13 January 2009
I'll Drink To That (Hic) Ten Great (Hic) Movie Drunks (Hic)
I'm guessing that one of the easier things for an actor to portray is a drunk. There's so many different directions you can go and you can get away with chewing up the scenery. But perhaps giving a truly outstanding performance as a boozehound is another matter entirely. Some actors play a drunk for easy laughs. Others simply slur their words and stagger a bit. Still others hang their heads and mumble. They're convincing drunks but are they still in character? Are they "acting" or inhabiting the role? Is it a burlesque or a Barrymore?
I've selected ten great performances by male actors as drunks. The simple criteria being that the role had to be central to the story and their drunkenness not an occasional condition but a constant one. For these ten I could easily add a hundred more but I'll flatter myself that this is a good start. I bring a certain perspective not only as a movie fan but as someone who has had far, far more than his fair share of the demon rum. I offer these ten in no particular order.
Thomas Mitchell as Doc Boone in Stagecoach (1939). The rascally drunk. Oh you! Always sneaking a drink. Taking advantage of that poor man. And after getting yourself kicked out of town. And you a doctor! Of all things! But when the going got tough this was one drunk who could put his booze aside and deliver a baby or shoot an Injun. Mitchell played drunks before and after and was always excellent. But this, an Oscar winning performance, stands as his most important role. His Doc Boone is loveable, but you'd just love to see him stay sober.
Ray Milland as Don Birnam in The Lost Weekend (1946). The AA poster boy drunk. If there's such a thing as a common garden variety drunk (there's not) than this is it. The rooms of AA are filled with Don Birnams who would go to any lengths to drink despite the dead certainty that they were dead wrong in doing so because once started they can't stop and despite the entreaties of loved ones to put a cork in it. Lie to drink? No problem. Steal to drink? Can do. Milland's Oscar-winning performance is the gold standard of movie drunks.
Paul Newman as Frank Galvin in The Verdict (1982). The down on his luck drunk. Newman's performance was one of the best to not receive a a Best Actor Oscar (which is saying something given how many slighted performances there are). Galvin was a lawyer who had seen much better times. He felt ill used by the world and a drink with the boys was his lone escape. Drinking mirrored more than caused his decline. If he could rise again maybe the tap would stop too. To me this is Newman's greatest acting job, you can smell the whiskey.
Lew Ayers as Ned Seaton in Holiday (1938). The bemused philosophical drunk. By turns happy and sad. Now hopeful, next doomed. Ayers' Seaton is one of filmdom's great drunks. Smart enough to know the score and where he stands, not ready to go off the sauce -- yet. You feel there's hope and you sure hope there is because, gee, he's a swell guy. Like many an alcoholic he feels trapped, unaware that it is the liquor that imprisons him.
Dudley Moore as Arthur Bach in Arthur (1981). The happy drunk. Moore positively vamped his way through this latter day screwball comedy. He played the character largely for laughs (it was a comedy after all) but is nonetheless convincing as a man who ultimately seeks redemption through sobriety. Arthur was the the drunk who didn't have a problem because...well, he was damn happy. Never mind the consequences to those around him. And let's just all forgot that they made a sequel.
Robert Downey Jr.as Paul Avery in Zodiac (2007). The talent headed for a big fall drunk. Here was a character based on a real person. By all accounts the real Avery squandered a thriving career as a journalist to feed his addiction. No divine intervention for him and his downfall thus inevitable. Downey has played drunks before and has been a practitioner in real life. Now in recovery he can call in his own memories for magnificent portrayals such as this one. The disease of alcoholism does not discriminate based on intellectual capacities.
Nicholas Cage as Ben Sanderson in Leaving Las Vegas (1995). The death wish drunk. This was the oh-my-God-he's-totally-out-of-control drunk. You now exactly where he's headed but what a show he puts on getting there. How can one person consume so much? This was a flamboyant performance that could have lapsed into farce but Cage tapped the brakes just enough to make it scary believable.
Walter Brennan as Eddie in To Have and Have Not (1944). The pitiful drunk. Bogart's character felt so sorry for him that he saw no alternative than to feed poor Eddie's habit. Eddie was addled by alcohol and surely any effort to quit would require hospitalization. As it was he still managed to function, but only with the aid of a drink or twelve. A great tragic-comic performance by Brennan.
Frank Sinatra as Private Maggio in From Here to Eternity (1953). The self destructive drunk. Getting smashed with the boys and chasing tail is a venerable tradition among the dumber sex. People like Maggio push the boundaries and go to extremes. They thus often end up in jail and or making a premature visit to the bone yard. Bars are full of doomed souls like Maggio who quit jobs or relationships for a spree. Sinatra proved in this role he was not just a great crooner.
William Powell as Nick Charles in The Thin Man (1934). The controlled, sophisticated drunk. Powell and co-star Myrna Loy were drinking and tipsy throughout this film. Nick Charles was the consummate 5th avenue tippler. Always a drink in hand but never anything less than debonair and charming. Indeed I'd reckon that most viewers wouldn't even consider Nick Charles to be a sot, he's just that good at "holding his booze." But next time just watch how much and with how much delight he and the missus get out each tipple.