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The drinker and the drunk

W.C. Fields as Egbert Souse -- "accent grave over the 'e'."

The movies are full of drunks, from literary drunks ("Factotum") to frat-boy binge drinkers ("Beerfest"). Some of these drunks are funny ("Arthur," "Bad Santa," W.C. Fields), some are tragic ("Ironweed," "Leaving Las Vegas") and some are not meant to be thought of as drunks, but as alcoholics, subjects for treatment ("28 Days," "When a Man Loves a Woman"). Like the prostitute, the drug addict and the mentally or physically challenged, the drunk has provided actors with fabulous opportunities to chew the scenery (quite tasty with a single-malt scotch) and win awards (pop open the champagne!).

Roger Ebert administers a critical Breathalyzer to some of the movies' heaviest drinkers:

"The Bank Dick" (1940)

Legend has it [W.C. Fields] wanted his tombstone to read "On the whole, I'd rather be in Philadelphia." During his lifetime, on the whole, he'd rather be in a bar. He was a serious drinker who was often under a doctor's care, checked into sanitariums between movies and died a horrible alcoholic's death. David Thomson has written of "the mottling of his sad face."...

Assimilating the unique fact of W.C. Fields is a lifelong occupation for any filmgoer, conducted from time to time according to no particular plan. There is not a single Fields film that "must" be seen in order to qualify as a literate movie lover, and yet if you are not eventually familiar with Fields you are not a movie lover at all. What is amazing about him is that he exists at all. He is not lovely, and although he is graceful it is a lugubrious grace, a kind of balance in a high psychic wind. All of his scenes depend, in one way or another, on sharing his private state: He is unloved, he detests life, he is hung over, he wants a drink, he is startled by sudden movements and loud noises, he has no patience for fools, everyone is a fool, and middle-class morality is a conspiracy against the man who wants to find surcease in alcoholic bliss. These are not the feelings of his characters; they are his own feelings.

"Ironweed" (1988)

Nicholson and Streep play drunks in "Ironweed," and actors are said to like to play drunks, because it gives them an excuse for overacting. But there is not much visible "acting" in this movie; the actors are too good for that. Nicholson plays a man haunted by guilt from his past. He dropped and killed his baby son years ago and has never forgiven himself. He left home soon after and dropped like a stone until he hit the gutters of Albany, his hometown, where he still lives. Streep's guilt is less dramatic; she let herself down, or that is what she believes, for she does not understand that it is not her own fault she is a drunk.

"Trees Lounge" (1996)

If anybody ever wrote a Field Guide to Alcoholics, with descriptions of their appearance, sexual behavior and habitats, there would be a full-color portrait on the cover of Tommy, the hero of "Trees Lounge." Steve Buscemi, who plays Tommy and also wrote and directed the film, knows about alcoholism from the inside out and backward, and his movie is the most accurate portrait of the daily saloon drinker I have ever seen....

"Trees Lounge" doesn't paint a depressing portrait of Tommy, just a realistic one. Any alcoholic knows that life is not all bad, that there comes a moment between the morning's hangover and the night's oblivion when things are balanced very nicely, and the sun slants in through the bar windows, and there's a good song on the jukebox, and the customers might even start dancing. Tommy makes some headway one afternoon with a woman he meets in the bar; like a lot of drinkers, she can dance better than she can stand.

"Duane Hopwood" (2005)

It knows this, too: That alcoholics don't think they're alcoholics. "I'm not a drunk," they say. Sure they get drunk, but that's what they do, not what they are. What's a drunk, anyway? Some bum under a bridge with a pint in a brown paper bag? Duane has endangered a daughter he loves, lost a family he cherishes, been through traffic and divorce court, and yet cannot stop himself from going to a bar after work. Sometimes he drinks way too much. Sometimes he drinks too much. Sometimes he drinks almost too much. Sometimes he doesn't drink enough. Those are the only four sometimes for an alcoholic.

"Duane Hopwood" is not however a movie about drinking, and it lacks spectacular scenes of colorful alcoholism. It is more about waking up at the wrong time of day, working through a hangover, having times when your good essential nature shines through, and hating it that the woman who loves you now loves someone else, because she must.

"Arthur" (1981)

You might be tempted to think that "Arthur" would be a bore, because it is about a drunk who is always trying to tell you stories. You would be right if "Arthur" were a party and you were attending it. But "Arthur" is a movie. And so its drunk, unlike real drunks, is more entertaining, more witty, more human, and more poignant than you are. He embodies, in fact, all the wonderful human qualities that drunks fondly, mistakenly believe the booze brings out in them.

"Arthur 2: On the Rocks" (1988)

It is harder to play a drunk than a sober person, I imagine, because you have fewer aspects of the personality to draw upon. A drunk is always more or less in the same condition -- sometimes more, sometimes less -- and drunkenness is the filter through which all other emotions must pass. He can be a happy drunk, a sad drunk, a brave drunk, a confused drunk, but these are all different notes in the same chord.

Moore's genius, I think, was to show us Arthur desperately trying to focus on various appropriate emotions, through the fog of his unending intake of alcohol. We could almost read his mind as he arrived at some sort of hazy assessment of the situation, puzzled out the appropriate response and tried to communicate to the world that he was attempting to perform it. That earnestness of effort, that plucky determination in the face of utter confusion, was at the heart of his charm.

In "Arthur 2 on the Rocks," Arthur begins in the same state, and is equally funny. But then the movie takes a well-intentioned, but disastrous, turn. It decides that Arthur must grow, must rise to an occasion, must for once take responsibility for his life. This is very good for Arthur, but not so good for the film. Arthur is comic only to the degree that he is not tragic. In the first film, he was levitating above a great fall. In this film, like Wile E. Coyote in the Road Runner cartoons, he makes the mistake of looking down. And when he becomes aware of his situation and tries to do something, the film loses its comic energy.

"Leaving Las Vegas" (1995)

The movie works as a love story, but really romance is not the point here, any more than sex is. The story is about two wounded, desperate, marginal people, and how they create for each other a measure of grace. One scene after another finds the right note. If there are two unplayable roles in the stock repertory, they are the drunk and the whore with a heart of gold. Cage and Shue make these cliches into unforgettable people. Cage's drunkenness is inspired in part by a performance he studied, Albert Finney's alcoholic consul in "Under the Volcano." You sense an observant intelligence peering from inside the drunken man, seeing everything, clearly and sadly.

"Under the Volcano" (1984)

The consul's day is seen largely through his point of view, and the remarkable thing about "Under the Volcano" is that it doesn't resort to any of the usual tricks that movies use when they portray drunks. There are no trick shots to show hallucinations. No spinning cameras. No games with focus. Instead, the drunkenness in this film is supplied by the remarkably controlled performance of Albert Finney as the consul. He gives the best drunk performance I've ever seen in a film. He doesn't overact, or go for pathos, or pretend to be a character. His focus is on communication. He wants, he desperately desires, to penetrate the alcoholic fog and speak clearly from his heart to those around him. His words come out with a peculiar intensity of focus, as if every one had to be pulled out of the small hidden core of sobriety deep inside his confusion.

"Barfly" (1987)

The movie takes place in a gutbucket bar down on the bad side of town, where the same regulars take up the same positions on the same bar stools every day. Your private life is nobody's business, but everybody in the joint knows all about it. To this bar, day after day, comes Henry (Mickey Rourke), a drunk who is sometimes also a poet. The day bartender hates him, probably for the same reason all bartenders in gutter saloons hate their customers: It's bad enough that they have to serve these losers, without taking a lot of lip from them, too....

"Barfly" is not heavy on plot, which is correct, since in the disordered world of the drinker, one thing rarely leads to another through any visible pattern. Each day is a window that opens briefly after the hangover and before the blackout, and you can never tell what you'll see through that window.

"When a Man Loves a Woman" (1994)

Here is a wise and ambitious film about the way alcoholism affects the fabric of a marriage. So many movies about the disease simplify it into a three-step process: Gradual onset, spectacular bottom, eventual recovery. It isn't that simple; most alcoholics never even give themselves a chance to recover. And recovery is a beginning, not an end. "When a Man Loves a Woman" is about an alcoholic who recovers - and about her husband, who in some ways dealt with her better when she was drunk.

"Bad Santa" (2003)

"Bad Santa" is a demented, twisted, unreasonably funny work of comic kamikaze style, starring Billy Bob Thornton as Santa in a performance that's defiantly uncouth. His character is named Willie T. Soke; W.C. Fields would have liked that. He's a foul-mouthed, unkempt, drunken louse at the beginning of the movie and sticks to that theme all the way through....

When Billy Bob Thornton got the script, he must have read it and decided it would be career suicide. Then he put the script to his head and pulled the trigger. For him to play Hamlet would take nerve; for him to play Willie T. Soke took heroism. Wandering through the final stages of alcoholism, Willie functions only because of the determination of Marcus, who is played by Tony Cox as a crook who considers stealing to be a job and straps on his elf ears every morning to go to work.

"28 Days" (2000)

Every drunk considers himself a special case, unique, an exception to the rules. Odd, since for the practicing alcoholic, daily life is mostly unchanging, an attempt to negotiate daily responsibilities while drinking enough but not too much. When this attempt fails, as it often does, it results in events that the drunk thinks make him colorful. True variety comes only with sobriety. Plus, now he can remember it.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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