81 Days With Oscar And Me

Every Academy Award-Winning Movie, Back to Back, Starting With the First

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Lost Weekend, The

September 6th, 2009 · No Comments · 1945, Adaptation, Billy Wilder, Black and White, Composer: Miklós Rózsa, Drama, Lost Weekend, Ray Milland, Universal Pictures

The Lost Weekend If anyone wants to know the difference a great screenwriter and gifted director can make on a film, I recommend he/she watch The Broadway Melody (1929) and then The Lost Weekend (1945). In that order.

The reason why I suggested The Broadway Melody is because it, like The Lost Weekend contains very long scenes. However, in the former those scenes are painful. Time crawls by on hands and knees. In the latter, those scenes are enthralling. Time flies by.

Granted, there’s a 16-year span of time between the two movies. Hollywood came a long way in those relatively few years. In between were Gone With the Wind, and Casablanca, arguably two of the greatest films of all time, not to mention Mutiny On the Bounty and How Green Was My Valley, two quite excellent films.

So a screenwriter or a director (or, in Billy Wilder’s case, both) had a lot to learn from.

But that’s precisely my point. At least, most of it.

Billy WilderSome filmmakers are unique. Their idiosyncrasies identify them as unequivocally as their fingerprints. Billy Wilder (1906-2002) had a knack for writing very clever, intelligent, often witty dialogue – and then infusing each camera shot with something visually exciting. His movies are among my favorites.

Apparently, I’m not alone in lauding the late Mr. Wilder.

From the Wikipedia entry on Billy Wilder:

Wilder holds a significant place in the history of Hollywood censorship for expanding the range of acceptable subject matter. He is responsible for two of the film noir era’s most definitive films in Double Indemnity and Sunset Boulevard. Along with Woody Allen, he leads the list of films on the American Film Institute’s list of 100 funniest American films with 5 films written and holds the honor of holding the top spot with Some Like it Hot. Also on the list are The Apartment and The Seven Year Itch which he directed, and Ball of Fire and Ninotchka which he co-wrote. The AFI has ranked four of Wilder’s films among their top 100 American films of the 20th century: Sunset Boulevard (no. 12), Some Like It Hot (no. 14), Double Indemnity (no. 38) and The Apartment (no. 93).

From his bio on IMDB:

He is among an elite group of seven directors who have won Best Picture, Best Director and Best Screenplay (Original/Adapted) for the same film. In 1961 he won all three for The Apartment (1960). The others are Leo McCarey, Francis Ford Coppola, James L. Brooks, Peter Jackson and and Joel Coen and Ethan Coen (the brothers co-produced, co-directed and co-wrote No Country for Old Men (2007) with each other).

Here’s the cast of The Lost Weekend:

Don Birnam (Ray Milland, 1905-1986), Helen St. James (Jane Wyman, 1917-2007), Wick Birnam (Phillip Terry, 1909-1993), Nat the Bartender (Howard Da Silva, 1909-1986), Gloria (Doris Dowling, 1923-2004…Doris appeared in one of my favorite episodes of The Andy Griffith Show titled “Floyd the Gay Deceiver”), “Bim” Nolan (Frank Faylen, 1905-1985…Frank played the part of Ernie in It’s a Wonderful Life).

I’m going to do something with The Lost Weekend that I haven’t done yet (at least, not to this extent): write down every scene for the first 20 minutes of the movie, along with its length as indicated on my DVD counter. By “scene” I mean any change in location or time. Not every new camera shot is a new scene. But if a character moves, for example, from the living room to the bedroom, or if the camera indicates a different location (such as the sidewalk outside), that’s a new scene.

Ready? Here goes:

1. EXT. NEW YORK SKYLINE – DAY (1:08-2:07)
Camera slowly pans right and comes to rest on an open apartment window, then slowly zooms in on the man inside the apartment. He is packing.

2. INT. APARTMENT – DAY (2:07-7:40)
Brothers Don and Wick Birnam packing for a long weekend getaway. Helen, Don’s girlfriend, arrives. Don, an alcoholic, convinces them to go to a symphony without him. He’ll catch up later. Wick discovers Don’s deceit of dangling a bottle of rye whiskey on a string outside the window.

3. INT. APARTMENT – BATHROOM – DAY (Cont.) (7:40-8:11)
Wick pours the bottle of whiskey down the bathroom sink.

4. INT. APARTMENT – DAY (Cont.) (8:11-8:42)
Helen and Wick leave. Don listens at the door.

5. INT. HALLWAY – DAY (8:42-8:55)
Wick and Helen walk down the steps, talking, worrying about Don finding more booze.

6. INT. APARTMENT – DAY (Cont.) (8:56-9:05)
Don, relieved they’re gone, chains the door and searches the apartment, frantic to find another bottle.

7. INT. APARTMENT – BATHROOM -DAY (Cont.) (9:06-9:24)
Don searches the bathroom.

8. INT. APARTMENT – MOVING: HALLWAY TO KITCHEN – DAY (Cont.) (9:25-9:34)
Don runs from the bathroom to the kitchen and opens the vacuum cleaner bag.

9. INT. APARTMENT MOVING: HALLWAY TO BEDROOM – DAY (Cont.) (9:35-9:50 )
Don searches behind the bed. He doesn’t find anything.

10. INT. APARTMENT – FRONT DOOR – DAY (Cont.) (9:51-9:54)
Someone unlocks and opens the front door. The chain on the door prevents entry.

11. INT. APARTMENT – BEDROOM – DAY (Cont.) (9:54-10:05)
Don hears the door open and glances up. He gets off the bed and stands facing the door. Someone is trying to enter. The doorbell buzzes. “Who is it?” Don asks.

12. INT. HALLWAY – DAY (10:05-10:07)
It’s the cleaning lady, who has arrived to clean the apartment.

13. INT. – APARTMENT – DAY (Cont.) (10:07-10:10)
“Not today. Does it have to be today?” Don asks.

14. INT. HALLWAY – DAY (10:10-10:13)
“I ought to change the sheets. And it’s my day to vacuum.”

15. INT. APARTMENT – DAY (Cont.) (10:13-10:41)
The cleaning woman tells Don his brother left money for her in the kitchen.

16. INT. APARTMENT – KITCHEN -DAY (Cont.) (10:41-10:50)
Don finds the money in the lid of the sugar bowl. But he tells the cleaning woman there’s no money for her.

17. INT. APARTMENT – MOVING: KITCHEN TO BEDROOM – DAY (Cont.) (10:50-10:55)
“I’m sorry, Mrs. Foley. It isn’t there. He must have forgotten it.”

18. INT. APARTMENT – FRONT DOOR – DAY (Cont.) (10:55-11:02)
Mrs. Foley is seen through the open-but-chained door. She is standing outside the apartment. “I wanted to do some shopping,” she tells him. Don tells her she’ll get her money. She closes the door.

19. INT. APARTMENT – LIVING ROOM – DAY (Cont.) (11:02-11:16)
Don dashes into a side room, grabs his hat and coat.

LAP DISSOLVE TO:

20. INT. LIQUOR STORE – DAY (11:16-12:02)
Don enters and orders two bottles of rye. The store owner tells him his brother was just there and left instructions not to give Don any more booze on credit. Don shows him the $10 bill and barks, “Two bottles of rye!”

LAP DISSOLVE TO:

21. EXT. SIDEWALK – DAY (12:02-12:30)
Don buys a few apples to put on top of the bag of booze to hide the bottles and then walks away.

22. INT. BAR – DAY (12:30-17:40)
Don opens the door to a bar and enters. He sits down at the bar. “Drown my sorrows in a jigger of rye. Just one. That’s all,” he tells the bartender. Gloria, a bar fly, flirts with Don. She has a way of abbreviating words. “Don’t be redic” (for “Don’t be ridiculous”) she tells him. Don waxes philosophic about rye whiskey. “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. I’m supremely competent. I’m walking a tightrope over the Niagra Falls. I’m one of the great ones. I’m Michelangelo molding the The Lost Weekendbeard of Moses. I’m van Gogh painting pure sunlight. I’m Horrowitz 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 them. 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. Come here. Purple the sails, and so perfumed that. The winds were love-sick with them; the oars were silver, Which to the tune of flutes kept stroke…

LAP DISSOLVE TO:

23. INT. APARTMENT – DAY (17:41-18:13)
Helen and Wick talk in Wick’s apartment. They’re concerned about Don, who should be in the apartment waiting for them. But he’s not. “I’ve had six years of this and I’ve had my belly full,” Wick tells Helen.

24. INT. APARTMENT – MOVING – DAY (18:13-19:06 )
Wick strides out of the bedroom and into the living room. He grabs his hat to leave. Helen follows him. The two continue their talk about Don’s hopeless condition.

LAP DISSOLVE TO:

25. INT. BAR – NIGHT (19:07-19:35)
The scene opens with a shot of at least a dozen shot glass circles on the bar counter. Don is still talking loftily. Suddenly, Don realizes he should have left for home a half hour earlier. He grabs his bag of booze and dashes out the door.

26. EXT. SIDEWALK – NIGHT (19:35-19:48)
Don stumbles out of the bar and onto the busy sidewalk. He dodges people as he dashes back to his apartment.

LAP DISSOLVE TO:

27. INT. STAIRWAY – NIGHT (19:48-20:11)
Don stumbles inside his apartment building and heads up the stairs. But he decides to hide outside the back door until Wick and Helen leave. He watches them through the screen as they exit the building.

28. EXT. SIDEWALK – NIGHT (20:11-20:29 )
Wick and Helen hail a taxi. Helen tells Wick she wants to stay behind to wait for Don. Wick gets in a cab and leaves. Don watches all of this through the screen in the back door.

Okay, I could go on and on with this (and the first time I watched the movie today, I did. I wrote down every scene and its length). Here’s what discovered about how The Lost Weekend is structured:

1. The first major scene (the first one following the establishing shot of New York) is nearly 10 full minutes long! Except for brief cuts to outside the apartment door, the entire scene takes place in one location: Wick and Don’s apartment.

2. Scenes 6-9 form a sequence that could be called “Don searches for booze.”

3. The second longest scene is over five minutes in length. It is the scene with Don in the bar talking to Nat, the bartender. Aside from a few close-ups of faces or the shot-glass circles on the bar, the entire scene is Don talking as he sits at the bar, drinking.

4. In that five-minute scene in the bar, Don mentions van Gogh, John Barrymore, Michelangelo, Horrowitz, “W. Shakespeare,” and even quotes from Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra. It is highly intelligent dialogue, reminiscent of an episode of Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone, which isn’t to say it’s weird or sci-fi. Serling was a master of the English language and could turn a clever phrase like no others in television history.

The Lost Weekend was nominated for seven Academy Awards. It won four (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, and Best Writing).

One final observation: This is the eleventh movie (out of 18!) to win a Best-Picture Oscar that was an adaptation of a famous literary work. That’s just over 61%. People today who complain that movies lack originality or fresh ideas need only look to Hollywood’s track record. Perhaps movies today lack freshness because novels aren’t as well-written or popular. Hmm. That can’t be true, either. The Harry Potter movies are very entertaining. And, although Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code novel sold a gazillion copies, the movie based on it was tripe. So maybe it’s not the book. Maybe it’s the filmmaker. I wonder what Billy Wilder would have done with The DaVinci Code?

The Lost Weekend is a great movie about an alcoholic who loses four days of his life. The subject matter is bleak. But the performances are extraordinary.

Would-be screenwriters who want to study the craft would enjoy a world-class education if they study, scene by scene, movies made by Billy Wilder. Break them down, examine their pacing and dialogue. When you analyze a movie that way, you catch a glimpse of the genius behind it.

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