Lights, camera, liquor

The aptly titled film One for the Road gives an unusually sour portrait of the misery of alcoholism. John Walsh recalls the great drunkards on (and occasionally off) screen
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The Independent Culture

Chris Cooke's new movie One for the Road begins and ends with three chronic drunkards bobbing in a swimming-pool, the aquatic plaything of a fourth drunkard, who has befriended them on a penitential rehab course. As we discover in the film's closing moments, the bobbing trio have done something staggeringly heinous and are waiting to face the music - and all they can do is float about like ice cubes in a vodka and tonic, or sink below the surface like olives in a dry martini. Long-term chronic alkies, they have become immersed in the drink completely now, oblivious to other life-giving elements such as earth or air, diving pointlessly, moonily below the surface like happy drowners...

Chris Cooke's new movie One for the Road begins and ends with three chronic drunkards bobbing in a swimming-pool, the aquatic plaything of a fourth drunkard, who has befriended them on a penitential rehab course. As we discover in the film's closing moments, the bobbing trio have done something staggeringly heinous and are waiting to face the music - and all they can do is float about like ice cubes in a vodka and tonic, or sink below the surface like olives in a dry martini. Long-term chronic alkies, they have become immersed in the drink completely now, oblivious to other life-giving elements such as earth or air, diving pointlessly, moonily below the surface like happy drowners...

The film is by some way the sourest, most authentically crapulous treatment I've seen of the demon drink. The quartet comprises one raddled Scouse loser with eyes like full ashtrays; one dim young-executive type; one bovine cockney taxi-driver; and a millionaire property developer, played by an unrecognisable Hywel Bennett (who has mutated from Sixties pretty-boy into a grotesque version of the elderly end-of-the-pier comedian in Hi-de-Hi!). They buoy each other up through epic drinking sessions by exchanges of crappy business wisdom ("Find the customer, work him... work him again... sell him something... anything") and confident assertions about the availability of women to silver-tongued cavaliers such as themselves.

As we watch them swilling and vomiting, as we take in their hopeless bravado and wilful self-destruction, it soon becomes apparent that the director, Cooke, is as simply condemnatory of drink as the temperance organisation The Band of Hope. One for the Road is, in effect, a 90-minute digital-video cautionary tale, to be shown to all 17-year-olds with addictive or egregiously oral personalities. It shows you how you'll lose your driving licence, your self-respect, your house, your wife and your family, and be unable to get it up for the pretty barmaid who has forgotten herself enough to take you home, you pathetic piss-artist.

This seems a little odd, given the complex, long-standing love affair that Hollywood has always conducted with drunks. It likes to show them as social performers, slurring and hamming away, buttonholing their victims with an extended forefinger, saying outrageous things, acting as holy fools, strangers to restraint or embarrassment, telling uncomfortable truths, gurning and riddling like court jesters on the fringes of social acceptability. But it also loves ticking them off for their weak will and sentimental late-night embraces. To Hollywood, drunkards are figures of edgy fun right up to the moment when they say, "I bloody love you... you're my best mate", at which point the studios disown them.

There are two main categories: the drunk as boozer - incorrigible, naughty, wilful but fundamentally decent; and the drunk as alcoholic - tragic, driven, morally beyond the pale, and doomed. In the first category, the Shakespeare of performance boozers is W C Fields, the 120-proof bar-room philosopher, spraying bad-tempered condemnations of children, wives and teetotallers, dripping misogynistic distaste for his co-star Mae West in My Little Chickadee (1940).

The iconic drunk-as-amiable-degenerate was Thomas Mitchell, playing the inebriated doctor in John Ford's Stagecoach (1939). He spent most of the film with his arm (in classic "I bloody love you" stance) around the mousy little whiskey salesman, while he worked his way through his bourbon samples. He was, however, redeemed at the end; when the respectable prairie doll went into premature labour, Mitchell downed enough black coffee to float a catamaran, and delivered the baby; in a movie explicitly about common decency and small-town hypocrisy, he was allowed to emerge on the side of the angels.

The saintly drunk, all slurred delivery and drooping eyelids, was epitomised by James Stewart in Harvey, the 1950 movie about Elwood P Dowd, a small-town bourgeois, and the invisible 6ft 4in rabbit he hangs out with in bars ("Harvey and I have things to do... we have a drink or two and play the jukebox. Very soon, the faces of the other people turn towards me and they smile. They say, 'We don't know your name, mister, but you're all right, all right'."). His sister tries to get him locked up (not rehabilitated, you notice, but slung in jail), but he evades incarceration. He's the drunk as benign, bibulous visionary, who means no harm and is wiser and sweeter-tempered than his moralising betters.

The same foggy benignity was given a heroic gloss in My Favorite Year, Richard Benjamin's 1982 movie about Golden Age Hollywood, in which Peter O'Toole played the former screen idol Alan Swann. O'Toole was, of course, playing himself: tipsily magnificent, rhetorical, grandstanding, idiotic and, unquestionably, a hero, right up to the moment when he swings into action against the bad guys à la Errol Flynn.

Some way down the scale was Dudley Moore's 97-minute drunk act as the eponymous hero of Arthur, a New York millionaire who has decided that if you've got tons of money, there's no reason why the party shouldn't start shortly after breakfast. Wearing a single expression reminiscent of Stan Laurel's face shortly after being hit by a plank, he lurched and swayed from drink to women and back again, and had charmingly acerbic conversations with his butler, played by John Gielgud. ("I'm thinking of having a bath," he says at one point; to which comes the reply: "I'll alert the media, sir.")

His was a very English-whimsical dipso turn. One shouldn't, perhaps, drag national characteristics into a subject as global as drinking, but the British have a fine pedigree in the arts of reeling, staggering and talking companionable bollocks. There's no finer evocation of the drunk as career suicide, I think, than Albert Finney playing the doomed consul, rumbling towards his final destruction in Under the Volcano (1984). There's no actor more capable of suggesting barely contained drunken rage than Robert Newton, the eye-rolling Bill Sikes in Oliver Twist and the "Ahhrrr, Jim lad!" star of the 1950 Treasure Island.

Newton was, of course, a phenomenal boozer off the set. Once he was being interviewed by Michael Todd for a part in Around the World in 80 Days. "I'm worried by your reputation," Todd said. "Your friend David Niven says that you're just a big fat drunk."

"My friend David Niven," Newton replied, "is a master of understatement."

There's also, it must be said, no more hopelessly misconceived drunk scene in movie history than Kenneth Branagh's pathetic reeling and slurring in Peter's Friends. You could always blame the director, but that was, unfortunately, Branagh himself.

But on the whole, the English-boozer turn is a world-beater. Two of the finest exponents aren't even English. Johnny Depp actually drinks little in Pirates of the Caribbean, but his walk, his eyes, his sway and his cocky bravado - not to mention his sloshed Keith Richards delivery - all suggest a life conducted well in range of a gallon of rum. And it took an actor raised in Swaziland to produce the definitive British toper c1969. In Withnail and I, Richard E Grant gave a whole generation of drinkers new heart and a new hero to applaud for his bold stand in a rural teashop, where he insists: "We want cakes... and the finest wines in Creation..."

Enough of all this charm. Hollywood likes an amusing wino, but it is also comfortable with disapproval. We've seen how the doctor in Stagecoach was allowed to redeem himself. Other cowboy winos, however, got the rough edge of the headmaster's tongue. In 1965, Lee Marvin won an Oscar for playing a flamboyantly out-of-it hired gunslinger in Cat Ballou ("My God, your eyes look terrible," says a friend, surveying the wreckage of Marvin's face after a heavy night. "You should see them from this side," growls Marvin), but he doesn't stop Jane Fonda's father from getting shot.

In 1959, Dean Martin, everybody's favourite on-stage wino, played a drunken marshal in Rio Bravo. In 1966, Robert Mitchum played much the same role in El Dorado, also directed by Howard Hawks. In both films, both men are confronted by John Wayne as a wandering cowboy trying to save the town from outlaws. As the plastered Martin/Mitchum lies in a stained vest in his own cell, he demands: "What are you looking at?" Wayne's reply is laconic but spectacular: "I'm looking at a... [pause] tin star, with a... [really contemptuous pause] drunk pinned on it." After which, both men get smartened up and embrace a life of sobriety, decency and flying bullets.

The best movies that take alcoholism as their theme don't, however, set out simply to condemn it. They seize, instead, the wayward, random quality of the drunk's relationship to the normal world, and use it to vivid, truly cinematic ends. Billy Wilder's The Lost Weekend (1945) remains the gold standard - a genuinely frightening film about the tyranny of the bottle, which is also a starkly original work of art. We see how whiskey makes the writer Don Birnham (Ray Milland) devious and deceitful and so desperate for booze money that he tries to hock his typewriter in the middle of Yom Kippur, when all the pawnbrokers are shut. But Wilder makes sure that we get the alcoholic's point of view throughout. So we see the Scotch bottle dancing in the pocket of Bornham's coat in the opera cloakroom while he sits squirming in the stalls. We see the (real-life) crowds in the (real-life) streets as a frightful, threatening mass. We see, most memorably, what delirium tremens does to your imagination, conjuring up small woodland creatures coming out of the wall and being killed by bats. And we discover why exactly he drinks: "Suddenly, I'm above the ordinary," he tells the barman, Nat. "I'm competent, supremely competent. I'm walking a tightrope over Niagara Falls. I'm one of the great ones. I'm Michelangelo moulding the beard of Moses. I'm Van Gogh painting pure sunlight. I'm Horovitz playing the Emperor Concerto..."

Leaving Las Vegas is the modern-day daddy of wino movies. Nicolas Cage won an Oscar for his portrayal of a scriptwriter on the skids, who heads for the casinos of the Nevada desert to drink himself to death. Cage is mesmerising in the way he switches between abject wretchedness and pissed exhilaration. Watch him at the start, trying to bum a loan off a mortified producer pal in a swanky LA restaurant: Cage's sad eyes, hangdog demeanour, unshaven chin. Then watch the credit sequence, as he almost dances down a supermarket aisle, filling his trolley with gin, Scotch, rum, vodka, tequila - everything bar Optrex and battery acid. Unable to make out a bank form because his hands shake too much, he downs a miniature of bourbon, and his body goes into a spasm of ecstasy - after which he can sign the form with airy insouciance.

Yes, he is killing himself, yes he will probably die, despite the soft ministrations of Elisabeth Shue, as a beautiful prostitute. But as with The Lost Weekend, Leaving Las Vegas is grown-up enough to understand the glory of addiction, its gorgeous colours and heroin dreams. Like the scene in Trainspotting when Ewan McGregor swims down a reeking toilet bowl into a blue lagoon, both films suggest that there's a transcendental sublime that can be reached in the lowest depths of corruption, as well as in the blue empyrean.

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