Unlike our fabulous Piers Marchant, a seasoned movie reviewer I am not. However, I have seen my fair share of films about alcoholism and drug abuse (three stints in rehab, where weekly “Movie Nights” consist solely of anti-addiction flicks, will leave you with a vast viewing history). And obviously, I now have an honest interest in the subject matter myself.
The following rundown are films that I feel address the disease of addiction in a way that’s both entertaining and realistic. (Or at least do a hell of a good job trying, as far as Hollywood will allow). They are the antithesis of 28 Days, the Sandra-Bullock-goes-to-rehab vehicle that, despite some good performances, pretty much wraps everything up into a nice, neat bow by the time the credits roll.
These movies don’t let the disease get off so easy. While there’s hope (and why shouldn’t there be? we have to have hope to stay sober), there is also no bullshit. We know that the protagonists’ problems will not magically disappear once the final reel has rolled. And to me, that is one of, if not the most, important points a movie dealing with addiction needs to make.
And of course, watch out for spoilers. There aren’t many, but do read (and click) with care.
The Lost Weekend (1945)
Writer Don Birnam (Ray Milland), an alcoholic who’s been struggling to get sober for more than six years, goes on a four-day bender which takes him (along with the audience) to places of debauchery, danger and absolute depravity that our once upstanding protagonist never thought possible.
WHY I LIKE IT
This film does not shy away from the manipulative, dishonest and downright terrible things alcoholics do when they’re dying for a drink. We are witness to Don’s cleverly hidden stashes (more on that below), petty theft (he steals his maid’s wages), incessant lying, demoralizing pleas and pitiful begging (when a bartender will no longer serve him, for instance), as well as his overwhelming and near-constant state of anxiety. Don is not portrayed as a fool, or as someone who belongs in a sanitarium. We see him sober in the first few shots of the film, and are made well aware that the insanity he falls into is a direct result of his alcoholic condition.
About That Cleverly Hidden Stash: Don’s brother, believing Don has been sober for 10 days, searches his apartment inside and out to make sure there’s no hidden stash before heading out for the day. What he doesn’t catch is the thin rope hanging outside of Don’s apartment window, which is tied to a bottle of whiskey. I saw this while in rehab, and I kid you not, every single one of us looked at each other and said, “Damn that’s a good idea for a hiding spot!”
Days of Wine and Roses (1962)
Joe, an enthusiastic “two martini lunch” PR man (Jack Lemmon), falls for Kirstin (Lee Remick), a young secretary and teetotaler. She has her first drink during a dinner date with Jack (“It’s special for you,” he says. “It’s chocolate.”), and it doesn’t take long for her to start loving the stuff. Eventually the couple marry, have a child, and together descend into an alcohol-fueled, out-of-control life, filled with firings, flights, atrocious parenting, and deep denial of their disease.
The ending is uncertain: one half of the couple gets sober with the help of AA; the other won’t even consider it, and we’re left with the fairly certain feeling that sobriety is a long way off, if even possible, for that once briefly happy couple’s half.
WHY I LIKE IT
Both Lemmon and Remick won Oscars for their roles, and the film was highly praised, both for its performances and its realistic portrayal of alcoholism. Joe is a likeable guy, not a penniless bum, and the audience is forced to see what alcoholism can do to two “normal” upstanding citizens. It’s also one of the first films to feature the program of AA prominently, complete with a young Jack Klugman as Joe’s sponsor. The ending is sad but unfortunately realistic — choosing booze over a mate is a common decision made by alcoholics.
(Sort of) Fun Fact: Jack Lemmon was a heavy drinker for many years, despite this award-winning role. However, in 1994, he openly admitted on Inside the Actors Studio that he was a recovering alcoholic.
Clean and Sober (1988)
Michael Keaton turns in a truly fine performance as Daryl, a cocaine-addicted businessman who’s not only embezzled money from his company to fuel his habit, but also has the horrific experience of waking up next to a women who has died as a result of an overdose. In an effort to flee the law, which is quickly catching onto him, he checks into (or better put, hides out in) a month-long drug rehab program when he realizes it will protect his anonymity (and hence buy him some time). What Daryl doesn’t count on is meeting Craig, a tough-as-nails former addict-turned drug counselor (played by the equally excellent Morgan Freeman), as well as his own acceptance of his addiction and the consequences he must face as a result.
WHY I LIKE IT
A lot of the appeal of this film, for me at least, is the 1980s nostalgia — rotary phones, leg warmers, and heavily feathered hairdos are everywhere. But the reality of addiction remains the same no matter what the decade, and the movie has no fear showing us what chronic drug and alcohol use can do to a person — both mentally and physically. (Daryl’s detox is definitely not fun to watch, and having been in two detox units myself, quite realistic.) The movie also makes clear how unmanageable one’s life becomes when alcohol and drugs become top priority. The ending leaves us with great hope for our main character, but not for many of the others we meet along the way, which keeps the film honest about the nature of this deadly disease — and just how hard it is not only to get, but to remain, clean and sober.
Truly Fun Fact: This movie marks the directorial debut of Glenn Gordon Caron, creator of the brilliant (for two seasons, at least) TV show Moonlighting.
Requiem for a Dream (2000)
I re-watched all of the films for this post except this one. Honestly, I don’t think I can ever watch it again. While it is truly one of the finest films Darren Aronofsky (Black Swan) has ever made, it is also one of the bleakest, and it left me with such a heavy feeling of depression and despair, I couldn’t get it out of my head for days. That said, if you haven’t seen it, I recommend it highly (and perhaps you won’t be as sensitive to the material as I was). I did recover after a few days, and if you’re a fan of this director, it’s a must-watch piece of his work.
WHY I LIKE IT
The movie explores a variety of different addictions by focusing on three main sets of characters. Everyone’s story is sad, desperate, ugly, and perhaps most disturbing of all, human. It’s fairly easy to see how the main cast (which includes Ellen Burstyn, Jared Leto, Jennifer Connelly and Marlon Wayans) gets caught up in their respective cycles of dependence, obsession and compulsion. NO ONE gets off easy in this story. In fact, there isn’t one shred of hope for any of our heroes, and the final scene is perhaps one of the most devastating montages I’ve ever watched on film. My advice for viewing: make sure you’re mentally prepared for some seriously heavy stuff.
(Sort of) Scary Fact: Requiem for a Dream came in at number 13 on Premiere Magazine’s list of “The 25 Most Dangerous Movies.”
Whip Whitaker (played by Denzel Washington) is a seasoned airline pilot who, against all odds, manages to miraculously land a malfunctioning plane, saving the lives of almost everyone on board. At first he’s hailed as a hero, but soon tests reveal that he had high levels of alcohol in his system while he was piloting. The NTSB investigates, Whip denies the allegations against him, and he’s faced with a trial that will ultimately make or break his lifelong career as a pilot.
WHY I LIKE IT
Denzel Washington nails one of the most common (and ultimately devastating) traits of a “functional” alcoholic: denial. It doesn’t matter how far one may have fallen; until an alcoholic truly accepts that he or she has a problem, there’s nothing anyone can do to convince him or her otherwise (try as they may, as they do countlessly in this movie). Just as I didn’t have my moment of realization until I was blacked out in front of my computer screen, Whip also stubbornly refuses to acknowledge his condition, despite the fact that it’s already cost him his family and friends, and now has a real possibility of ruining his career. Whip’s moment of realization (major spoiler if you click) is one of the most honest scenes I’ve seen on screen about alcoholism (and so true to my own experience), as are all the scenes beforehand, when his infuriating lack of awareness about himself is so in tune with one of the most destructive symptoms of alcoholism.
I also loved the fact that this film was not marketed as an addiction movie, when, in fact, that’s exactly what it is. Sure there’s some exciting plane-crash action, but many audience members entered the theater not knowing the movie’s true subject matter (though it becomes clear pretty quickly). As a result of this tactic, I’m sure that more than a few audience members unfamiliar with the disease of alcoholism may have learned a few things — most importantly, the places it can take you until you finally surrender, accept your condition and start telling the truth.
Interesting Music Fact (*Definite spoiler alert!): When Whip is in the elevator on the way to his trial, a lyrical muzak version of The Beatles’ “With a Little Help from My Friends” is playing in the background. The line “I get high with a little help from my friends” can be clearly heard; just five minutes prior, Whip’s bud Harling got him high, to counteract the his raging hangover and make him appear as sober as possible so he could successfully stand trial.
What movies have I missed? Do you have any favorite addiction-themed films? Please share in the comments!