WEIRDLAND: Ray Milland in "The Lost Weekend" (Perennial Nostalgia for a Time)

Monday, September 01, 2014

Ray Milland in "The Lost Weekend" (Perennial Nostalgia for a Time)

Née Alfred Reginald Truscott-Jones in the Welsh town of Neath, the author went on to become a jockey, seaman and trooper in the Household Cavalry before breaking into films as a trick sharpshooter. Later rescued from a gas station job by Paramount during the Depression, Ray Milland was typecast as a light leading man until he won acclaim and an Oscar for his portrayal of a harrowed alcoholic in quest of a pint. Far from the typical merry stroll down memory lane, the actor's autobiography is as incisively outspoken and wryly humorous as it is intensely personal. Nostalgic evocations of childhood days at Gnoll Hall School are counterbalanced by a feeling of malaise which Milland attributes to contemporary society ("If there is cynicism in me it has been engendered by disillusion. Most of my pedestals stand empty and the world seems filled with predators.") The Hollywood scene --"this glittering pastiche, this Circus Maximus, this lubricious slave market"-- is as wickedly readable as always. Not a lost weekend, nor even a couple of hours. -Kirkus Reviews, 1974

"Most of my pedestals stand empty and the world seems filled with predators, so that I have come to the conclusion that my perennial nostalgia is not for a place but for a time. A time of good manners, of elegance and modesty, of honor and pride and self-respect. Many of these qualities remain with me only faintly, but I remember them and know that if I can recapture and polish them I shall be safe." -"Wide-Eyed in Babyloon: An Autobiography" (1974) by Ray Milland

Mr. Milland's performance in ''The Lost Weekend'' was so compelling that for years, many people confused the actor with the role he had brought to life. It propelled him into the popular folklore as a national symbol of alcoholism. The starkly realistic film, which is still forceful, broke many enduring movie taboos and won an Academy Award as best film; Billy Wilder also won an Oscar for his direction.

Mr. Milland, a 6-foot, 1-inch, sharp-featured, debonair Welshman, portrayed nimble, self-assured characters in more than 120 movies: sophisticated comedies, thrillers, Westerns and horror films. He was widely regarded as one of the most competent and intelligent film actors, one who never gave an inferior performance.

The actor played a noble brother in ''Beau Geste'' (1939), a squid-wrestling ship-salvager in ''Reap the Wild Wind'' (1942), a ghost-chaser in ''The Uninvited'' (1944) and a spy-chaser in ''Ministry of Fear'' (1944). He was an 18th-century Pygmalion-like dandy in ''Kitty'' (1946), a man falsely accused of murder in ''The Big Clock'' (1948), a homicidal husband in ''Dial M for Murder'' (1954) and a self-destructive surgeon in ''The Man With the X-Ray Eyes'' (1963).

Of the actor's towering portrayal of the dipsomaniac Don Birnam in ''The Lost Weekend,'' Bosley Crowther of The New York Times concluded, ''He catches all the ugly nature of a drunk, yet reveals the inner torment and degradation of a respectable man who knows his weakness and shame.''

At the age of 24, Milland had no idea what career to pursue. At a party he met a popular film star, Estelle Brody, who invited him to her studio for lunch. A producer spotted the dashing young man and hired him for a bit part. That led to another role, and another, and the actor, first billed as Spike Milland, appeared in a half-dozen British films. A year later, he was invited to Hollywood, and for the next four years he had featured roles, mostly second leads, in both American and British movies.

In 1934, he won a contract at Paramount Pictures and stayed with the studio for 20 years, free-lancing after that. Mr. Milland's films include ''The Jungle Princess'' (1936), which introduced Dorothy Lamour and her sarong; ''Easy Living'' (1937), a top-drawer screwball comedy; ''The Major and the Minor'' (1942); ''Lady in the Dark'' (1944); ''Golden Earrings,'' an absurd camp favorite (1947); ''Alias Nick Beal'' (1949); ''The Thief'' (1952); ''The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing'' (1955); ''Love Story'' (1970) and ''Oliver's Story'' (1978) - in both as Ryan O'Neal's dour father - and ''The Last Tycoon'' (1976).

In World War II, Mr. Milland entertained Allied troops in the Pacific, sometimes in combat zones. In leisure time, he was a yachtsman, hunter and fisherman who culled wide information from regular reading of the Encyclopedia Britannica. He and his wife of 54 years, the former Muriel Weber, had two children, Daniel and Victoria Francesca. His philosophy on acting, Mr. Milland told an interviewer, was, ''Do what you can with what you've got. I know actors from my generation who sit at home and cry 'Why don't they send me any scripts?' I tell them, 'Because you still think of yourself as a leading man. You're 68, not 28. Face it.'" Source:

"The Lost Weekend" (1945) was a breakthrough novel for author Charles Jackson, who based protagonist Don Birnam’s debilitating dipsomaniacal tendencies on his own personal history. 'The Lost Weekend' was a runaway success, and one of the first novels to deal with the ravages of the hardcore boozehound. Within five years it had sold nearly half a million copies, including a Modern Library edition. Walter Winchell praised it as “the Uncle Tom’s Cabin” of alcoholism. Malcolm Lowry’s devastating “terminal drunk” novel 'Under The Volcano' had not yet been published when Jackson’s book hit the bestseller lists, and Charles Bukowski’s “cult of blotto” literary personality was decades in the future.

Billy Wilder’s film adaptation of 'The Lost Weekend' maintained enough fealty to the source material to inspire raves from Charles Jackson. Wilder’s biographer Maurice Zolotow suggests that the great director was inspired to film the book as a way “to explain Raymond Chandler to himself” after the exhausting experience of dealing with the terminally self-destructive Chandler during the making of 'Double Indemnity' (1944). Wilder’s co-writer Charles Brackett later claimed that the scenario was “the easiest script we wrote, thanks to the superb novel.” Wilder agreed, saying that the more they took the book apart, the better it seemed. Wilder and Brackett consulted closely with Jackson, who advised the film’s star Ray Milland on the finer points of a down-and-out drunkard’s behavior.

Milland skimped on food in preparation for the role, giving himself a haggard, beaten-down look. Jackson was, for the most part, extremely pleased with the result of this Brackett-Wilder collaboration. He thought the script’s opening was “brilliant”. The liquor industry was less pleased, however. Several of Wilder’s biographers report that gangster Frank Costello, representing distilleries concerned about negative publicity, offered to pay $5 million to suppress the film. Wilder told a journalist: “If they’d offered me the five million, I would have.”

Played by an adorably spunky Doris Dowling, who’d had an affair with Wilder during filming (later becoming the seventh Mrs. Artie Shaw), the character Gloria is drenched in hepcat jargon, including “ridic” for “ridiculous.” Dowling’s character probably would have appreciated the soundtrack music used for the film’s preview screenings. That upbeat jazz, more appropriate for a screwball comedy, helped leave audiences perplexed by the film. Ultimately it was replaced by Miklos Rozsa’s theremin-dominated score, which was a much more effective counterpoint to Birnam’s grueling bender. Wilder, ably assisted by ace cinematographer John F. Seitz, captured New York street scenes via a hidden camera in a vehicle that followed Ray Milland.

Wilder and Seitz shot footage of Milland prowling for an open Third Avenue pawnshop and haunting Harlem sidewalks, and even gained access to Bellevue Hospital, where Milland spent a night in the psychiatric ward to get a feel for what Birnam went through. Wilder managed to finagle a permit to film in the ward, but only by submitting a completely different scene to Bellevue’s administration than the one he would actually film.

Jackson’s major problem with the film version of his novel was the happier ending that Billy Wilder and his co-writer Charles Brackett tacked on to appease Hays Office censors. The novel concludes with Birnam retreating into his apartment and planning his next binge. The film changes this scenario to Ray Milland pecking away at a typewriter, beginning the novel that presumably will redeem his suffering. Wilder denied that this was necessarily a happy ending, pointing out that writing often ends badly, and that there is virtually limitless potential for misery while slaving away at a typewriter. -Ben Terrall ("Noir City" magazine, Spring 2014)

"The so-called happy ending was not something imposed on me by the studio or by the censors," Wilder said: "When Don promises his girl that he is going to stop drinking, this is not a pat happy ending at all. He says he will try not to drink anymore. The film does not imply that he will never drink again. We end on a note of promise, that he is going to make one more atempt to reform, but that is as far as the picture goes." Billy Wilder concluded: "Don sees the bottle as his worst enemy, but Don Birnam is his own worst enemy." -"Some Like It Wilder: The Life and Controversial Films of Billy Wilder" (2010) by Gene D. Phillips

Gloria (Doris Dowling) – While not a femme fatale in the traditional sense, Gloria does play a character that could only be found in a noir of the era – the charming prostitute. While never mentioned explicitly of course (the censors would have a field day) she is seen chatting with her ‘patrons’ – referred to affectionately by her as “an old friend of the folks”. The character of Gloria could have easily been portrayed by Doris Dowling as an embittered, tired, old hooker – but she makes it something else. Not exactly a hooker with a heart of gold, but pretty close (what other hooker would lend money to man who stood them up?). She is seductive and coy from the moment we see her in Nat’s bar. A sheer-black lace blouse reveals a white bustier beneath creating a striking image and forever burn into our mind the character.

Gloria: “I’m just crazy about the back of your hair” - She delivers some of the best lines in the film – a wonderful performance. [In Nat's Bar] Gloria seductively slinks past: ‘Hello Mr. Birnam, happy to have you back with the organisation.”

Don [speaking of drinking]: ‘But what does it do to my mind? It tosses the sandbags overboard so the balloon can soar. Suddenly, I’m above the ordinary. I’m competent, supremely competent. I’m walking a tightrope over Niagara Falls. I’m one of the great ones. I’m Michelangelo, molding the beard of Moses. I’m Van Gogh, painting pure sunlight. I’m Horowitz, playing the Emperor Concerto. I’m John Barrymore before the movies got him by the throat. I’m Jesse James and his two brothers – all three of ‘em. I’m W. Shakespeare. And out there it’s not Third Avenue any longer – it’s the Nile, Nat, the Nile – and down it moves the barge of Cleopatra’ Source:

Don Birnam (Ray Milland), long-time alcoholic, has been "on the wagon" for ten days and seems to be over the worst; but his craving has just become more insidious. Evading a country weekend planned by his brother Wick (Phillip Terry) and girlfriend Helen (Jane Wyman), he begins a four-day bender. In flashbacks we see past events, all gone wrong because of the bottle. But this bout looks like being his last... one way or the other.

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