Addiction, in the form of mental illness and recovery, is a powerful reminder of the weakness in all of us and our sometimes-lethal attraction to that which causes harm. As humans, we are sometimes subsumed by the need to try the forbidden, to challenge our senses with what is not always good for us, to make our way down a path that we know is wrong but that gets us out of our everyday downs and disappointments.
So we pay the piper of addiction by having to confront an opioid crisis that is especially ruining the lives of younger people, some still in their nascent entry into adulthood. We have alcoholism, a scourge especially among those with lesser means and those with too much time on their hands. We can't shake the specter that drugs or alcohol will somehow shake us of our misery or transport us to a neverland of lost boys and girls.
Films and movies have sometimes taken us down that road but they don't always succeed in capturing the agony of being in the throes of addiction or the toll on individuals and on relationships. They can be papered over in trite messages and in didactic classroom teachings. Or they overplay the simple path to recovery. They don't always capture the individual in the midst of addiction trauma.
There are many examples. Recently, there was Timothee Chalamet's tortured but private addict in Beautiful Boy, a movie flawed by focusing more on Steve Carell's father figure than on the addict himself. There was Bradley Cooper in the modern version of A Star is Born, all slushy words and stumbles hiding a well-meaning man. There was the story of Elton John in Rocketman fighting off his personal demons to win back his soul.
The best of these addiction movies come from previous generations, where the focus is more on the ruinous individual and not so much on the situational. The granddaddy of these films is 1945's The Lost Weekend, with Ray Milland as a New York executive destroying his life one sip at a time, or Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton equating alcohol with warfare in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, a horror film of abuse and skin-flaying tantrums.
For my money, the best film I've seen about addiction and alcohol abuse is Days of Wine and Roses, a 1962 film starring Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick and directed by Blake Edwards in a major departure from his Pink Panther films. They play a couple that meets cute and enjoys each others' company from the minute they marry -- Lemmon plays his character, Joe, in his trademark nervous energy and everyman agitation, while Remick is the smart, witty foil projecting calm and bemusement. They are the perfect couple. But oh, demon alcohol, how you can take people down.
They are the unlucky ones. As a friend of Joe's from Alcoholics Anonymous (played by Jack Klugman) puts it, they have been randomly selected to be members of the alcoholics club. Many others can drink and be indifferent about it, but they have to obsess and over-indulge. It isn't about stress or marital discord that makes them drink -- although they both have family issues -- but more about the high. As Remick's Kirsten tells it late in the film, everything seems dirty without a drink. They instead look at reality from the bottom of a glass.
And the returns are harrowing. Lemmon is the ugliest of drunks. He destroys Kirsten's father's greenhouse looking for a bottle - toppling flower beds and breaking off roses -- and breaks into a liquor store to get his fix. He whimpers and cries and shouts like a maniac for another drink. He loses jobs at a rapid pace. And in two especially raw scenes, he is tied down in straitjackets and locked into solitary wards for violent prisoners.
Remick barely touches the stuff until Lemmon introduces her to Brandy Alexanders. That spirals quickly to bottles of gin and whiskey, drunk in volume while Lemmon is away. She is numbed, passed out, barely alive, only wanting to party some more and not knowing when to stop.
And that is the movie's brilliance. Lemmon recognizes his problem after numerous blackouts, going to AA for help. At this point, the movie could have turned into a simple message film about recovery and AA, the way that many others do in showing the triumph that comes from adversity. Yada, yada -- we've seen that film before. But it is tougher-minded than that. Instead, Remick refuses to submit to help and ends us leaving Lemmon behind, calling him a bore for not drinking with her.
In a shattering scene late in the film, Lemmon seeks her out in a ramshackle bungalow, where she is again passed out on a bed with a bottle in hand. He pleads with her to give it up and come home. She refuses. In either an act of love or desperation or both, he takes a drink with her. They results aren't pretty. He again becomes a raging lunatic after a night of orgiastic drinking, seeking the next bottle and ending up half-naked in a mental health facility where he is shot with a needle to keep him calm. He has hit a new low.
The ending is equally tough. There is no future for the couple: Lemmon must care for their daughter and stay sober. In a last scene, Remick is seen entering another bar for a drink after shacking up with a series of men. There is no redemption story here.
Addiction stories should only be so gimlet-eyed, so realistic, so willing to show the darker realities and not be so manipulative of audience emotions, showing the lows only so that the movie can become a feel-good look at how those addictions were conquered. But not enough take the harder route of Days of WIne and Roses or Lost Weekend, old films that don't sugarcoat to grab an audience looking for escape.
In an age where our addiction problems are still a national emergency, more needs to be done by our creative minds to show the meaning of those lost lives.