Ten Best Hollywood Alcoholism Movies

Hollywood alcoholism movies date from 1914 to the present day. Days of Wine and Roses, The Lost Weekend, Leaving Las Vegas, The Morning After, Come Back Little Sheba, Playhouse 90, The Country Girl, The Pilot, Under the Influence and Shattered Spirits are

It's not a pretty subject, but alcoholism has been portrayed in Hollywood movies since the earliest days of the silent cinema. In 1914, the silent movie version of Jack London's 1913 autobiogaphical novel John Barleycorn was released to theaters by W.W. Hodkinson. Featuring Elmer Clifton, Antrim Short, Matty Roubert, Viola Barry, Hobart Bosworth and Elmo Lincoln, John Barleycorn graphically depicted one man's titanic battle with the bottle.

Here are ten outstanding movie and television productions where alcoholism is the central theme. One for the Hollywood road?

Days of Wine and Roses (Warner Bros., 1962)

Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick play Joe and Kirsten Clay, a young married couple who descend into the depths of alcoholism. Joe is a public relations man in San Francisco, whose constant drinking leads to his firing from several jobs and an eventual stay in the hospital. Realizing he has a problem, Joe seeks help from Jim Hungerford (Jack Klugman) of Alcoholics Anonymous. But wife Kirsten refuses outside help, always going back to the booze and eventually dooming their marriage. A very strong, potent movie, with Jack Lemmon's wild, maniacal trashing of his father-in-law's (Charles Bickford) greenhouse as he searches for a hidden bottle of liquor rating as one of the most famous scenes in Hollywood history. In a bit of a twist of life imitating art, both Jack Lemmon (1925-2001) and Lee Remick (1935-1991) later sought treatment for a drinking problem. Days of Wine and Roses earned five Oscar nominations, including Lemmon and Remick for Best Actor and Best Actress, respectively.

Great line: "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." - Lee Remick as Kirsten Arnesen Clay

Director: Blake Edwards

On DVD: Days of Wine and Roses (Warner, 2004)

Promotional still: Jack Lemmon trashes a greenhouse in Days of Wine and Roses (1962)

The Lost Weekend (Paramount, 1945)

Ray Milland plays Don Birnam, a struggling writer who attempts to give up the booze so he can pen his one great book. But when faced with mounting social pressures, Birnam retreats to the bottle, disappointing both his girlfriend Helen (Jane Wyman) and his brother Wick (Phillip Terry). The Lost Weekend remains a powerful. groundbreaking movie, with Ray Milland delivering an outstanding performance as the drunk on a four-day bender who populates seedy bars, desperately searches for opened pawnshops and eventually ends up in Bellevue Hospital. The Lost Weekend garnered seven Academy Award nominations, winning for Best Picture, Best Actor (Milland), Best Director (Billy Wilder) and Best Screenplay (Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder). According to one source, the liquor industry offered Paramount Pictures $5 million not to release the movie.

Great line: "He won't accept our help. Not Don, he hates us. He wants to be alone with that bottle of his. It's all he gives a hang about. Why kid ourselves? He's a hopeless alcoholic." - Phillip Terry as Wick Birnam on his "lost" brother 

Director: Billy Wilder

On DVD: The Lost Weekend (Universal, 2001)

Leaving Las Vegas (United Artists, 1995)

Nicolas Cage stars as Ben Sanderson, a motion picture executive down and nearly out in Los Angeles. Sanderson has lost his job, family and self-respect, deciding to head to Sin City where he plans to commit suicide via the bottle. Sanderson meets – or nearly runs down – a Las Vegas prostitute named Sera (Elisabeth Shue), and the two form an uneasy relationship. "Leaving Las Vegas is one of the best films of the year, deserving many Academy Award nominations," reported Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times. Leaving Las Vegas earned four Oscar nominations, with Nicolas Cage winning for Best Actor. Cage had researched his role by engaging in binge drinking and interviewing hardcore alcoholics. American novelist John O'Brien (1960-1994), author of Leaving Las Vegas (Watermark Press, 1990), commited suicide (gunshot) two weeks after filming began on his book. O'Brien's father Bill called Leaving Las Vegas his son's suicide note.

Great line: "We both know that I'm a drunk. And I know you are a hooker. I hope you understand that I am a person who is totally at ease with that. Which is not to say that I'm indifferent or I don't care, I do. It simply means that I trust and accept your judgment." - Nicolas Cage as Ben Sanderson to Elisabeth Shue

Director: Mike Figgis

On DVD: Leaving Las Vegas (MGM, 2000)

Promotional still: Nicolas Cage and Elisabeth Shue in Leaving Las Vegas (1995)

The Morning After (ABC-TV, 1974)

Dick Van Dyke plays Charlie Lester, a business writer/public relations man whose battle with alcoholism wreaks havoc in his personal and professional life. Originally telecast as an ABC Movie of the Week on February 13, 1974, The Morning After also features Lynn Carlin as Charlie's wife Fran and Don Porter as his boss Rudy King. The Morning After is difficult to watch as Van Dyke's Charlie spirals out of control, continually embarrassing his family, wrestling with his wife over the car keys so he can go out and buy more booze and jeopardizing his relationship with his employer. The John Lennon/Paul McCartney song "Yesterday" is Charlie's favorite, and one can't help thinking how appropriate that compostion is to the movie: "Yesterday, All my troubles seemed so far away, Now it looks as though they're here to stay..." And Charlie does have major "troubles," as witnessed in the final scene where he is glimpsed as an unshaven, disheveled bum wandering down on the beach with his wine bottle tucked into a brown paper bag. Dick Van Dyke, a recovering alcoholic in real life, earned an Emmy nomination for his gut-wrenching performance.

Great line: "Say goodbye to your liver!" - Dick Van Dyke as Charlie Lester, trying to joke with his party guests as he serves drinks

Director: Richard T. Heffron

On DVD: Not commercially available

Come Back, Little Sheba (Paramount, 1952)

Based on the successful Broadway play by William Inge, Come Back, Little Sheba stars Burt Lancaster as Doc Delaney, a chiropractor who regularly attends Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. Doc lives with his slovenly wife Lola (Shirley Booth), a former beauty who pines for their lost dog Little Sheba. When college student Marie Buckholder (Terry Moore) rents a room at the Delaney home, a nervous Doc becomes upset, objecting to the intrusion and later to Marie's jock boyfriend Turk Fisher (Richard Jaeckel). Doc later falls off the wagon, threatening his wife with a butcher knife in the kitchen, where he is disarmed by two of his AA sponsors. "The screen version of Come Back, Little Sheba...makes as poignant and haunting a drama as was brought forth upon the stage. For this we may also be grateful to Burt Lancaster and Shirley Booth, who contribute two sterling performances in the picture's leading roles," reported Bosley Crowther of The New York Times. Veteran stage performer Shirley Booth won a well-deserved Best Actress Oscar in what was her motion picture debut.

Great line: "Alcoholics are mostly disappointed men." - Burt Lancaster as Doc Delaney

Director: Daniel Mann

On DVD: Come Back, Little Sheba (Paramount, 2004)

Promotional still: Burt Lancaster, Shirley Booth, Richard Jaeckel and Terry Moore in Come Back, Little Sheba (1952)

Playhouse 90/"The Days of Wine and Roses" (CBS-TV, 1958)

Writer J.P. Miller's haunting The Days of Wine and Roses was first telecast over Playhouse 90 on October 2, 1958. Cliff Robertson and Piper Laurie play Joe and Kirsten Arnesen Clay, young newlyweds whose lives are devasted by mutual alcoholism. Miller had based his teleplay on an uncle, whom he had later described as "a real lush." Charles Bickford is here (just as in the subsequent 1962 movie), playing Ellis Arnesen, as is the famous greenhouse scene where Cliff Robertson (like Jack Lemmon four years later) goes chemically ballistic, destroying the place while searching for a hidden bottle of whiskey. Broadcast live, with the exception of the AA scenes which were taped in order to afford a change of wardrobe, The Days of Wine and Roses represents a great triumph from the Golden Age of Television. Playhouse 90's theme music fits The Days of Wine and Roses like a glove. "Live from Television City in Hollywood....Playhouse 90."

Great line: "My name is Joe Clay, and I am an alcoholic." - Cliff Robertson as Joe Clay at a meeting of the Thirtieth Street Group of Alcoholics Anonymous

Director: John Frankenheimer

On DVD: The Golden Age of Television - Criterion Collection (Criterion, 2009)

The Country Girl (Paramount, 1954)

Bing Crosby stars as Frank Elgin, a fading alcoholic actor who is hired by director Bernie Dodd (William Holden) for his new Broadway musical. But Frank's dependence on booze and his wife Georgie (Grace Kelly) for support threaten the production. "An execptionally well-performed essay on an alcoholic song man, with Bing Crosby carrying on a bottle romance, The Country Girl is a show business story that has depth and movement," observed Variety. Based on the 1950 Broadway play by Clifford Odets, The Country Girl garnered seven Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, Best Actor (Crosby), Best Actress (Kelly, won) and Best Screenplay (George Seaton, won).

Great line: "The last time we talked, Mr. Dodd, you reduced me to tears. I promise you, it won't happen again." - Grace Kelly as Georgie Elgin to William Holden 

Director: George Seaton

On DVD: The Country Girl (Paramount, 2004)

Lobby card: William Holden, Grace Kelly and Bing Crosby in The Country Girl (1954)

The Pilot (Summit, 1980)

Cliff Robertson plays Mike Hagan, an alcoholic airline captain whose drinking threatens the lives of his crew and passengers. Robertson's Hagan likes to slip into the bathroom during flights, where he sneaks drinks from his hidden flask of liquor. When a flight attendant (Kitty Sullivan) suspects Hagan of drinking in flight, she goes to her superiors who launch an investigation. One of Hagan's co-pilots, Jim Cochran (Frank Converse), already knows of Hagan's problem, and vows never to fly with him again. Cliff Robertson, a real-life pilot and aviation buff, is riveting as the airline skipper whose love of flying is overshadowed by his out-of-control drinking, which includes downing nearly a fifth of whiskey a day.

Great line: "I want to control it." - Cliff Robertson as Mike Hagan to Milo O'Shea's Dr. O'Brian on his desire to control his drinking, but not completely quit

Director: Cliff Robertson

On DVD: Not commercially available

Under the Influence (CBS-TV, 1986)

Andy Griffith stars as Noah Talbot, a chronic alcoholic whose precoccupation with booze threatens to destroy his health and his family in this made-for-TV movie first telecast on September 28, 1986. Season Hubley, Paul Provenza, Keanu Reeves, Joyce Van Patten and Dana Andersen play family members caught up in Talbot's deadly web of chemical dependency. In one memorable scene, a hospitalized Talbot begs one of his sons to bring him some alcohol in order to ease his withdrawal symptoms. Under the Influence was nominated for an Emmy Award for its music composition.

Great line: "You just had to do it. You just had to do it! You bastard!" - Keanu Reeves as Eddie Talbot on finding his dead father, slumped over a table and surrounded by empty liquor bottles

Director: Thomas Carter

On DVD: Not commercially available

Shattered Spirits (ABC-TV, 1986)

Martin Sheen stars as the alcoholic Lyle Mollencamp, a real charmer and party guy whose life begins to disentegrate. His wife Joyce (Melinda Dillon), along with the rest of the family (Roxana Zal, Matthew Laborteaux, Lukas Haas), bear the brunt of Lyle's descent into the bottle. Shattered Spirits, first telecast on January 6, 1986, was made in cooperation with several organiziations, including the National Association of Children of Alcoholics. Martin Sheen is a member of Alcoholics Anonymous.

Great line: "When this family gets spruced up, we look like an ad for the phone company." - Martin Sheen as Lyle Mollencamp 

Director: Robert Greenwald

On DVD: Shattered Spirits (Allumination, 2002)

Ten More Alcoholism Movie and TV Production Favorites

  • I'll Cry Tomorrow (1955)
  • My Name Is Bill W. (1989)
  • Under the Volcano (1984)
  • Smash-Up: The Story of a Woman (1947)
  • The Betty Ford Story (1987)
  • License to Kill (1984)
  • A Star Is Born (1954)
  • Clean and Sober (1988)
  • Bad Santa (2003)
  • Leave It To Beaver/"Beaver and Andy" (2/13/60)

Half sheet poster: Susan Hayward in I'll Cry Tomorrow (1955)

Images Credit

  • All images courtesy Heritage Auction Galleries, Dallas, Texas

Copyright © 2012 William J. Felchner. All rights reserved. 

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