through. Wilder managed to finagle a permit to film in the ward, but only by submitting a completely different scene to Bellevue’s administration than the one he would actually film.

Jackson’s major problem with the film version of his novel was the happier ending that Billy Wilder and his co-writer Charles Brackett tacked on to appease Hays Office censors. The novel concludes with Birnam retreating into his apartment and planning his next binge. The film changes this scenario to Ray Milland pecking away at a typewriter, beginning the novel that presumably will redeem his suffering. Wilder denied that this was necessarily a happy ending, pointing out that writing often ends badly, and that there is virtually limitless potential for misery while slaving away at a typewriter. -Ben Terrall ("Noir City" magazine, Spring 2014)

"The so-called happy ending was not something imposed on me by the studio or by the censors," Wilder said: "When Don promises his girl that he is going to stop drinking, this is not a pat happy ending at all. He says he will try not to drink anymore. The film does not imply that he will never drink again. We end on a note of promise, that he is going to make one more atempt to reform, but that is as far as the picture goes." Billy Wilder concluded: "Don sees the bottle as his worst enemy, but Don Birnam is his own worst enemy." -"Some Like It Wilder: The Life and Controversial Films of Billy Wilder" (2010) by Gene D. Phillips

Gloria (Doris Dowling) – While not a femme fatale in the traditional sense, Gloria does play a character that could only be found in a noir of the era – the charming prostitute. While never mentioned explicitly of course (the censors would have a field day) she is seen chatting with her ‘patrons’ – referred to affectionately by her as “an old friend of the folks”. The character of Gloria could have easily been portrayed by Doris Dowling as an embittered, tired, old hooker – but she makes it something else. Not exactly a hooker with a heart of gold, but pretty close (what other hooker would lend money to man who stood them up?). She is seductive and coy from the moment we see her in Nat’s bar. A sheer-black lace blouse reveals a white bustier beneath creating a striking image and forever burn into our mind the character.

Gloria: “I’m just crazy about the back of your hair” - She delivers some of the best lines in the film – a wonderful performance. [In Nat's Bar] Gloria seductively slinks past: ‘Hello Mr. Birnam, happy to have you back with the organisation.”

Don [speaking of drinking]: ‘But what does it do to my mind? It tosses the sandbags overboard so the balloon can soar. Suddenly, I’m above the ordinary. I’m competent, supremely competent. I’m walking a tightrope over Niagara Falls. I’m one of the great ones. I’m Michelangelo, molding the beard of Moses. I’m Van Gogh, painting pure sunlight. I’m Horowitz, playing the Emperor Concerto. I’m John Barrymore before the movies got him by the throat. I’m Jesse James and his two brothers – all three of ‘em. I’m W. Shakespeare. And out there it’s not Third Avenue any longer – it’s the Nile, Nat, the Nile – and down it moves the barge of Cleopatra’ Source: runningtool.wordpress.com


Don Birnam (Ray Milland), long-time alcoholic, has been "on the wagon" for ten days and seems to be over the worst; but his craving has just become more insidious. Evading a country weekend planned by his brother Wick (Phillip Terry) and girlfriend Helen (Jane Wyman), he begins a four-day bender. In flashbacks we see past events, all gone wrong because of the bottle. But this bout looks like being his last... one way or the other.