A touch of Mad Men satire adds a contemporary bite to tale of the destructive power of alcohol. Not since Billy Wilder let loose on The Lost Weekend (1945) did Hollywood finance a no-holds-barred examination of alcohol addiction.
But let’s start with the amoral world of advertising or, in this case, public relations. When we are introduced to executive Joe (Jack Lemmon) he’s little more than a pimp for his client, rounding up a plethora of blondes who can be salivated over by wealthy men on a big yacht. When we first meet Kirsten (Lee Remick) she is initially mistaken by Joe as a blonde worth salivating over only to learn that actually she is the prim, though pretty, secretary of his client to whom the idea of a potential pawing on a big yacht has no appeal, regardless of how wealthy the pawing hands might be.
Romance should never have got off the ground as they insult each other in turn, but in the way of such tales, one of his barbed comments strikes home and she consents to be taken to dinner. Astonished to discover she doesn’t drink, he alights upon her weakness for chocolate as a way of getting her to sample Brandy Alexander (as stiff with chocolate as alcohol). That’s all it takes. While she begins to lose her inhibitions, he, ironically, adopts a principled stance towards the aforesaid pimping and is moved to another account.
After they marry, she stays off the sauce once a baby arrives, he, petulant at taking second place to the baby, gets deeper into the stuff. Eventually, he wears her down, and they have a whale of a time getting drunk and ignoring the child. Meanwhile, he is sliding lower down the company pyramid thanks to his drinking. Matters come to a head when she sets the apartment on fire.
Eventually, jobless, Joe throws himself on the mercy of Kirsten’s stern father Ellis (Charles Bickford) and they manage a good few months on the wagon until in a drunken spree he manages to destroy a greenhouse at his father-in-law’s landscaping business. Joe ends up with the DTs, committed to a sanatorium and determines to mend his ways. But that means admitting his addiction and joining Alcoholics Anonymous. Kirsten, meanwhile, is not such a softie, refusing the believe she is an alcoholic.
Their bright future darkens by the minute as squalidness and selfishness take over. In some senses, this is a case study of the alcoholic, the one who can fight the demons and the one who can’t be bothered to fight anything since the bottle is the easiest cure.
Made at a time when Hollywood was not predisposed to this kind of sharp shock of reality, not even with attractive stars to make the tale more palatable, this is easily the highlight of director Blake Edwards’ career, the comedies and even the romanticised Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) seeming like so much fluff in comparison. He manages to avoid being either sentimental or sanctimonious and possibly the only time he holds back is when the fire takes place off-screen. Otherwise, it’s light years ahead of The Lost Weekend, whose protagonist seems more easily than humanly possibly to beat the addiction.
If you think Jack Lemmon (How To Murder Your Wife, 1965) is usually a hyperactive character anyway on screen, wait till you see what’s he’s like with a drink in him, just as if he doesn’t know when to stop, consequence never entering his consciousness, as like any drunken maniac he’s living in a fantasy world. But because she starts out on a different dramatic plane, and her slide into incoherence is more sobering, Lee Remick (No Way to Treat a Lady, 1968) beats him to the critical kudos. Terrific performances from both and from those tasked with keeping them in line, Charles Bickford (The Unforgiven, 1960) and Jack Klugman (Goodbye, Columbus, 1969) as the recovering alcoholic trying to get Joe to face up to his condition.
In all the literature devoted to twentieth century humanitarians, you’ll find few busting a gut to highlight the work of Bill Wilson (better known as Bill W), the founding father of Alcoholics Anonymous. But this self-funded organisation that created a community for the addicted probably did more in the last century to cure a terrible disease than any scientist inventing a drug. Incidentally, James Garner played Bill in a television biopic My Name Is Bill W (1989).
Sometimes I think actors take on roles aiming to enhance their reputation by playing difficult unsympathetic characters. But I imagine Lemmon and especially Remick got the shock of their lives on seeing the completed movie because their character disintegration is so total it would have required teams of public relations executives to put a good spin on a picture that shows human beings in such a depressing light, almost disempowered by their addictions. First appearing as teleplay in 1958, writer JP Miller (The Young Savages, 1961), while adding more gloss for the movie adaptation, nevertheless does not shrink of the unpalatable truths.
Superb all-round effort.