Bob Hughes: “Well, to begin with, nobody, and I mean nobody, can talk a junkie out of using. You can talk to ’em for years but sooner or later they’re gonna get ahold of something. Maybe it’s not dope. Maybe it’s booze, maybe it’s glue, maybe it’s gasoline. Maybe it’s a gunshot to the head. But something. Something to relieve the pressures of their everyday life, like having to tie their shoes.”
[Matt Dillon, “Drugstore Cowboy” (1989)]
Alcohol, drug abuse, dark chocolate (Ahh, well, maybe not that one!) have been major problems for the human race going all the way back to the very beginnings of civilization itself. There are many possible explanations as to why so many individuals continually fall prey to addiction, but unfortunately, it’s a complex problem with no easy answer. Numerous actors in the public eye have also had their careers and personal lives damaged, destroyed, and even cut short due to addiction. Individuals such as Wendell Corey, Gail Russell, Veronica Lake, Errol Flynn, Robert Newton, Peter Cook, Judy Garland, Richard Burton, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Michael K. Williams, and others all died due to, or related to addiction. Others like Robert Young, Kim Stanley, George C. Scott, Clark Gable, Broderick Crawford, Jean Simmons, Paul Newman, Spencer Tracy, Sid Caesar, Robert Mitchum, Maureen Stapleton, Jason Robards, Dick Van Dyke, Colin Farrell, Charlie Sheen, Robert Downey Jr., etc. all went through the horrors of addiction too. A few of them were able to kick their habit. The majority of them did not! If I wanted to, I could probably have an entire Blog Post just listing the names of all of the actors that were alcoholics or addicts at one time or the other. Alfred Hitchcock once said, in a general way, that “all actors should be treated like cattle.” However, regarding addiction, he was no better than they were since he was an alcoholic too, and there were far more people in the film and television industry who were addicted than the actors themselves. However, using addiction as the main subject for a motion picture or in television shows or episodes of television shows was not allowed for a long time. This month’s Blog Post will discuss the subject of addiction in motion pictures as well as highlight the films that brought dramas of addiction into viewing prominence.
All the way up into the mid-nineteen forties, alcoholism was usually shown as a side affliction often in a humorous way with W.C. Fields as its standard bearer which was not surprising since he was a bad alcoholic in real life. Maybe the only really excellent presentation of alcoholism for a dramatic film back then was for the 1937 hit motion picture, “A Star is Born.” Winning a number of Academy Awards while also being nominated for Best Picture, and later remade a number of times including most recently in 2018, it told the romantic story of a young aspiring actress (Janet Gaynor) becoming a star due to help from a fading movie star (Fredric March) whose own alcoholism ultimately destroys his life. This version, which was the best of them all. was unfortunately still more focused on the romance between the two characters rather than the disease of alcoholism itself. About the only other quality dramas back then with alcoholism as a major part of the storyline were not to be found on the motion picture screen, but rather found in the theater, especially for the plays by the legendary playwright, Eugene O’Neill. Great plays like “The Iceman Cometh”, Moon for the Misbegotten,” and maybe his greatest, “Long Day’s Journey into Night” all featured individuals psychologically haunted by their own demons accentuated by alcohol and drug addiction. O’Neill didn’t pull any punches in his works maybe because he too had a history of addiction as did his various family members including his later wife, and all of his children. However, film dramas that had any focus on drug addiction back then, were even less prevalent than those that had a focus on alcoholism.
Maybe the only film back then that focused on drug addiction was the ridiculously awful “Reefer Madness” (1936) which focused on the dangerously addictive drug known then as… Marijuana!!! This stupid propaganda film, originally financed by a church group showed the evils of high school students getting addicted to marijuana which led them into committing all sorts of crimes along with them suffering such horrible things as delusions, insanity, and really going “wild” (like overeating Doritos, French kissing, watching old episodes of “Sesame Street” run backwards, etc.)! A year after this film’s original release, the general hysteria about cannabis helped in no small part by the passage of 1937 Marihuana Tax Act resulted in similar types of trash films being made which focused exclusively on marijuana instead of any real hard drugs. The act itself was drafted by Harry J. Anslinger, the Head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics who was the original father of the “war on drugs”, and who advocated harsh drug penalties on any users, especially those doing marijuana. Anslinger (who many nicknamed “Ass-linger”), was a vile Racist who remained the Head of the Bureau of Narcotics for 32 years until he finally was removed in 1962. The act itself was finally overturned in 1969 which enabled “Reefer Madness,” long considered by critics as being one of the worst films ever made, to be rediscovered in the early 1970s and gaining new life on college campuses and the midnight movie circuit as a laugh out loud cult film satire. Maybe it was poetic justice that the hypocritical Anslinger, who also provided morphine to the alcoholic, morphine addicted, and generally loathsome Senator Joseph McCarthy (Hmm, maybe he should have been nicknamed, “Kiss Ass-linger” instead) while covering up McCarthy’s addictive proclivities, ultimately became addicted to morphine himself due to angina before finally dying in 1973.
Finally, two landmark films, at long last, opened the door for serious dramas to be made about alcohol and substance abuse (and not marijuana either). For alcohol, it was the Oscar winning film, “The Lost Weekend” (1945). For drug abuse, it was the controversial drama, “The Man with the Golden Arm” (1955). “Weekend” starred Ray Milland as Don Birnam a failed alcoholic writer who goes off the sobriety wagon through one long weekend. This film was realistically shot on the streets of New York City and even had permission to film some scenes in the alcoholic ward inside Bellevue Hospital. However, it was uncompromising in showing Milland’s character suffering delirium tremens when going through alcohol withdrawal along with including some of his frightening hallucinations. Major liquor industries lobbied hard to either undermine or even have the film destroyed including, supposedly, trying to offer Paramount Pictures $5 million to destroy the film. If that story was true, it didn’t work! “Weekend” was a huge hit, and besides winning an Oscar for “Best Picture, it also won a number of other Oscars including ones for Milland’s performance, and for Billy Wilder’s direction. Wilder, always in fine caustic comedy form, once said that he would have burned up the film’s negative himself if their original offer was personally made to him.
“The Man with the Golden Arm” (1955), directed by Otto Preminger, starred Frank Sinatra (Oscar nominated) as Frankie Machine, a former heroin user now newly clean. However, once back in his old rundown North Chicago neighborhood, he soon relapses and starts using heroin again. The main reason why serious films about drug abuse were not made before “Arm” was due to, once again, censorship by the Production Code Authority (PCA) under Joseph Breen, and Preminger, who butted heads with Breen before, took him on again when the PCA wouldn’t give “Arm” their seal of approval. Fortunately, United Artists, large theater chains, and for once, the Catholic National Legion of Decency, disagreed with the PCA’s decision and the film was shown nationwide receiving both popular and critical acclaim. Shortly afterwards, the production codes were revised which allowed greater freedom for film makers to seriously explore other controversial subjects like kidnapping, miscegenation, abortion and prostitution (Wait a minute! No rock and roll?) including better depictions of drug abuse. My own personal feelings about both pictures are that, for the time that they were made, they were both good pictures (especially “Weekend”). However, better ones were to be made years later which realistically presented a better depiction of alcohol and substance abuse.
Nevertheless, before moving on to these latter pictures I’d like to highlight one other picture with an alcohol abuse theme that never received the recognition that it deserved, nor the lead actor’s incredible performance in it. That picture was the drama, “Come Fill the Cup” (1951) starring James Cagney. Upon first appearance, this picture didn’t appear to be anything more than a cheap melodrama directed by journeyman director Gordon Douglas about Lew Marsh (Cagney), an older, formerly good reporter but with a bad alcohol problem. It’s never explained why he has a drinking problem; he just does. Eventually, he is fired, and when Paula, his girlfriend, leaves him, he turns into a hopeless dirty vagrant staggering along the streets until he finally collapses and is taken to a local hospital’s alcoholic ward. To shorten the tale, he becomes friends with an ex-alcoholic (James Gleason), moves in with him, stays sober, slowly works his way back to his old job on the newspaper, and is ultimately promoted to the position of chief story editor while hiring other ex-drunks to work at the newspaper too. However, after six years of sobriety, his boss asks for Lew’s help in another matter. The boss’s nephew, Boyd (Gig Young), is an alcoholic, and he wants Lew’s help in getting him clean and sober. Only problem, Boyd is now married to Paula, and Boyd’s intransience, and Lew still having feelings for Paula are starting to threaten Lew’s sobriety too!
Cagney had history in having to deal with an alcoholic in real life. His father was an alcoholic, and he incorporated those experiences and the physical mannerisms of an alcoholic into his portrayal of Lew Marsh. Whether it’s in the picture’s early scenes where he is in a smiling relaxed state of denial about his affliction, to his later staggering down the streets in a drunken daze scrounging for a handout so he can stumble into the nearest bar, or to his going through the brutal effects of “delirium tremens” in a hospital while filthy and strapped down onto a bed thrashing around violently, his performance is frighteningly real and authentically scary. Yet other quiet moments like some of the looks he gives to an unwilling Boyd are laced with his own self-doubt and even fear, not that he might not be able to help someone to help himself, but that the fragile sobriety that Lew has been able to carefully maintain, might finally be starting to crumble. For my money, the most powerful scene is the entire picture, and one of the greatest acting sequences in a motion picture that I have ever seen, is when Lew angrily confronts Boyd after it appears, at first, that Boyd might have caused the death of Lew’s close friend. It is on a dark street at night and Cagney, in a rage, is verbally ripping Boyd apart while slapping him across the face back and forth, again and again. However, as he is doing this, he is breaking down in agony crying until he doesn’t even have any remaining strength left because he is so consumed with grief. When I first saw that scene so many years ago, I literally jumped back shocked because it was so authentic, I couldn’t believe that Cagney was actually acting because it was so unflinchingly raw and real. As great as Ray Milland’s performance in “Lost Weekend” was, Cagney’s performance was even greater. Although Gig Young’s performance was good too and Oscar nominated, Cagney’s astonishingly powerful performance was not! As a sad side note, the multiple divorced Young was a bad alcoholic in real life too, and in 1978 he suffered a bad end by committing suicide after murdering his latest wife. I suppose you could just add his name to the list of those whose lives were destroyed by alcoholism.
A later picture which depicted alcoholism as more of a disease, and in a far more realistic manner than ever before was the film, “The Days of Wine and Roses” (1962) directed by Blake Edwards. It was adapted by the acclaimed Playhouse 90 teleplay of the same name by JP Miller who also wrote the screenplay for this picture. “Roses” told the story of Joe Clay (Jack Lemmon) a San Francisco public relations representative who meets, then dates, and later marries Kirsten Arnesen (Lee Remick). However, while dating Kirsten, a teetotaler, she picks up Joe’s habit of casual drinking which she finds very enjoyable. Unfortunately, after marrying and having a child together, both of them start drinking more and more. For Joe, he uses it as a release from the pressures of his job. For Kirsten, it’s not only to keep up with Joe, but also because she likes the feeling she gets from alcohol and doesn’t recognize that she has an addictive personality that makes her more susceptible to over indulging. Soon their lives start going downhill, and despite their love for each other, Joe starts to realize that the need to stop drinking and stay sober is far more important than anything else, even if Kirsten does not!
This picture was far different than any of the previous pictures that I profiled. To ensure accuracy, Bill Wilson, the co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), was a technical advisor on this film. The picture did show Joe’s character going through delirium tremens just like in past pictures. However, it also showed him going to AA meetings, obtaining a sponsor, his and Kirsten’s constant attempts and failures in keeping sober, the obsessive behavior of alcoholics, their need to be around other drinkers rather than either to drink alone or to be around other sober people, and the squalor in their home environment. These were things that were not explored in past pictures. Also, maybe the most poignant thing about “Roses” was in how it showed individuals slowly becoming alcoholics during their everyday lives without ever even realizing it. This was especially true for Blake Edwards, and for actors’ Lemmon and Remick. During the making of this film both Edwards and Lemmon, who were both heavy drinkers in real life, came to the realization that they were alcoholics, and Edwards stopped drinking a year later before going into substance-abuse recovery. Lemmon and Remick both sought help from AA too in dealing with their issues years later after completing this film. Come Academy Awards time, Lemmon and Remick received Oscar nominations for their performances, and “The Days of Wine and Roses” has been praised as one of the most accurate and best pictures about alcohol addiction that has ever been made.
The last two pictures that I want to highlight for this month’s Blog Post are of a more unusual nature concerning substance abuse. They are “Drugstore Cowboy” (1989) and “Another Round” (2020). “Cowboy” was directed by Gus Van Sant (“Good Will Hunting”) and adapted from an unpublished autobiographical novel (at that point in time) by James Fogle. It starred Matt Dillon as Bob who, with his wife Diane (Kelly Lynch) and his best friend Rick and Rick’s teenage girlfriend Nadine, lead a nomadic existence across the Pacific Northwest circa 1971 robbing pharmacies and hospitals wherever they go. They are drug addicts with Bob as their leader and, as the picture revolves around their various schemes in robbing and getting high and the other types of lowlifes that they meet in their little world as well as law enforcement led by a tough police detective named Gentry (James Remar), you hear Bob in voiceover narrating some of the proceedings as well as his views about life and drug use in general. Everything seems to go well (sort of) for a while until a sudden death, Bob’s goofy fear of a hex being put on them, and his even bigger fear of possibly being hit with some serious prison time make him finally want to get clean. Only thing, even with the best of intentions, sometimes Bob just can’t seem to escape his past.
James Fogle was a serious drug user, dealer, and career criminal who continued his criminal activities long after this film’s release before ultimately dying in prison in 2012. However, Van Sant brilliantly adapted Fogle’s novel into a terrific film about the druggie life style which was, at times, hysterically funny, but at other times, pathetic and sad. Visually, the film alternates between looking, at times, gritty and dirty while looking, at other times, spacey and unfocused, usually whenever Bob, and the other members of his little (fake) family, get high. Before starring in this picture, Matt Dillon sort of came across like someone who, for his next career move would have been better served checking out acting possibilities at your local Dinner Theater or working the register at the neighborhood Dollar Store because his previous teen idol acting efforts fell into the general categories of being either laughingly amateurish or just plain outright stupid. However, for “Drugstore Cowboy” he is a revelation! Telling his story in flashback while riding to a hospital in an ambulance, he charismatically grabs your attention by the throat and never lets it go. Even when he is acting awkward, confused, or scared with more concerns about being hexed or cursed than a Halloween Witch on a broomstick, his Bob still comes across as weirdly street smart, unintentionally funny, and amazingly, even insightful and charming. It’s a great performance! Although “Drugstore Cowboy” is a portrait of the dead-end lifestyle of a bunch of junkie “losers,” the viewing audience is the ultimate “winner” thanks to fine direction by Van Sant and a standout performance by Matt Dillon!
The Danish film, “Another Round” directed by Thomas Vinterberg, is a black comedy drama starring Mads Mikkelsen as Martin, one of a group of four colleagues and friends who work at a school in Copenhagen and who all feel that their lives have become boring and redundant. While out together one night, they discuss a theory by psychiatrist Finn Skarderud stating that humans are born with a blood alcohol content (BAC) deficiency of 0.05% and that if one maintains their BAC at 0.05% it would make an individual not only more relaxed, but also more creative. Later they all agree to conduct an experiment to test the theory using themselves as test subjects while maintaining a group log tracking what occurs when they start drinking at regular intervals to maintain that specific blood alcohol level. Martin is especially eager to participate since he is depressed and alienated from his wife, his children, and his students. They also stipulate that while conducting this experiment they will never drink and drive, they will never let their BAC drop below 0.05%, and that they will never imbibe after 8:00 pm or on weekends. Almost immediately all of them find their lives improved both at work and at home. Martin even reconnects with his wife, his children and his students. All of the group members are so happy with their results that they then agree to push the experiment even further by raising their BAC limit to 0.10%. After all, what could ever possibly go wrong?
Director Vinterberg based this picture on a play he had previously written and, according to Vinterberg, it was supposed to be a much angrier movie. However, four days into filming tragedy struck when his daughter Ida, who was supposed to have a part in the picture, died in a car accident. Vinterberg later decided to rewrite the screenplay to make the picture more of a life-affirming one about individuals being awakened to life rather than just a picture about people drinking. A film that could have been just another parable about individuals destroying their lives due to alcohol abuse became something entirely different thanks to Vinterberg’s delicate way of balancing both the humor and the touching drama of the individuals in the story. “Another Round” was also helped by the fine acting from his entire cast, and especially, by Mads Mikkelsen’s performance as Martin. In the beginning, it was a little hard to believe that Mikkelsen, who has previously played such strong dominating characters in past films could play someone more hesitant and depressed. However, how he has his character of Martin subtly change, whether drunk or sober, is convincing, and he ultimately turns in a fine performance. Maybe the highlight of the film is when Mikkelsen, who when younger, trained as a gymnast and was a professional dancer for almost a decade, breaks into a wild, and joyfully enthusiastic dance. What’s even more impressive is that (1) before this film, he didn’t professionally dance in almost 30 years, and (2) he did all of the dancing himself while not using a body double even for his more acrobatic dance moments. For the 2020 Academy Awards that year, Thomas Vinterberg was nominated for Best Director and “Another Round” won the Oscar for the Best International Feature Film.
And as for myself, all I have to say about it is…
“I’ll drink to that!”