October 08, 2009
I was looking through Billy Wilder's filmography today, trying to decide which of his movies was my favorite. Going through the list, I realized that many of Wilder's films have one or two casting decisions that bother me. I think that Billy Wilder's first choices were often better than the people he ended up with. For instance, in Witness for the Prosecution Billy Wilder originally wanted William Holden for the part of Leonard Vole. He wanted Cary Grant for the leads in Sabrina and Love in the Afternoon. I can't help but imagine how much better those films might have been with his first choices in those roles.
Putting that pet peeve aside, it also seems like some of the films have one single character actor who annoys me. Cliff Osmond gets on my nerves in Kiss Me Stupid and Joe E. Brown wears on me a little in Some Like it Hot.
Usually when I have a huge issue with casting or supporting characters I find it impossible to watch a movie. However, I throroughly enjoy all of the films I've mentioned. In fact, some of them are my favorites. I think that my ability to overcome small annoyances and enjoy the film overall is thanks entirely to the direction and writing of Billy Wilder. His films have a continuity and ease that make them a cinch to enjoy, even if one or two little things feel out of place. Cary Grant might have made a much better Linus Larrabee, but Billy Wilder's direction makes us believe Humphrey Bogart is well suited for that role. And, frankly, Joe E. Brown is supposed to be a strange little fellow in Some Like it Hot, so it's okay if I think he is such.
But Billy Wilder also made four films that, in my opinion, are without flaw. They are actually completely entirely 100% perfect films: Sunset Boulevard, The Apartment, Irma La Douce and The Lost Weekend. Despite the fact that many consider Sunset Boulevard to be his seminal work, I actually think it is The Lost Weekend that proves what a fabulous director and writer he was.
Like with many of his other films, Billy Wilder didn't get his first choice for the lead in The Lost Weekend. (I'm not clear why he seems to have had such bad luck getting his first choices for actors, if anyone would like to clue me in!) His first choice was Jose Ferrer, an understandable choice for such a dramatic part. However, I think that Ferrer's heavy theatrical style of acting would have taken away from the realism. Choosing Ray Milland for the part of Don Birnam was one of the best casting decisions Billy Wilder ever made. Milland's subtle style of acting was perfectly suited to this role. Milland brought a disturbing level of authenticity to the part, making the audience believe that he really was a suffering alcoholic, struggling on screen and internally.
Alcoholism had never been addressed in such a stark, realistic manner before. Quite frankly, Ray Milland's depiction of the suffering and trauma that accompanies an addiction to drink is enough to convince me to stay dry my entire life. As an artist, I can sympathize with his struggle to write, and how the fear of not being able to create something fantastic can drive you to do crazy things. Though I'd never drown my sorrows in a bottle of scotch, the torment of thinking that you will never live up to your own expectations is definitely strong enough that I can understand why Ray Milland's character (and so many artists and writers) did so.
At the time that The Lost Weekend was made, Ray Milland was generally regarded as a debonair, handsome leading man. Being cast in such a dark, disturbing film was something new for him -- and the transformation from dashing young matinee idol to a serious, deep actor was remarkable. His performance won him an Academy Award-- one of the most deserved ones in Oscar history, if you ask me!
All of the supporting roles in this film were perfectly cast as well-- Jane Wyman was a few years away from her own Oscar winning performance in Johnny Belinda and her acting prowess is already quite clear in The Lost Weekend, as the long-suffering girlfriend of Ray Milland. Her appeals for him to stop drinking are so heartfelt and sincere that your heart aches for her as well.
A movie is good-- really good-- when you can watch it over and over again and never tire of it. But a movie is great-- really great-- when you can watch it so many times and find new meaning, new reasons to love it even more than you did the last time you watched it. The Lost Weekend is a great movie, and one that, regardless of his other outstanding directorial achievements, reserves Billy Wilder a place among Hollywood's greatest directors.