Wednesday, December 26, 2012

This Day in Film History (‘Days of Wine and Roses,’ Drama of Addiction, Opens)

December 26, 1962—Days of Wine and Roses, perhaps the most searing drama about alcoholism put on the big screen since The Lost Weekend, opened just before a new year in which, once again, all too many people would get drunk in more than just a silly way—and in which far too few would decide that somehow, they must start their lives all over again, like Jack Lemmon’s public-relations man, Joe Clay.

Like The Lost Weekend, Days of Wine and Roses expanded the repertoires of its male star (Ray Milland, in the case of the former, and Lemmon) and directors (Billy Wilder and Blake Edwards, respectively) far beyond the comedies for which they had been primarily known. And, like that earlier film’s Don Birnam, the predicament of Joe Clay hinges on a relationship with women.

Well, in the case of The Lost Weekend, sort of. Jane Wyman’s warmly sympathetic magazine researcher could set Birnam right, maybe, if only he could open his eyes. Then again, maybe not. The original source of the Billy Wilder-Charles Brackett script, a novel by Charles Jackson, implied strongly that Birnam’s chemical addiction—and larger depression—traced back to a homosexual affair in college. With such subject matter verboten on the big screen before the Sixties, the best that Wilder and Brackett could do was drop hints about Birnam’s orderly (played by Frank Faylen) at the hospital, and to use the failed writer’s genteel artistic background and massive case of writer's block as code for lack of male virility.

Days of Wine and Roses is, on the other hand, unmistakably a love story between a man and woman, albeit one with a twist. Take the bowler hat that Lemmon wears in the photo accompanying this post. Fans of his most significant prior film, The Apartment (1960), would have recognized that little bit of stage business as the same one that junior-executive-on-the make Chuck Baxter tries out in front of the girl of his dreams, Fran Kubelik.

To his regret, Lemmon was offered the role of Clay onscreen rather than the man who had played the part originally in the 1957 teleplay by J. P. Miller, good friend, Cliff Robertson, whom producers felt did not provide sufficient box-office pull. Some critics have suggested that Robertson, Piper Laurie, and TV director John Frankenheimer created a grittier drama than the one on which Lemmon, Lee Remick and film director Blake Edwards collaborated.

But the comedy backgrounds of Lemmon and Edwards (he had done Breakfast at Tiffany’s the year before) served the film extremely well, I think. The opening scenes between Lemmon and Remick, typified by that bowler hat, look like they’re going to start a rather traditional rom-com, with the protagonists meeting cute. But they pull you in and seduce you, the way alcohol does in this film. We think we’re about to watch Pillow Talk, but instead we get Scenes From an Alcoholic Marriage. (The initial shock of that was such that there were a virtually unheard-of number of walkouts at a preview for the film. Studio execs were sure they had a disaster on their hands until someone remembered that the audience hadn't been told beforehand that they would be watching a drama--and a particularly devastating one, at that.)

Lemmon’s Clay begins by getting Remick’s Kirsten Arnasen, a teetotaling secretary with an endearing sweet tooth, to share his good times by trying a Brandy Alexander (with a doubly intoxicating mixture of brandy and creme de cocoa). By the middle of the film, she fully shares what has become his full-fledged addiction. By the film’s pull-no-punches ending, the intensity of her addiction is so bad that his only hope of extricating himself is to break away from her, no matter how much it hurts. (That is the blunt message delivered by Clay's sponsor, who, as I indicated in a post from earlier today, was played by the late, great Jack Klugman.)

The attractiveness of Lemmon and Remick is essential to keeping viewers’ interest through the rest of the film. Their characters, after all, end up doing unsavory, degrading things for the sake of the booze that becomes part of their “threesome.” This is what part of what Kim Morgan has in mind in her film blog, Sunset Gun, when she writes:

“Lemmon and Remick's most interesting characteristic is, sadly, that they are alcoholics. They can't indulge the brilliant mental gymnastics of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf's George and Martha, whose addiction and spitefulness are, in a highly dysfunctional way, disarmingly romantic and strangely heroic. Lee and Jack -- they're like a lot of people -- just regular old drunks. No wonder they drink.”

That lack of “mental gymnastics” is precisely why the humor and vivacity that Lemmon and Remick carry from their prior work is so necessary in this film. Without the sympathy generated in those opening scenes before the marriage of Joe and Kirsten, it is questionable if viewers would root for them to find a way out of their predicament.

As it turned out, many people did. In addition to a win for Best Song (the title tune, by Johnny Mercer and Henry Mancini), the film garnered nominations for Lemmon, Remick, best art direction and best costume design. (Inexplicably, it was edged out of a Best Picture nomination by the likes of Mutiny on the Bounty and The Music Man.) It was also named one of the best 400 films by the American Film Institute.

Several years ago, on a long flight back from California, I spoke with a lawyer who, despite (or, I have thought sometimes since, because of) his completely drink-besotted state, knew every word in the film’s Oscar-winning title song. Had he been alive to see it, that might have made lyricist Mercer smile at first—before he realized that this highly intelligent, charming, literate man not only shared his most humane qualities, but also his thirst for drink.

(Incidentally, nearly three decades after the film, Lemmon shocked an Inside the Actors Studio audience with his first public admission that he also—like Mercer and Miller--had been an alcoholic, offscreen as well as on.)

As with The Lost Weekend, many viewers of Days of Wine and Roses are likely to recall one scene as particularly memorable in depicting the desperate state of an alcoholic: Birnam’s Sunday search for a pawnshop where he can get enough money for a drink, versus Clay’s trashing of his father-in-law’s greenhouse in search of a bottle he firmly believes is there. Yet for me, one other scene in the Edwards film has left a much more shattering, enduring impression.

Years ago, a female friend recalled, virtually word for word, these lines from Remick toward the end, when she explains why giving up alcohol has become so difficult: “This is the way I look when I'm sober. It's enough to make a person drink, wouldn't you say? You see, the world looks so dirty to me when I'm not drinking. Joe, remember Fisherman's Wharf? The water when you looked too close? That's the way the world looks to me when I'm not drinking.”

So often when I think of my friend, those lines come to mind. Maybe that’s why I haven’t seen the film since she recalled that bit of telling dialogue: It hurts me too much to think of it.

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