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

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’ on Blogcritics.

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