Ray Milland — The Lost Weekend (1945) 🇺🇸
Ray Milland reaches full acting maturity in his outstanding characterization of Don Birnam, the frenzied alcoholic “hero” in “The Lost Weekend.”
by Kate Holliday
If you have any preconceived notions about the sort of guy Ray Milland is, I’d suggest you set about instantly getting rid of them. Throw them away! For you are about to see Ray, the erstwhile Bright Young Man of motion pictures, as Don Birnam, the alcoholic in “The Lost Weekend.”
Before we go any further, the shock I must prepare you for will in no sense arise from the picture itself. I’ve seen the film twice and I know. It is one of the truest, most powerful pieces of drama Hollywood has ever put upon a screen, and one which you definitely should see.
The shock will come from the fact that Ray, in this role, is so completely different from anything you have ever dreamed him in, that you’ll find it hard to believe he’s the same guy. And he is superb.
The whole business began, Ray tells me, when he started seeing copies of the novel by Charles Jackson in his friends’ houses. It was on a table at Cary Grant’s. It was in a bookcase on a boat of George Brent’s. He had heard of the tome, of course, and naturally figured that his pals were reading it because they were to do it on the screen. And then he spotted it on the desk of Billy Wilder, who, with Charles Brackett, has written and produced and directed some of the finest pictures in recent years. The pair of them did “Double Indemnity,” among other things. And that was no slouch!
Well, anyway, when Ray saw that Wilder was metaphorically clutching “The Lost Weekend” to his bosom, he began asking questions. It developed that the firm of B. & W. was considering doing the story, and Wilder suggested Ray take the book home and read it. This he did — with the result that he was still awake, hanging onto the volume for dear life, when four o’clock boomed through the morning air. And the next day, when Messrs. Brackett and Wilder inquired delicately whether or not he would be interested in playing Don, he answered in such a resounding affirmative that the walls of Paramount are still shaking.
Because of its subject matter, Hollywood (and Milland) wondered how on earth the picture was ever going to be made. There was, you know, the Hays Office to consider. But Mr. Brackett tells me that the censors were extraordinarily kind. They not only agreed that the film could be made, but declared that the script submitted to them was a gem and gave their O.K. for the shooting to start.
The point was, you see, that B. & W. considered Don Birnam a sick man, as Brackett told me “a man with an illness which wasn’t accepted by society but condemned by it.” Birnam was not a guy who enjoyed drinking. He drank because he had to because there was something in him which made liquor his only escape. He suffered, he fought the world and himself; he went through agony while the weekend was in progress. But he could not help himself. He was therefore a tragic character, completely acceptable to the censorial powers.
And Ray, who was to put Don on the screen, felt that about him, and more.
“Birnam was a defeated romanticist,” he told me. “In the past, he had created his own world, his own conception of what life should be. He had done it idealistically. And then he’d had the props knocked out from under him when he discovered that living could never come up to his expectations.
“He was a guy who was born many years too late — after knighthood had flowered and died. And he couldn’t adjust himself to the century in which he lived.
“Other men have had the same difficulty. Some have reacted one way, some another. Birnam’s solution was to drink himself into a stupor.”
When Ray was telling me his own ideas of the man he portrayed so magnificently on the screen, I had the screaming meemies. For, six months ago, when I was talking to him about what sort of a guy he was himself, he had used almost the same words.
“I am a romanticist,” Ray had said then, “who has learned to reconcile myself to the fact that life is never as magnificent as I would want it.”
Ray, in other words, believes himself inwardly the sort of man Cortez was: a colorful figure in shining armor who sailed towards a New World and conquered it. Or, he is Leonardo da Vinci, to whom all art, all science, all mankind was an adventure. Or he is Johann Strauss, writing waltzes to which the earth made love.
This is the type man Ray would like to have been, and probably would have been, in another era. This was the motivation for his entering the service of the English king, donning a flamboyant uniform, recapturing for a few years the splendor of chivalry. And, though there was in Ray (and still is to a certain extent) a wide, painful streak of shyness and inferiority, brought on by his fantastic height when he was a child and by his self-comparison with his three unbelievably beautiful sisters, it -was this romanticism which led him into acting, into the playing of parts which, in many cases, were completely incredible compared to normal living.
He didn’t enjoy making “The Lost Weekend.” No one would have; no one with any sensitivity, that is. For Don was too tortured, too desperate for comfort. And Ray, because he knew in himself so much of the pain in Don’s make-up — because he, too, is a romantic, because he, too, has fought against a sense of inferiority in the past — felt more deeply about Don than any other actor could have. The part got him down. He seemed to be that figure stumbling around the streets of New York. And, since much of the film was actually shot in the locations Jackson had written about, Ray really was at times reeling up Third Avenue and getting thrown out of night clubs in Greenwich Village thus he knew the embarrassment and shrinking of soul which Birnam knew those three terrible days.
The result was, as Ray said, “I got so irritable, so grim, that it was impossible to live with me.”
There were some amusing incidents, of course, most of which arose out of the fact that Billy Wilder, who was directing the picture and who did a masterpiece of a job on it, insisted that realism could only be achieved by shooting the exterior scenes in New York itself. Therefore, the cameras and Ray were sent East, with the result that dozens of Manhattanites are going to be amazed to see themselves in the movies.
“They didn’t know we were shooting, you see,” Ray told me. “We hid the cameras in trucks, in packing cases, and in the second story windows of buildings. Then I went out and did my stuff.”
“Were you recognized?” I asked.
“Sometimes. People would think perhaps it was I and then decide it couldn’t be. Most of the time I looked too horrible for them to believe it.”
It was because he looked like that, that some of the fun came. For friends began writing letters to Ray’s wife, telling her they had seen him on the street, unshaven, his clothes a fright, seemingly in the last stages of drunkenness.
“I think you ought to talk to him,” the letters would say, “before it is too late!”
And there was the episode in the Waldorf-Astoria elevator to contend with.
Ray has been staying at the Waldorf on his vacations for eleven years. He has had the same suite each time, and has naturally gotten to know the older employees like brothers. The night elevator man was his especial pal.
One morning at six, when Wilder was going to shoot some dawn scenes, Ray stepped into the guy’s car with a friend. He was a sight. But frightening! The sequence they were about to make took place when Don had just escaped from the alcoholic ward of the city hospital, on the last day of his binge. His eyes had larger bags under them than Fred Allen’s. He had half an inch of beard. His hair was standing on end. His whole face was drawn and sick-looking. And he was wearing a pair of pyjamas, a cotton lounging robe, and an overcoat. His feet were bare.
To make conversation going down to the street, Ray said to his late chum running the elevator, “Don’t you think I look bad?”
“I wouldn’t worry, Mr. Milland,” the guy replied. “I’ve seen you look worse!”
The thing was complicated further by the fact that Wilder wouldn’t let Ray eat while the picture was being made. He wanted him to “look thin,” and would follow Ray into the commissary at Paramount or into a New York restaurant with full instructions on what the waitress could bring his star. And Ray, above everything, loves food, beautiful, out-of-the-ordinary food. The kind of food you can get in New York. It was murder.
As far as Ray was concerned, however, the low point came when he attended his initial First Night in New York — “Bloomer Girl,” it was — with a week’s growth of beard.
“Everyone who was anyone was sitting right around me,” he told me, dismally. “It was awful.”
But now “The Lost Weekend” is finished. It will be released soon. And in it you will see Milland do a job which you never expected he could do. He has always been a good actor. In this picture he ranks with the very best. He turns in a performance which is powerful, poignant, and practically perfect. It will increase his stature not only with the industry but with the public as a whole.
He wants to make more films like it. Not about alcoholics, necessarily, but films with depth and thought to them. He says he will still do comedy when a good one comes along, and he will still enjoy dashing about in costume pieces, but he also intends to go serious on occasion.
He should. Hollywood has wasted his talents up to now.
“The Lost Weekend” and Ray Milland will win the Academy Award. Don’t say I didn’t warn you!
Source: Movieland, November 1945