Here’s where it gets real: this is the first Best Picture that makes a genuine attempt to address the issue of alcoholism. Even today, addiction is a tricky subject. Despite growing evidence of the biological underpinnings of substance use disorder (the term that’s more in favor in the literature), the longstanding stigma of the disease remains. You wouldn’t think I’d pause the film to grab a beer halfway through, but guess what? I did.
Don Birnam (not Draper) is a writer who has a great novel somewhere inside him – autobiographical, of course, because there’s really no other kind of great novel. Unfortunately, he spends most of his time tracking down where his next drink will come from. There are a few scenes where Don frantically searches in his hiding spots for a concealed bottle that remind me of similar scenes on House – the clever addict secreting away a supply so he can get his fix later. Of course, there are also a few parts that remind me of the afore-alluded-to Donald Draper, particularly in that season when he spent half of each episode on a bender.
Of course, our main man is both a writer and an alcoholic, two things that seem to go together often. I don’t think writers are more likely to have problems with addiction than those in any other profession, but I’ve certainly noticed a kind of cultural atmosphere of drinking that surrounds writers in a way that seems more consuming than it might be for, say, an accountant. Writers spend so much time alone that when they get together, they’re either socially anxious and need something to lubricate their interactions or something. Or there’s the myth that booze or drugs fuel creativity. I don’t know.
Although it’s clear that this film portrays a character that’s a little too histrionic for today’s acting tastes, I think its depiction of addiction and how it’s viewed by society is worth observing. Don is usually helpless in the face of his alcoholism, but he certainly doesn’t lack self-awareness about how it’s affected his life. We get a brief interlude in the middle where Don relates to his cautiously friendly bartender the plot of his as-yet-unwritten novel, about an alcoholic writer who falls in love with a girl. Along the way, he spends an evening in the drunk ward at Bellevue, and we catch a glimpse of what kind of recovery treatment someone could expect in this era (not much). Don’s full enough of self-loathing to push away his girlfriend and brother, the support network who relentlessly stand by him, waiting for him to reach a point where he’s willing to accept help. The only sour note is the ending – his moment of epiphany comes all too easily, and I have trouble believing that he’s suddenly going to get better.
As a side note, I kind of loved the music because it reminded me of an episode of Star Trek. I discovered that the reason why is because the soundtrack used theremins, those electronic wooowooooo instruments that feature so prominently in science fiction. And in other random comments, I loved that somebody described a place as chichi, using a slang word that I thought was coined much more recently than 1945. And final observation: best moment of the picture might have been the lounge lizard breaking into song, “Somebody stole a purse!”
Theme: Mental Health
First Time Watching? Yes
Final Verdict: Delirium is a disease of the night.