Jack Lemmon: Days of Wine and Roses (1962)

“You remember how it really was? You and me and booze — a threesome. You and I were a couple of drunks on the sea of booze, and the boat sank. I got hold of something that kept me from going under, and I’m not going to let go of it. Not for you. Not for anyone. If you want to grab on, grab on. But there’s just room for you and me — no threesome.”

The Film and the Performance:
When one thinks of addiction often the mentality towards it is, ‘Well, that could never happen to me,’ or, ‘I can’t see myself as an addict.’ Truth of the matter is, any human being is susceptible to addiction, especially with alcohol use. According to the 2015 Centers of Disease Control statistics regarding alcohol addiction, six people die of alcohol poisoning each day. In fact, alcohol abuse is the third leading cause of death within the United States. Yet what makes alcohol abuse such a difficult addiction to combat is that it isn’t merely relegated to the extreme cases. The CDC reports that, as of 2015, roughly 17% of males and 8% of females will be dependent on alcohol throughout their entire lifetime. These are horrific numbers when one considers them.

These numbers remind film viewers that the topic of alcoholism within Days of Wine and Roses is one that is tragically timeless. While the root cause of addiction is not known, it is suspected that addiction has a correlation with an individual’s mental associations with life. Depression and anxiety are linked with alcohol abuse, with the substance becoming a tool to help one cope with their issues. Yet this dependency can quickly spiral out of control due to the body creating a higher tolerance, causing the individual to drink more, sometimes going to desperate lengths to find more alcohol. According to the Compass Health Group, they argue that from the baby boomer generation’s mental cognition towards alcohol dependency came from the real-world reality that work and family weren’t like the idealized family that film and television emphasized in the 1950s going into the 1960s and onwards. Alcohol has become a means of escape in such scenarios, which allows for individuals to avoid their circumstances. This is a claim that maintains relevancy today with many adolescents being coddled and continually told they can make a name for themselves, only to enter the real-world and recognize it isn’t as easy as they were told it would be. Alcohol helps such a generation avoid that realization. Therefore, the point being made is that addiction is timeless and it always finds a way to incorporate itself within a generation. Substance abuse doesn’t just happen to certain people, anyone can be affected by it.

That is the foundational message of Days of Wine and Roses: Addiction can happen to anyone. Yet the film establishes this message in a way that truly resonates with moviegoers by taking its time establishing the film’s leads, played by Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick, who the film chronicles over a span of five to seven years. With Blake Edwards’ careful direction and JP Miller’s sharp script, the film introduces the humanity of the film’s leads, representing them as the everyday, normal person. These aren’t people who are typically noticed, but rather they are like the very people who are watching the film: Ordinary, blue-collar, and trying to provide for their family. There is a sort of self-identification that the film offers to the viewer, which makes the latter portion of the film so devastating and difficult to watch. That difficulty is witnessing their self-destruction with alcohol addiction and their subsequent battles to overcome it from controlling their lives. It is a bleak representation of life, but it is very much within the confines of reality. Addiction is a serious issue and the film maintains that integrity.

Yet the film is expert in how it portrays the warning signs of addiction before it spirals out of control. The film begins with Joe Clay (Jack Lemmon) already having a dependence on alcohol, but he is still somewhat functional. He is able to work and maintain relationships, but he is sure to include a bottle of alcohol in whatever dalliance he is engaged in. He begins to date Kirsten Arnesen (Lee Remick), who initially tells him she doesn’t have an interest in alcohol, citing a dislike of the taste. However, Joe manages to introduce her into social drinking, which ultimately transitions into them binge drinking together. What this film emphasizes with these contrasting characters is that anyone can fall victim to addiction. Lee Remick’s character is a direct indication of this by portraying her as a shy secretary who becomes so wholly dependent on alcohol that even caring for her own child is an obstacle in the determination for getting more alcohol. These characters emphasize the simple and ordinary, who are very much capable of descending deeper into an abyss where nobody will surely see them again.

Days of Wine and Roses arguably is a film whose sole purpose is to reveal and expose how toxic alcohol is, both physically and metaphorically, and it succeeds in its intentionality. The film is brutally honest and doesn’t shy away from imagery that is both haunting and heartbreaking to witness. As moviegoers, we are observing two individuals willfully destroying themselves for a momentary indulgence. The claims ‘we have it under control,’ or, ‘just one more drink’ are statements to justify or suggest there isn’t a problem when we, as the viewer, are begging them to stop. The film is highly successful in that regard because we are witness to seeing the humanity of two good people being stripped away due to a liquid in a bottle. Yet that is addiction. That is precisely what alcohol addiction does.

More importantly, the film portrays what addiction does to those around the lead characters. The mental anguish that family or friends have to endure as a result of their loved one suffering from addiction is just as painful and impactful as those suffering from the addiction themselves. The film utilizes legendary actor Charles Bickford as that type of character, who stars in the film as Kirsten’s father. Through his supporting role, Bickford represents those who have to bear witness to the weaknesses of their loved ones but have to maintain strength in the hope they will someday recover. Ironically the film introduces this character as the stereotyped ‘disapproving father,’ yet he is the one character who maintains respectability throughout the entire film. His attitudes towards the lead characters is not one of disdain, but rather a cautious demeanor. He behaves around the lead characters as someone who wants to help, but realizes they are like playing with a block of explosives with their fuse lit. Yet even when they falter, he remains a positive presence, which reinforces the message that those suffering from addiction sometimes cannot pick themselves up without a hand to help them. It may not be easy for that individual helping, but their positive reinforcement just may save a life.

Added to the topic of help is the tragic component of relapse. According to alcoholrehab.com, the percentage of drug or alcohol related relapses range from 50-90%, essentially saying that relapse is likely with those seeking to escape their addiction. The reality is, relapse occurs even with the proper people around and the various treatments available. Relapse is a very likely possibility because even with the best positive influences, it doesn’t guarantee that an individual won’t be tempted enough to give in to their vices. Alcoholrehab.com explains that instances like not acknowledging deeper issues that contributed towards addiction or possessing unrealistic expectations regarding treatment are examples as to why relapses occur. Days of Wine and Roses tackles this uncomfortable reality by repeatedly portraying instances when the characters relapse after months of being sober. It makes the moviegoer audience cringe and want to scream ‘why,’ yet that is what is so profound about addiction, it doesn’t have to make sense.

Addiction isn’t a rational disease. Addiction is something that is so extreme that even someone who has rebuilt their life and has managed to stay sober for long periods of time can have it all come crashing down after one mere slipup. This isn’t outside the scope of reality. In the past few years both Cory Monteith from the TV show Glee and Oscar winner Philip Seymour Hoffman both have died from drug overdoses. Both of them had long suffered from addiction and had been sober for years. In the end, Hoffman relapsed when he had a single glass of champagne during a film wrap-up party and Monteith relapsed with substance abuse issues after nearly a decade of being sober. Unfortunately for both these megastars, their relapse strongly, if not directly, contributed to their death. Days of Wine and Roses hints this grim reality, emphasizing that relapse is very possible and its ramifications can absolutely be fatal.

Even with the making of Days of Wine and Roses, the issue of alcoholism strongly resonated with its cast and crew. Jack Lemmon and director Blake Edwards were both alcoholics at the time, who admitted to tremendous binge drinking throughout the filming of this movie. After filming, Blake Edwards ceased drinking for the remainder of his life and Jack Lemmon ultimately combated his own alcoholism and spoke openly of it in his 1994 interview on Inside the Actors Studio. However, Jack Lemmon’s son, Chris Lemmon, wrote about this in his memoir about his loving relationship with his father and offered a personal perspective of his father’s alcoholism: “He had a final night where it got out of control with broken glass all over the floor. He’d fallen down, hit his head, cut it open, had a bloody dishtowel hanging off the side of his head and finally the maid couldn’t take it. She called me and said, ‘You need to come over and talk to your father.’ When I got there, I didn’t need to say a word. He said, ‘I know.’ That was it. He never had a drink after that.”

However, Days of Wine and Roses provides hope and reminds moviegoers that treatment, even with its slipups, offer a possibility of a better life. The film employed the use of Alcoholics Anonymous to promote their organization and further remind people that they were in existence, since 1935, as a means to provide support. This not only was a positive force within the film, but it was also a stamp of approval from the reputable organization about the film’s portrayal of addiction. The AA scenes yet again provided the film with the reminder of the humanity of those afflicted with this disease. Those suffering from addiction are ordinary, normal people we pass on the street everyday and so very easily that person suffering from addiction could be yourself. These AA sequences within Days of Wine and Roses further remind audiences why this organization is still in existence and also provides an understanding as to why meeting attendances are still high even today.

As evidenced by the contemporary examples provided in this review, Days of Wine and Roses is a film that hasn’t aged a day since its relevancy is still paramount to today. Much more could be said about the film, such as the stellar acting from Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick, whose performances were so shockingly authentic that they were uncomfortable to watch. The film is worth watching to view these Oscar nominated performances, but the film is much more than that. Days of Wine and Roses is a profound film about addiction and what it does to the human psyche. It is a timeless issue that shows no indication of leaving society any time soon, which maintains the contemporary relevancy of this movie. According to a recent Newsweek article, studies show that 32 million Americans have suffered from a serious alcohol problem. That’s 1 in 7 people. This means that watching a film like Days of Wine and Roses will resonate with any type of viewer because it is likely there is someone, or yourself, that you can relate to with the content of this film. That is why the film is uncomfortable to watch and that is EXACTLY WHY you should watch it.

The Film:
5/5

The Performance:
5/5

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