Study Guide

The Lost Weekend Introduction

The Lost Weekend Introduction


Release Year: 1945

Genre: Drama, Film-Noir

Director: Billy Wilder

Writer: Billy Wilder, Charles Brackett, Charles R. Jackson (novel)

Stars: Ray Milland, Jane Wyman


You think you had a bad weekend because Seamless was down for two hours on Saturday? Or maybe you had a little cold and had to spend Sunday binge-watching Jane The Virgin instead of going to your monthly Funday Brunch-and-Bowling? Or perhaps it was raining on Friday night and your plan of basketball and tacos was ruined.

We're going to take a page from Reservoir Dogs' Mr. Pink and play you the world's tiniest violin.

Because your weekend has nothing on The Lost Weekend. Just wait until you get a load of Don Birnam's crazy six-day stretch (yes; it's a very long weekend).

Released in 1945 (the same year that gave us Animal Farm and Rod Stewart—you do the math) The Lost Weekend is the account of one man's struggle with alcohol addiction. Although it's based on Charles R. Jackson's 1944 novel of the same name, this film has a totally unique vibe… thanks to the personal experiences of its cast and crew.

Specifically, we're talking about Billy Wilder, the film's director, co-writer, and one of the most famed filmmakers in Hollywood history. At the time, Wilder had just finished working on the film Double Indemnity, which he co-wrote with legendary pulp fiction novelist Raymond Chandler. Although the movie turned out great, Wilder found it difficult to work with Chandler—mainly because he was a raging alcoholic at the time. (Ah, yes. Ye olde "drunk writer" stereotype strikes again.)

As the story goes, Wilder was inspired to make The Lost Weekend because he wanted to "explain Raymond Chandler to himself." That's a serious task. To that end, he turned to longtime collaborator Charles Brackett, assembled a crew of top-notch actors, and got to work.

And in case you don't see it coming, The Lost Weekend was a massive hit.

  

It won a whopping four Academy Awards that year: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Actor for Ray Milland, who plays Don Birnam. It also co-won the Palme d'Or at Cannes Film Festival, making it the only film ever to win both that prize and the Best Picture Academy Award.

And the film itself? Practically a minute-by-minute of one man's debaucherous weekend—we're talking whiskey hidden out the window and hallucinations of bats—the film gives us startlingly intimate insight into the mind of an addict. The Lost Weekend uses every trick in the cinematic book to achieve this impressive goal, from its innovative musical score to its incredible performances to its inventive camera techniques.

But even if film techniques aren't your thing (or good acting, or epic direction), The Lost Weekend is hailed as being the great-granddaddy of addiction movies—from Trainspotting to Flight. Made at a time when alcoholism was seen to be a personal failing rather than a disease, The Lost Weekend humanizes its drunkity-drunk Don Birnam, even as it shows him totally unable to stop himself from finding meaning at the bottom of a bottle.

What is The Lost Weekend About and Why Should I Care?

We bet you're steeling yourself for a little lecture on alcoholism and addiction in general. Maybe you're imagining some scare tactic rant about how one glass of champagne (or, who are we kidding, multiple flaming shots) on your 21st birthday will lead to you chugging Listerine for the alcohol content. Or maybe you're imagining that we'll talk about how addiction is a disease and not a symptom of being a bad person (which: truth).

But that's not what The Lost Weekend is all about. You don't have to be an alcoholic or addict (or know an alcoholic or addict) to get where Don Birnam is coming from. That's because his story isn't actually about booze at all—it's about dreams.

Don always wanted to be a writer. He almost was one too; by the time he was nineteen, he was already published in The Atlantic and Reader's Digest. After his follow-up efforts weren't met with instant validation, however, Don began feeling a growing frustration that eventually led him down the path of addiction.

Although most of us will never descend to the same levels of depravity as Don, we've all felt the sting of seeing our dreams get squashed. (We're still reeling from the fact that "fairy princess" isn't a viable career option.) As we see in the film, this can often lead to a vicious cycle in which we lack the confidence to reach for our dreams…because we've failed to do so in the past.

It's seriously messed up. It's also seriously true. And the truth of shattered dreams can make all of give up, curl up on the couch, and reach for the nearest quick fix—a pint of ice cream, a Netflix binge, or (in Don's case) a bottle of whiskey.

Don doesn't choose to be a drunk—this movie is groundbreaking in that it portrays Don as a flawed human at a time when alcoholism was thought to be evidence of moral bankruptcy—but Don does choose to wallow in self-pity. He emotionally stays in the fetal position. It's a sad scene, especially for someone so talented.

And even as you watch Don struggle, you're reminded of a couple of things: a) not all dreams are realized and b) that doesn't mean that you should give up. You can keep fighting for your dream despite what other people say. You can set your sights on a different goal, and start working towards that. You could even go back to the drawing board and start from scratch.

But don't worry—this message may sound cheeseball, but it's anything but. It comes wrapped in a movie that contains scenes of a dude hallucinating bats, stealing whiskey, and stumbling around a moodily lit black-and-white NYC.

The Lost Weekend: come for the epic noir qualities, and stay for the insight into how to deal with the little Don Birnam inside of us all.

Trivia

The liquor industry was so afraid of the public response to The Lost Weekend that they supposedly offered Paramount Pictures $5 million dollars to destroy the film ahead of release. (Source.)

Ray Milland went on a very strict diet in order to lose enough weight to look like an alcoholic. He even tried to get drunk so he could get inside Don's head, but being a lightweight, he just ended up puking. (Source.)

The story goes that Billy Wilder picked up a copy of the novel The Lost Weekend before taking a cross-country train trip, and by the time he got to his destination, he knew that he wanted to adapt it to film. (Source.)

While working on the film, director Billy Wilder (who was married) sparked an affair with Doris Dowling, who played Gloria. Scandalous! (Source.)

The Lost Weekend Resources

Websites

The Film Noir Foundation
Want to know more about the darkest genre of them all? We got you covered.

Alcoholics Anonymous
Just in case there are any Don Birnams in the house...

Book or TV Adaptations

The Lost Weekend (1944)
Released just a year before its film adaptation, Charles R. Jackson's The Lost Weekend is a pretty great story in its own right.

Articles and Interviews

The Art of Screenwriting No. 1: Billy Wilder
When The Paris Review decided to create a screenwriting-focused version of its popular The Art of Fiction series, they knew exactly who to turn to—our main man Billy Wilder.

American Art Oral History Program Interviews Billy Wilder
In this 1995 interview with the Smithsonian, Wilder goes into great detail regarding his life and career.

Charles R. Jackson and the Film Adaptation of The Lost Weekend
This fascinating article from Vanity Fair dives deep into the complicated relationship between Jackson and the legendary adaptation of his debut novel.

Video

Ray Milland at the 1945 Academy Awards
This brief video depicts Milland receiving his Best Actor award in hilariously awkward fashion.

The Writer Speaks: Billy Wilder
Haven't gotten your daily quota of Billy Wilder yet? We've got a hot, hour-long video to introduce you to...

Audio

A 1967 Interview with Ray Milland
Milland has a fantastic voice—we could seriously listen to it all day.

Billy Wilder's Rules of Good Filmmaking
In this NPR piece, director Cameron Crowe speaks at length about the rules of film-making as relayed to him by Wilder before his death in 2002.

Images

The Lost Weekend Poster
If you have a thing for classic Hollywood posters, then you're going to go nuts for this one.

Ray Milland in The Thing with Two Heads (1972)
This image of Milland has nothing whatsoever to do with The Lost Weekend, but we felt compelled to share it you. Use it wisely.

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