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.

73 comments:

Play-Doh said...

Lee Marvin in Cat Ballou: "The Cold-Turkey Drunk." This is Marvin's Oscar winning role, and the only really comic part he ever played; and he's absolutely hilarious.

R. D. Finch said...

Great selection of actors and roles.

R. D. Finch said...

As an afterthought, Dean Martin was also a memorable alcoholic in "Rio Bravo."

Cole said...

I agree with Play-Doh and
R D Finch and would add Robert Mitchem in El Dorado. What is it about old westerns that bring out the drunk in all of us.

Anonymous said...

What, no Jack Lemmon for DAYS OF WINE AND ROSES?

I never much cared for THE LOST WEEKEND for it never convinced me that Ray Milland was this flawed, self-loathing writer I should care about, and a better film about alcoholism that came out also in the 1940s is Michael Powell's THE SMALL BACK ROOM, at its center is a deeply realized, flawed character struggling with his demons and literal scars (he has an amputated leg) along with office bureaucracy (his job? a bombs expert during WWII). There's also the trippiest ever dream sequence that would've made Salvidor Dali's head spin.

Anonymous said...

Where oh where is W.P.Mayhew from BARTON FINK. Arguably the finest drunk to grace the screen.

"HONEY?!? WHERE'S MY HONEY!!!'

Matt said...

What about Jack NIcholson from Easy Rider, it did make him a star after all.

Anonymous said...

What about Doc Holliday played by Val Kilmer in Tombstone?

Anonymous said...

Tilda Swinton in JULIA?!?!

Anonymous said...

Walter Matthau in the Bad News Bears!

Or maybe Walter in Earthquake!

Francesca said...

Jaws. The drunk/USS Indianapolis tale/singing scene. Classic.

Anonymous said...

Humphrey Bogart in The African Queen should be on this list!

PHCY 434 said...

Richard E. Grant in Withnail?! Hello?!

annie said...

I'd add Fred Astaire in 'Holiday Inn,' in which his character dances drunk. Apparently Astaire had two drinks of bourbon before the first take and another one after each subsequent take. They used the seventh take in the film. And even then, Fred dances better than anybody.

Anonymous said...

Oliver Platt in Ice Harvest

CitizenKing said...

Elwood P. Dodd.

"'In this world, Elwood, you must be oh so smart or oh so pleasant.' Well, for years I was smart. I recommend pleasant. You may quote me."

"I've wrestled with reality for 35 years, Doctor, and I'm happy to state I finally won out over it."

Chris Richards said...

Sad to see that there's no mention of Who Framed Roger Rabbit's classic drinking scene involving the dip. It may not be traditional, but in terms of setting the tone for a film, utilizing character, and plot relevance, it's hard to match. Just saying.

Anonymous said...

Elizabeth Taylor in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Paul Newman in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

ExileOnDaytonStreet said...

Very good list.

This doesn't entirely meet your criteria (non-central characters who's drunkeness isn't a constant), but Jack Lemmon and Albert Finney were fantastic drunks in the opening scenes of JFK.

Tim said...

Oh, and the very creepy General Sternwood (Charles Waldron) in "The Big Sleep" - no longer able to drink and stay alive, he likes to watch Marlowe (Bogart) sip his expensive Bourbon.

And how about the entire cast of "The Bad Seed". Every other line is either, "Can I get you a drink?" or "Do you need a refill?"

Hero Paperboy said...

Would have liked to see:
Richard E. Grant in Withnail
Walter Matthau in Bad News Bears
Billy Bob Thornton in Bad Santa
W.C. Fields in anything

Still a very good list, Nick Charles is a fantastic character. Not quite sure why Robert Downey, Jr.'s on there though as his character wasn't particularly deep (although I would like to see those demons explored a bit more in Iron Man 2).

Kevin said...

Mickey Rourke in Barfly !! Best drunk ever.

Rick said...

Albert Finney wasn't in "JFK." I believe you're referring to the Guy Bannister character, played by Edward Asner.

Joey said...

Albert Finney in Huston's Under the Volcano was amazing. ...although, it's like, a flamboyant man who's playing an even more flamboyant drunk and he's pretty fucking crazy... I mean, shit: Finney does a full frontal nude scene and drinks after shave... You can see it in Finney's eyes. He looks trashed.

Maurice Ronet in Louis Malle's The Fire Within... if that can count. He's a recovering alcoholic and only gets drunk in the last part of the picture and it's more about depression and hopelessness... but that's an amazing performance... amazing movie... and I'm always changing from wanting to beat him up for wasting himself or give him a great big hug for looking so goddamn sad. ...the scene where Ronet drinks somebody left over glass of port (or whatever it was) on a cafe table is so fucking good.

Robert Downey Jr. ... eh. Can that count? He's drunkeness and fucked upedness are really just for comedy. A great performance...a great movie...Fincher's best movie, I think... I don't know... I didn't really feel his pain or anything or felt like I wanted to jump in the movie and beat him up for being such a drunk.

Anonymous said...

Stellan Skarsgard in Aberdeen.

wolfmanslick said...

FINALLY, someone posted Mickey Rourke in Barfly. Agreed, best drunk EVER!

Arthur said...

How on earth can you talk about drunks and leave out Arthur Housman? Featured in many 1930's film but was best with Laurel and Hardy. Genius.

Anonymous said...

No love for Randy Quaid in any of the National Lampoon Vacation movies? And how can Belushi be left off this list with his great scene from Animal House chugging Jack??

Owl said...

I know it's recent, but where would Jack Sparrow's character be with Rum? Think of the island scene in the first film.

Anonymous said...

Any Bukowski Acted role rules!

Micky Rourke in Barfly,
Matt Dillon in Factotum.

Anil Usumezbas said...

Great! More movies for my netflix queue.


Playing a drunk on screen is more often than not overdone, so the celebration of the good performances is quite meaningful.

Impressive list, both the actual one and additions made in the comments section.

Gregarius said...

Steve Buscemi in Trees Lounge.

A little obscure, but excellent.

Anonymous said...

How can you have this list and not include MIckey Rourke in Barfly?!

Anonymous said...

Jeff Bridges - The Big Lebowski. Kinda surprised no one mentioned hime already.

samkatvic said...

What about James Mason in "A Star is Born"...my vote for the best every!

Barrie said...

Yes Jack Lemmon in Days of Wine and Roses but what about Lee Remick in the same movie?

Anonymous said...

Claire Trevor in Key Largo. Fantastic.

schmo said...

You guys must be loaded! How can you not include Peter O'Toole in My Favorite Year!

Anonymous said...

Awww... no Elwood P. Dowd?

Mike said...

John Belushi in Animal House

I can't believe no one said Dennis Hopper in Hoosiers

Anonymous said...

Billy Bob Thorton in Bad Santa

Anonymous said...

One more for Mickey Rourke in Barfly. Amazing.

Anonymous said...

w.c. fields' souse (soo-zay)
w.p. mayhew
rourke's bukowski
jackie chan's drunken master
takashi shimura in drunken angel
orson welles in touch of evil
gene wilder in blazing saddles

Anonymous said...

I don't like Kilmer, but he was fabulous in "Tombstone." And I echo the comment about Newman in "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof."

For those proposing actresses: the original blog was about MALE characters. Although I'd like to see Riku Writes do a list of 10 great female movie drunks.

Anonymous said...

Dean Jagger in Bad Day at Black Rock

Anonymous said...

And next to them I read "THE FRENCHMAN - Jean Gabin". Which raises the question : have you SEEN "un singe en hiver" or not ?

Gabin as a militant drunkyard, deliberately raising ebriety to the level of art. Puts all the others to shame.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0056636

Anonymous said...

Jamie Tyrone (Jason Robards) in "Long Day´s Journey Into Night".

Anonymous said...

Toshiro Mifune in any movie ever.

Ann said...

I agree with James Mason in A Star is Born - he's The Man that Got Away - sad, celebrity drunk -ultimately tragic. excellent.

Anonymous said...

What? No Jimmy Stewart from HARVEY?

Anonymous said...

What about Takashi on Revenge of the Nerds, riding a tricycle and slamming beers every time around.

Sam Farley said...

Yeah, Billy Bob Thornton from Bad Santa. Classic stuff.

http://www.genreview.blogspot.com/

Mark Smith said...

WAIT A MINUTE.......Woody Harrelson as Roy Munson in KINGPIN?

Anonymous said...

Where's Withnail from Withnail & I then?

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

What about Peter O'Toole's Alan Swann in "My Favorite Year"?

Anonymous said...

Cary Grant in North By Northwest. He drinks a whole bottle of bourbon!

The In Crowd said...

Thanks to the anonymous commenter who recommended Michael Powell's 'The Small Back Room'. Sounds great, I've added it to my queue.

Major thanks to 'Arthur' for mentioning Arthur Housman! I'd been trying for weeks to remember the name of this great character actor who specialized in playing The Drunk.

I found a nice little post at the terribly pertinent 'Booze Movies: The 100 Proof Film Guide' blog, that talks about Housman and his Hollywood successor:
'A Toast to Arthur Housman and Jack Norton, Character Drunks'

Anonymous said...

Paulie from the Rocky series.

bmondo said...

Don't forget Richard Burton's subtle work in "A Spy Who Came In From The Cold."

bmondo said...

And of course Burton and Taylor in "Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf."

Anonymous said...

Ringo Star in "give my regards to broad street"

Anonymous said...

How about the sexy drunk? Ashley Judd in "Come Sunday Morning" or Katherine Hepburn in "bringing up Baby" or Myrna Loy in the Thin Man series or for the females, Brando in StreetCar

Albert Finney, Under the Volcano, is the best ever.

Anonymous said...

Susan Tyrell in Fat City was awesome

Anonymous said...

Jackie Chan in "Drunken Master"? One of the best Martial arts movies ever.

Anonymous said...

how about billy bob thornton in 'bad santa'?

Celeste said...

Great selection! I've seen Albert Finney mentioned a couple times, but what about him in "The Dresser"?

Celeste said...

Great selection! I've seen Albert Finney mentioned a couple times, but what about him in "The Dresser"?

Alex said...

Jimmy Stewart in "The Philidelphia Story".
Jimmy Rocks!

Anonymous said...

While he's not quite a cinematic drunk, I would have loved to see a mention of The Wire's Jimmy McNulty, he's a pathetic drunk but you just still love the guy.

Tim said...

When I think drinking/drunks in cinema, it's got to be essential to the plot, not just a character quirk. Jack Torrence's demon is his alcoholism and it's ultimately what the Overlook uses to manipulate him to the maniac he becomes. Jack Nicholson plays it with phenominal intensity.

Anonymous said...

Steve Buscemi in the wedding singer!

Brad said...

This is a good list, but i prefer this one:

http://www.drunkard.com/issues/01_06/0106_soused_cinema.htm