Apr/May 2011 Nonfiction

First Drink of the Day: A Recovering Alcoholic Looks at Drinking in the Movies

by Alison Iglehart

Photo by Brice Barrett

Photo by Brice Barrett

It's hard to maintain an honest program of recovery when confronted by inconsistencies between what I know about drinking alcohol and Hollywood stars drinking in the movies. I have to admit it: they're seductive. So I fortify myself with nicotine gum and caffeine and try to put things right.

I watch a lot of old American film noir with the dreamlike quality, the tough but angst-ridden hero and smart-mouthed girlfriend. You know, like Robert Mitchum and Jane Greer in Out of the Past (1947) and the classic Fred MacMurray-Barbara Stanwick Double Indemnity (1944). Before them came series like dapper George Sanders as The Saint (1939) and William Powell in The Thin Man (1934). There's always plenty of cigarette smoking and booze. But what I don't understand is why, day or night, the two lovers are always taking their first drink: the seltzer bottle is fizzy, and the scotch and brandy bottles are sitting around waiting to be opened.

I'm no film critic, but I am a card-carrying recovering alcoholic, and that makes me wonder what they've been doing before this scene... why is this always the first drink of the day among alleged hard drinkers? Rarely is anyone tipping a glass before the conversation starts.

Now this may seem a fine point to put on drinking, but to me, it isn't. I mean, if you're looking for verisimilitude, let's have the drinkers who've been at it for hours... or days. Let's see the end results, not the sexy, sophisticated, seductive beginnings.

I think some writers and screenwriters, themselves hard drinkers like Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, patronized us with turbulent stories lacking the inevitable consequences of overdoing alcohol, and that doesn't wash with me. I want the truth.

Billy Wilder made headway in 1945, shortly after directing Double Indemnity, when he won four Oscars for The Lost Weekend, a gritty look at alcoholism through a writer played by Ray Milland. There are some good lines familiar to everyone in recovery: "One's too many and a hundred's not enough." "I'm not a drinker, I'm a drunk." Yet the suddenly hopeful ending in which he commits to writing his novel The Bottle is too easy to be convincing to drinkers who are going through the recovery experience themselves.

Blake Edwards' The Days of Wine and Roses (1962) is unsettlingly true to life, coming less than 30 years after the first 12-step meeting formed in Akron, Ohio. Alcoholics played by Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick look in a window and finally see themselves as "a couple of bums." He finds a recovery program; she scoffs that it's only "hot coffee and cold feet." In the 12-step program I know, people laugh a lot more, mostly at themselves.

Not to be overly critical of inconsistencies between reality and drinking alcohol in early films, I find that some other movies begin to ring true.

In John Huston's 1964 film The Night of the Iguana, Richard Burton as the Rev. Dr. T. Lawrence Shannon finds himself pitted against internal demons—the spooks. Shannon comments, "There are two levels to live on: the fantastic and the realistic. When you live on both, you get spooked."

The skirmish escalates into a compelling conflict.

At first, Shannon—not unfrocked, but locked out of his church—protests against claims of statutory rape (with an ingénue played by Sue Lyon) and drunkenness: "If I had been drunk, I wouldn't be here, and I'd still be drinking."

Upon his desperate arrival at the Mexican Costa Verde Hotel owned by his friend Maxine (Ava Gardner): "If I start drinking rum cocas now, I'll never stop drinking rum cocas."

When he finally takes up a bottle, he winds up hogtied in a hammock on the veranda, sipping poppy seed tea provided by Hannah Jelkes (Deborah Kerr), a Nantucket spinster: "Some people take a drink. Others take a pill. I just take a few deep breaths."

"I am a bad drunk," Shannon cries. "Untie me!"

Jelkes: "Who wouldn't like to atone for the sins of themselves and the world tied up in a hammock?" And, "Enduring is something that spooks respect."

She unties him when the spooks leave, and he cuts loose the iguana that has spent the night close by.

The Night of the Iguana seems to me a pivotal movie having alcohol—along with interpersonal communication—at its core because it explores the dark forces that drive Shannon to drink, forces us to care about him in spite of his afflictions, allows us to watch him work through them, and offers a conclusion in which he finds peace.

Albert Finney in another wondrous Huston film, Under the Volcano (1984), provides an uncannily complex and elegant portrayal of an alcoholic bound for bottom. The first we see of him, on the evening before the Day of the Dead, the "tell" is his being dressed in formal attire, but without socks.

Finney plays Geoffrey Firmin, in 1939 the former British Consul to Cuernavaca, Mexico, under the shadow of Nazism and the volcano Popocatepetl. Stumbling out of doorways, showering under the influence, and hallucinating about his wife Yvonne (Jacqueline Bisset), who has just returned to him, Firmin is what he is.

The first night he drinks a mixture of brandy, anis, tequila and whiskey... but never mescal... never until the final fateful scenes at the notorious El Farolito bar.

While Finney's mannerisms are precisely those of a drunk, his slurred but eloquent articulations are even more convincing:

"Some things you can't apologize for."

"It's the shakes that make this life unsupportable."

"I'll only drink beer today."

"Unless you drink as I do, how can you begin to understand an old woman playing dominoes with a chicken?"

"Hell's my preference; hell's my natural habitat."

"It's not enough... never enough... not in this world."

"I have to walk a fine balance between the shakes of too little and the abyss of too much."

These are lines we recovering alcoholics need to hear so that we never have to say them ourselves.

Moving from Mexico to Los Angeles and from the profound to the brawling drunk with poetry in his soul, we encounter in 1987, Barbet Schroeder's Barfly.

Mickey Rourke as Henry Chinaski swaggers and staggers through the movie with a gait his equally lush girlfriend Wanda (Faye Dunaway) terms "VanBilderass," as if he were "some weird blue blood royalty."

He's not. He's the fighting, guzzling barfly of the Golden Horn. But he has a secret: he listens to Mozart and writes poems and stories that he sends in to a literary magazine.

He and Wanda spend most of the movie looking for ways to enable themselves to continue to buy booze.

Along the way, they conspire to pull harebrained stunts like the rest of us drunks: they pick corn that's not fit to eat from LA street medians; they throw clothes out the window while drunk and then scramble to gather them back up when sober; they're forced constantly to elude the police and EMTs who were called on their account.

There's an uncomfortably familiar resonance in our laughter at them.

When Henry's writings are accepted, his publisher asks him why he doesn't stop drinking. Anybody can be a drunk.

Henry: "Anybody can be a non-drunk. It takes a special talent to be a drunk... it takes endurance."

Henry endures and spends his literary royalty check buying drinks "for all my friends" in the bar. And picks another fight.

I think I would like Barfly better if Henry were less special or more convincingly special.

But I guess it wouldn't be much of a story if this particular brawler in a bar did not have a great talent lurking inside. Even better that he is a writer. Barfly is the semi-autobiography of notorious LA brawler/drunkard/screenwriter Charles Bukowski.

Drinking and writing seem to have an affinity for each other, although one might think they would mutually interfere.

In another film based on a semi-autobiography, Hollywood agent Ben Sanderson (Nicolas Cage) in Leaving Las Vegas (1995) burns off his belongings and heads for Las Vegas to drink himself to death. He gives himself four weeks.

In that time, encapsulated by director Mike Figgis, he meets and falls in love with a beautiful hooker, Sera (Elisabeth Shue): "I bring out the best in the men that fuck me."

She also tells him: "Drinking is a way to kill yourself."

He responds: "Or killing yourself is a way to drink."

That's about as deep as the dialogue gets, although she mentions his 100-proof breath and occasional drool.

I understand an alcoholic wishing to divest himself of entrapments and go somewhere he can be alone to drink as much as he possibly can to the end.

But as an alcoholic myself, I don't believe that process is likely to involve a love story, and I don't believe that particular alcoholic would be in a frame of mind to go shopping for new clothes or take a diverting vacation in the desert. Isolated, and physically and mentally and emotionally bankrupt, he would be unable to do more than go out to buy booze and drink it back in the seedy motel room. Back and forth. That's just how it is, Hollywood or not.

Verisimilitude, again.

In Leaving Las Vegas, I miss the gratifying plot resolution of The Night of the Iguana, the timeless lines of Under the Volcano, and the bawdy hilarity of Barfly.

One final inconsistency in Ang Lee's Brokeback Mountain (2005), a personal favorite. Jack and Ennis have been exchanging one small pint of whiskey between the two of them for several evenings in a remote location in the Wyoming Tetons. How does that bottle suddenly get them both so staggering drunk that they suspend denial of their feelings for each other and begin a physical relationship?

Which brings us back to the original focus of this essay: inconsistencies between real life and drinking alcohol in the movies. I was concerned that we saw too many rosy beginnings and not enough dire consequences of drinking in early films.

But I also found that in one of the first movies to deal with alcoholism in a serious way, the complexities surrounding the disease can't be resolved suddenly by willpower alone. At the same time, alcoholics have an enormous capacity for humor, and recovery can be a more joyous affair than is sometimes presented in theatres.

My favorite films employ drinking alcohol as a vehicle to portray the symptoms of underlying turmoil. Working through the spooks on screen is doubly intriguing because drunks are interesting people on so many levels. I like it best when they sober up so I can stop laughing at them and watch and listen and learn their intrinsic truths with my own clear head.

No one is better off drunk, even in the movies.


Truth be told, films about alcoholism are a dime a dozen. However, few movies actually put a spotlight on an alcohol recovery program. It would certainly be great to see people dig themselves out of a hole that alcohol has created for them, don't you think?


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