The movie cocktail - what's your poison tonight?

From Cosmpolitans to Manhattans, Martinis to White Russians – Kaleem Aftab considers the role of cocktails in movies

Joaquin Phoenix has announced he's turning his back on acting to pursue a career in hip-hop. Well, if Two Lovers really is to be his movie swansong, then is a Brandy Alexander really the last cocktail he wants to be filmed ordering? While waiting for the object of his affections, Gwyneth Paltrow, to arrive at a bar, Phoenix's neurotic character orders this mix of brandy, crème de cacao, cream and nutmeg, much to the bemusement of the waiter, who even asks if he'd like it with a straw and umbrella. It's not a drink that I ever imagine the actor actually having drunk, but it fits perfectly with his emotionally unstable, lost puppy character.

The sweet-tasting Brandy Alexander was the cocktail ordered by Jack Lemmon in Days of Wine and Roses that starts his non-drinking wife, played by Lee Remick, on a journey towards Alcoholics Anonymous. The director of Two Lovers, James Gray, says, "Brandy Alexander tastes like chocolate milk; it's kind of delicious and gets you drunk pretty quick. Some girl told me to order it because it was delicious. I drank it and threw it in the movie because I thought it was funny."

It's a drink that defines Phoenix's character in the movie. He's not cool and he's susceptible to the whims of others. Indeed he's the latest in a line of movie characters who are known for and defined by their drink as much as by their actions.

The most famous drink in cinema is, without doubt, a Martini, "shaken, not stirred", as drunk by James Bond. He even has a nickname for his favoured vodka Martini, a Vesper, after his first love, Vesper Lynd. There are a lot of variations on how to make the perfect Martini and, in the latest Bond flick, Quantum of Solace, the director Marc Forster has Daniel Craig instead tell the barman exactly how he'd like it served: "Three measures of Gordon's, one of vodka, half a measure of Kina Lillet. Shake it very well until it's ice-cold, then add a large thin slice of lemon."

The Bond legend has also ensured that the Martini has become the best-known cocktail. But the drink's movie status goes back further: the quip "Why don't you get out of these wet clothes and into a dry Martini?" was apparently made by Robert Benchley, an extra on the 1935 China Seas, starring Clark Gable and Jean Harlow.

However the best example of a character describing how to mix a drink is in the Coen brothers' The Big Lebowski. Jeff Bridges' character "the Dude" is seen perennially slamming White Russians, and will order this drink, made with vodka, Kahlua and cream, which he also refers to as Caucasians, even when he goes around to people's houses and his hosts have no idea what he's asking for. A decade after the release of the cult classic, The New York Times claimed that the Dude had made what was considered a passé drink trendy. The reason it seems so apt is that the drink is simply not cool.

There is another school of movie character who drink cocktails to mark themselves out from the crowd. Robert Downey Jr's reporter Paul Avery makes a huge show out of the fact that he drinks Aqua Velvas in David Fincher's Zodiac. The most eye-catching feature of this cocktail, named after an alcohol-based mouthwash, is that its most important ingredient is Curaçao, which is what creates the blue colour. Amusingly the concoction is also the drink of choice of Jake Gyllenhaal's Robert Graysmith who picks up on the investigation of the San Francisco serial killer when Downey Jr gives up. Fincher obviously thinks it's the cocktail for depressed newsmen.

It's not just boys who like their cocktails. Carrie Bradshaw retained her penchant for Cosmopolitans when Sex and the City made its big screen debut last year. The drink of choice of the style icon played by Sarah Jessica Parker was always going to catch on when the show became such a cultural phenomenon. It's the drink made famous by Yuppies in the 1980s. The girls were always drinking cocktails throughout the TV series. Another drink frequently consumed in Sex and the City was a Manhattan, a mix of whisky, sweet vermouth, ice and bitters made famous by Frank Sinatra and his cohorts in the Rat Pack.

One of the more hilarious requests for a variation of the Manhattan comes in the 1990 Penny Marshall movie Awakenings, when a woman coming round from a coma discovers that Prohibition has ended and orders a Rob Roy. She is obviously nuts.

Alternatively you can forget the established list of cocktails and just go the Withnail and I route of placing an array of drinks on the table, from gin to red wine, and drinking them in quick succession. This has become the basis of the popular drinking game based on the movie in which participants try to match Withnail drink-for-drink. Lighter fuel is an optional extra, reserved for the pedantic.

Cocktails have shown themselves as one of the best shorthand routes to tell you all you really need to know about a character. You are what you drink.

'Two Lovers' is out March 27

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Stewart Lee (Gavin Evans)


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