Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Weekly Top Tens: Ten Best Performances as Movie Drunks

In honor of me making an ass of myself over the weekend when I got so drunk I do not remember very much of what happened, I decided to devote this week’s top ten list to the ten best performances of movie drunks. Next time I get an urge to get drunk, I should remember these characters, and stop myself. One day and some people are really mad at me (I hope to make it up to them somehow), but these characters do what I did day in and day out. With one exception (#5) they don’t really make it look very fun.

10. Joan Allen in The Upside of Anger
In The Upside of Anger, Joan Allen’s husband disappears one day, apparently running off with his young, attractive secretary. Already kind of a drunk, Allen goes off the deep end once her husband is gone, and becomes mean, bitter and cruel – lashing out in different ways at all of her daughters, who are really the only people she has in her life that actually still care about her. Allen plays her character not as a slovenly drunk, but someone whose drunkenness is able to direct her anger and rage outwards at the world better. This is a wonderful performance by one of our best, most underappreciated actresses.

9. Mickey Rourke in Barfly
In modern American literature, there is probably no drunk more idolized than Charles Bukowski (unless, of course, you consider Hemingway to be modern). Bukowski apparently hated Mickey Rourke’s performance as a thinly veiled version of himself in Barfly, adapted from Bukowski’s book, but I think Rourke does a tremendous job. True, he is no Bukowski. No one ever really could be (although Rourke now would be a good choice to play him again), but he gets the drunkenness just right – he’s happy when he’s drunk, he buys rounds of drinks for “All my friends!” who are of course only his friends because he buys them rounds of drinks – when he has no money, he has no friends. Drunkenness fueled Bukowski’s brilliance, and Rourke channels at least a part of that in this film.

8. Steve Buscemi in Trees Lounge
Steve Buscemi’s directorial debut is one of the most accurate pictures of a blue collar alcoholic I have ever seen. Buscemi’s character works all day in an ice cream truck, and spends his evenings drinking at the local bar – Trees Lounge. There, he plays bar games on girls, and hangs out with his friends. He is a drunk who doesn’t get much joy out of drunkenness anymore. He sits on that stool night after night because he’s got nothing else to do – nowhere else to go. Soon, he finds he doesn’t even those friends left. But he keeps drinking anyway.

7. Ray Milland in The Lost Weekend
In 1945, The Lost Weekend was seen as a hard hitting expose of alcohol abuse and was one of the most critically praised films of the time – winning the Oscar for Best Picture and director, as well as for Milland’s outstanding lead performance. In the film, Milland plays a writer, who despite the presence of his caring brother and girlfriend cannot stop himself from drinking himself into a stupor every night. He pushes everyone and everything that he cares about away from him, just so that he can continue to get drunk every day. The movie’s impact has somewhat diminished over time, but it is still a powerful movie – much better than most of the “issue” movies of that period.

6. Val Kilmer in Tombstone
Doc Holliday is always portrayed as a drunk in the movies, but most of the time, the films treat his alcoholism as a joke. Not in this film. Holliday is raised to the level of tragedy here, as he drinks himself to death slowly, but surely. He isn’t able to keep himself sober – not for his girl, his friend Wyatt Earp or even for himself. He tries to be there for everyone, and even gets off of his deathbed to fight a fight for Earp he knows he can win, but Earp cannot. Yet, his addiction will eventually cost him everything, as he dies slowly and painfully by himself in a sanatorium. This is Kilmer’s best work.

5. William Powell & Myrna Loy in The Thin Man
As Nick and Nora Charles in The Thin Man series, Powell and Loy are the only ones on this list who make getting drunk constantly seem like a lot of fun. Maybe that’s because they never seem to be really drunk. The alcohol simply makes these charming, witty people more charming and witty. And it never interferes with their ability to solve mysteries. For a retired detective, Nick certainly finds himself in the middle of a lot of murder investigations. While the first movie in the series is far and away the best, the other four all have their charms as well.

4. Paul Giamatti in Sideways
Paul Giamatti in Sideways, like Steve Buscemi in Trees Lounge, is the type of drunk who doesn’t really consider himself to be a drunk. He is a wine connoisseur, who admires the richness and flavor of the grapes in the wine. But he drinks every day, often to excess, and although he is choosy about he drinks (“I am not drinking any damn Merlot!”), that doesn’t mean he’s not an alcoholic. His book, that has gone unpublished, is called “The Day After Yesterday”, and that is appropriate because when you’re hung-over, it’s never “today”, but the day after you got drunk. At least he seems to realize his faults by the end of the movies, and is working on fixing them.

3. Billy Bob Thornton in Bad Santa
Billy Bob Thornton’s performance as a mall Santa who uses his job every year as a cover for robbing the mall blind on Christmas eve is one of the best comedic performances of the decade. But underlining all the one liners (and they come fast and furious) is really Thornton’s performance as a pathetic man in his middle age, who has nothing to show for his life, and no real skills except cracking safes and drinking – and he only does the former so he can continue to do the later. Watching his performance, where he strikes out fairly hatefully at all those around him, you realize what a sad little man he is – you almost feel sorry for the poor bastard, except, after all, he has no one to blame but himself.

2. Richard Burton & Elizabeth Taylor in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor in this movie are the polar opposite of Nick and Nora Charles in The Thin Man. As married couple Martha and George, the two get drunk and then have at each other, throwing around the meanest, most hateful remarks imaginable. But simply tormenting each other isn’t enough – they have to draw others into their warped game as well. Poor Nick (George Segal) and Honey (Sandy Dennis) do not know what they have in store for them when they get drawn into their warped little game. Truly two of the best performance in screen history.

1. Nicolas Cage in Leaving Las Vegas
Out of all the performance on this list, Nicholas Cage’s performance as Ben Sanderson, failed Hollywood screenwriter who goes to Vegas to literally drink himself to death, is the one that most emotionally affects me. How does a man reach a decision to not only end his life, but to do so with a whimper instead of a bang. In understand the urge to kill yourself, but in order to do so as slowly and painfully as he does in this movie, there has to be something else there – a need to atone for his sins through self punishment perhaps. Cage is drunk in every scene in this movie, and although he does some of the standard “drunk acting” we have seen before, he also makes Sanderson into a real, complex, complete person. It breaks my heart every time I see the movie.

1 comment: