LOS ANGELES — Charlize Theron’s character in “Young Adult,” a divorced, deluded teen-lit writer, wakes up each morning face-down in her bed wearing the same clothes she had on the night before. Bleary-eyed and dehydrated with a face full of smudged makeup, she guzzles Diet Coke straight from the two-liter bottle and maybe even remembers to open a can of dog food for her neglected Pomeranian.
She clearly has a drinking problem, which she vaguely tries to talk to her clueless parents about, but in truth would rather ignore and just pour herself another glass of bourbon. It’s a daring performance in a daring film, and it got me thinking about other movies that presented alcoholism in equally vivid, unflinching terms:
“The Lost Weekend” (1945): This was groundbreaking in its day for exploring what was then considered a taboo subject. Long before going through rehab was socially acceptable and even encouraged, people just didn’t talk about alcoholism, and film depictions of drinking were usually glamorous or whimsical. “The Lost Weekend” is anything but: It’s a nightmarish, sometimes hallucinatory vision of a struggling writer (Ray Milland) boozing and battling his demons of the course of several days. It won four Academy Awards including best picture and best director for Billy Wilder.
“Barfly” (1987): Barbet Schroeder’s film, based on a script by Charles Bukowski (who knew a little something about male torment), may have a romantic, L.A.-noir aesthetic, but it’s piercing in its no-nonsense portrayal of two lonely people who are as much in love with booze as they are with each other. Maybe even more so. Mickey Rourke is a dive-bar denizen and sometime poet; Faye Dunaway is the classy dame with whom he falls into a quick and convenient romance. They’re a mess together, but they’re made for each other, because they’ll both do whatever it takes to find that next drink.
“Leaving Las Vegas” (1995): There’s a pattern here with these self-destructive writers who drink themselves into a stupor to escape their failure, to escape themselves. As a Hollywood screenwriter, Nicolas Cage wants to escape everything when he travels to Las Vegas to drink himself to death. He’s charismatic, volatile and achingly sad as he dives headfirst into his intentional ruin, and the performance earned him an Oscar for best actor. Elisabeth Shue is excellent here as the prostitute who’s fascinated by him but doesn’t try to save him, and director Mike Figgis doesn’t judge either of them. Rather, he shows us their relationship, and the seedy side of this city, in immediate, intimate ways.
“Bad Santa” (2003): As in “Arthur,” the perpetual drinking is a running joke, but the laughs come from a much darker place. Yes, Terry Zwigoff’s film is consistently funny but it’s also got an unrelenting, unapologetic mean streak. Billy Bob Thornton’s character, Willie T. Stokes, is a miserable guy, a part-time department-store Santa Claus and full-time alcoholic con man. Willie is profane and anti-social, a chain smoker who drinks so heavily, he’s oblivious when he urinates all over himself. He’s an unscrupulous shell of a man with no chance at redemption — not that he wants one. Thornton plays him as if he were a character in a drama, without a trace of caricature, which makes him totally believable.
“Julia” (2009): Perhaps not so much a great film as a great performance from the ever-daring and versatile Tilda Swinton as the title character, a lonely, self-destructive alcoholic who makes a series of desperate choices. Like Theron in “Young Adult,” this is an inherently unlikable person. She can be a fun, flirty drunk but mostly she’s a train wreck. She’s also not nearly as smart as she thinks she is, so when she agrees to kidnap an 8-year-old boy because she needs the money, she thinks she can do better with a scheme of her own. Things get ugly — and the drinking doesn’t exactly improve her decision-making process.