Top 5 Cinematic Drunks

At first this seems like a pretty easy list to come up with. Just sit back, open a few beers, think of the all time party animals in cinematic history and phone this baby in. On the contrary, you will not find John Belushi from Animal House, nor will you find Mickey Rourke from Barfly. There will be no Nicolas Cage from Leaving Las Vegas, Jeff Bridges from Crazy Heart or Will Ferrel in Old School. Not because none of those are worthy of mentioning, but because like all of my lists, this is a compilation of my favorite films of said topic. Also, despite my affection for the hootch (I am a few drinks in as I write this in spite of a rather nasty cold that I have been battling), I tend to appreciate films that don’t glamorize or romanticize alcoholism. While I do enjoy films that indulge in fantasying other subjects, alcohol dependency is a topic that I prefer a more realistic approach to. One of the first memorable portrayals of a drunkard in my memory and in cinematic history was Charlie Chaplin in 1917’s The Cure. A few notable performances that are not mentioned in this article are Jack Lemmon in Days of Wíne and Roses, Susan Hayword in I’ll Cry Tomorrow, Jason Robards in A Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Richard Lewis in Drunks, Paul Newman in The Verdict and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Jack Nicholson in The Shining, Richard E. Grant in Withnail and I, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Peter O’Toole in My Favorite Year, Lee Marvin in Cat Ballou and of course Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas in Strange Brew.

5. Charles Winninger in Destry Rides Again (1939)

This addition covers two of my favorite film drunk cliches: the Old Western Drunk & the Town Drunk Redemption. I was tempted to go with better known performances of Dean Martin in Rio Bravo (Western Drunk) or Dennis Hopper in Hoosiers (Town Drunk). However, Winninger wins out in the end because he manages to encompass both cliches in one staggering blow. Set in the fictional old west town of Bottleneck that is run by a corrupt saloon owner. The righteous sheriff is gun-downed after too many questions are asked while a fixed poker game is being exposed. The saloon owner decides to appoint the town drunk as the new law in order to keep a firm grasp on the community. Unexpectedly, the current town drunk was once a deputy and calls upon his formers partner’s son to help clean up the town. Jimmy Stewart comes to town as the pacifistic gunslinger and Marlene Dietrich is the saloon owner’s flashy girlfriend. In a movie where he is surrounded by catfights, sharpshooting and two of Dietrich’s most famous songs (“Boys in the Backroom” and “You’ve Got That Look”), it is surprising how memorable Winninger’s performance is. He is able to be touching, pathetic and hilarious all at the same time. Character actors like Winninger are unfortunately, a thing of Hollywood’s past.

4. Billy Bob Thornton in Bad Santa (2003)

This spot was a toss up between Bad Santa and Walter Matthau in the Bad News Bears (1976). Both encompass men that are beyond their prime and lives forced to become entangled with children that they despise. Here we have Billy Bob Thornton playing a safe-cracker that under the guise of a seasonal Santa for hire, breaks into different malls’ safes every year on Christmas Eve. He is on the verge of drinking himself to death when he befriends a properly awkward boy and a bartender that has a particular fetish for Old Saint Nick.  Billy Bob has kind of made career out of playing drunks. It could be said that he is less acting and more living on screen. It is no surprise that Thornton went on to star in the god awful remake of Bad News Bears in 2005. I went with Bad Santa because of the level of realism (or should I say heathenism) that is able to be depicted. As inappropriate as it may be at times, Bad News Bears was still intended to be a family film. Bad Santa, on the other hand, does not have that hinderance to keep back the depravity. It is free to show our fun loving Santa doing all sorts of things that real full blooded American alcoholics that are dead inside and tired of living usually do. Such as having anal sex in dressing rooms, hitting on underage girls at pinball machines, beating up kids with their own skate boards, peeing himself in front of children, etc. The beauty of this movie (as well as the original Bad News Bears) is despite the licentiousness of his actions throughout most of the movie, you are still routing for the main character in the end. Three different cuts of this movie have been released. The first was the theatrical cut which is good, but giving its R rating is a little restrictive in its content. The 2nd version is the unrated DVD cut, unfortunately titled Badder Santa, which is more or less the same cut as the theatrical version with just a few extra scenes. The version I recommend to watch is the director’s cut. While more times than not films don’t warrant the additional director’s cut the receive (I’m looking at you Alexander), this one is an exception. The director’s cut is actually shorter and almost completely re-edited. Where the original and unrated versions are almost slapstick in nature at times, the director’s cut is slower paced and overall a more solid film.

3. Takashi Shimura in Shûbun (Scandal) (1950)

It may have seemed a little more obvious to go with Yoidore tenshi (Druken Angel) for number 3. It is a more highly regarded, and frankly better, Kurosawa film as a whole. Yet I went with this film solely based on the scene that I posted below. This is the best (most touching) drunken scene ever filmed. Shimura plays a morally deficient lawyer with a fatally ill daughter. He takes on a case involving two celebrities, played by Toshiro Mifune and Shirley Yamaguchi (who are the real stars of this film), that were photographed together and falsely accused of having an affair by a tabloid. He does his best to adequately represent them, but he is weak willed and tempted by greed to throw the trial. In the scene below it is New Years and Shimura is toasting to the new year and to him becoming a new man. He talks of how ashamed he is of a man and next year his daughter will finally will not look on at him as a disgrace. Aside from Shimura’s  moving performance, nearly ever single extra and bit part actor’s face is heartbreaking enough on their own. The only other scene that comes close to touching this one is Meryl Streep’s delusional musical number in Ironweed.

2. Albert Finney in Under the Volcano (1984)

I have always been a huge fan of Albert Finney, but felt like there was a movie out there that would make me fall in love with him. Under the Volcano is that movie. In it he plays a retired British diplomat in pre-WWII Mexico who has recently been abandoned by his wife. He has found solace in his drinking to temporally fill the void of his wife. His drunken purgatory is shattered when his wife spontaneously reappears the morning after he prays for her return. What follows is his battle coming to grips with the realities of what is left in his life and what he is able to live with. Finney plays this aging alcoholic with such poignantly reckless fragility that the viewer is unsure whether to feel sorry for him or those around him. He wanders in and out of the lives of his peers with a disregard for his actions and the effect they have on his surroundings. He stumbles through the landscape lapsing between a childish innocence laced with literally references and glimpses of the kind and respected man he once was. It would be interesting to compare this film to Arthur. Both include lovable British drunks stumbling through life, however one is a slapstick comedy and the other is a heartbreaking drama. Its like comparing Punk Drunk Love to any other Adam Sandler movie. Those familiar with the burrito shops of the Mission District in San Francisco will get a kick out of what represents hell on earth, a bar called El Farolito.

1. Ray Milland in The Lost Weekend (1945)

When this movie was screened for audiences it shed such an effectively negative light on alcoholism that the alcohol industry itself offered Paramount Pictures $5,000,000 not to release it. The film tested so poorly that the studio almost buried it anyway. Luckily they didn’t and it ended up becoming a huge box office success and winning Oscars for Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay. Milland plays a struggling writer that has lost much of his success professionally and socially due to his alcoholism. The problem is, despite the obvious hazards, he chocks up his writing ability to his inhibitions while inebriated. As he puts it in a brilliantly written speech to his bartender “It shrinks my liver, doesn’t it, Nat? It pickles my kidneys, yeah. But what it does to the mind? It tosses the sandbags overboard so the balloon can soar. Suddenly I’m above the ordinary. I’m competent. I’m walking a tightrope over Niagara Falls. I’m one of the great ones. I’m Michaelangelo, molding the beard of Moses. I’m Van Gogh painting pure sunlight. I’m Horowitz, playing the Emperor Concerto. I’m John Barrymore before movies got him by the throat. I’m Jesse James and his two brothers, all three of them. I’m W. Shakespeare. And out there it’s not Third Avenue any longer, it’s the Nile. Nat, it’s the Nile and down it moves the barge of Cleopatra.” That monologue perfectly describes the rational that so many addicts tell themselves everyday. Whether it be consciously or subconsciously, addiction is a crutch that so many people now, and maybe even more so at that time, depend on with the notion that it was the only way possible to function. At the time this movie came out it was still typical to see a near full bar laid out in every office across America. While other films had hinted at the troubles of booze, this was the first to show exactly how strong of a grip it can have on a person’s life. Dozens of films have tried since to accurately portray the horrors of addiction, and despite being produced 65 years ago, The Lost Weekend still holds up as one of the most resonating pictures on the topic.

Special Feature:

Now that you have dredged through the bowels of the worst of alcoholic imagery that Hollywood can dish up, here are the top five films about drug addiction!

5. Drugstore Cowboy (1989) – Gus Van Sant

4. Permanent Midnight (1998) – David Veloz

3. Jesus’ Son (1999) – Alison Maclean

2. The Man with the Golden Arm (1955) – Otto Preminger

1. Requiem for a Dream (2000) – Darren Aronofsky

3 Responses to “Top 5 Cinematic Drunks”

  1. Your list is rather male-centric and misogynistic. What about Susan Hayward in Smash Up: The Story of a Woman or I’ll Cry Tomorrow? Faye Dunaway in Barfly? Bette Midler in The Rose?

    At least you could have had James Mason in A Star is Born, one of the best drunk performances of all time.

    Dudley Moore in Arthur?

    • If you read the article Mr. Anderson, you’ll see that I give props to Susan Hayward, Meryl Streep and Elizabeth Taylor. Sorry I didn’t put Meg Ryan from When a Man Loves a Woman. Turns out there just haven’t been that many great alcoholic roles made for women. I haven’t seen The Rose or that version of A Star is Born. I also mentioned Dudley Moore in the write up on Under the Volcano. Read the whole thing before you leave a comment. I’m going to pinch you so hard at your Oscar Party.

  2. Might be a bit late to comment, but you should have definitely listed Richard E Grant in Withnail & I… by far the most realistic portrayal of a drunken state ever filmed, and Grant is in fact T-total!

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