Oscar® Formula One

By Stu Kobak

     Why not take on the tippler?  If you're an actor with a meaty alcoholic's role, you've got a good shot at getting an award nod from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Members of the Academy have a soft spot reserved for peers taking on the battle of the bottle. Come Oscar® night when those envelopes are opened you might find a faint aroma of the hard stuff lingering on the card announcing the winners.
Maybe the most blatant example of rewarding drink on screen is Lee Marvin's Oscar® for the role of Kid Shelleen/Tin Strum in the 1965 Cat Ballou. Marvin lets it all hang out as the gunfighter who can pull out a bottle as fast as a pair of blazing six-guns. I think the stunt work was as memorable as anything else. Marvin's swinging around the saddle of a horse with the abandon of a drunk falling down the stairs lingers on memory as well as any slobbered witticism issued from his lips. Some say the thought of Marvin's spoofing his own hard nosed drinking habit inspired Academy voters with his choice. The truth is, not many actors have made have succeeded in making themselves quite as disgustingly soused as Marvin did with Shelleen. When Marvin stepped up to the podium to get the award,  presenter Julie Andrews kept a respectful distance for fear of getting tipsy on Marvin's breadth. After all, it wouldn't look nice for Mary Poppins to look drunk on screen.    
    During the years of Prohibition beginning in 1919, actors drank with abandon on screen while speakeasies flourished. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was founded in 1927 and the first awards were handed out the following year. It didn't take them long to recognize the value of alcohol on screen. Repeal of Prohibition was still two years away when The Champ was released. Wallace Beery, the gravel-voiced tough guy played an ex-heavyweight boxing champ washed up and far too fond of the sauce  to take care of his young son.  As The Champ, Beery was often bleary, but not too tipsy to tug on the heartstrings of his audience. Maybe he couldn't throw a right hand the way he once could, but the Champ could act up a storm. Throwing some wicked one-two acting punches, Beery fed off the endearing, often saccharin performance of young Jackie Cooper playing his son. Beery could play drunk with the best of them and the combination of alcohol and tears proved a knockout as the two fisted actor shared the 1931 Best Actor Award with Frederic March.
    The latest screen drinking binge to result in liquid Oscar® flowing from the bottle was Nicolas Cage's ode to the muse of booze as writer Ben Sanderson in Leaving Las Vegas. There's nothing more appealing than the drunk Hollywood screenwriter. Slobbering his way from Los Angeles to Las Vegas on the destructive drunk binge to end all binges, Sanderson meets up with a prostitute with a heart of gold and doesn't find redemption. That's right. Cage wobbles his way through a suicidal succession of bottles, slurs his words with Brandoesque aplomb, and adds inspiration from Elisabeth Shue's magnificent performance as the deflowered Sera. Cage's unrelentingly pitiful characterization probably got lots of sympathy votes from studio people feeling guilty over causing some writer's downfall over one too many rejections. Did I say guilt? So Cage got the chance to play fast and loose with the booze and the babe and came away on Oscar® night with a gold statuette for massive slurring of words.
         Maybe Elisabeth Shue should have gotten just as drunk as Cage for her role as Sera. How else could you explain her losing out in the Academy voting? Shue was nominated but Susan Sarandon walked away with the prize playing a Nun in Dead Man Walking.
     The truth is women and alcohol don't hold the same sway over Academy voting members. You're better off playing a nun or a nanny or a nut. There's something about a slobbering woman, sweaty and stumbling from too much booze, that stops people dead in their tracks and turns them off. Ladies still get the occasional alcoholic nod for their work with the bottle before the cameras, but it just is not the same. Jane Fonda wakes up one morning next to a dead man in The Morning After and got a nomination as best actress for her efforts in that minor film, but you can be sure Jane kept a certain amount of decorum under the influence of the drink. Jodie Foster may have been a hard drinking blue collar gal for her role in The Accused, but Sarah Tobias is no alcoholic.
    Some actresses have overcome the slobbering barrier. Earthy Susan Hayward had an exceptional screen presence. Hayward could toss back her head to laugh or to throw down a shot of alcohol with equal sexiness. Susan Hayward knew a thing or two about playing alcoholic on screen. She was nominated three times as best actress while under the influence; once for I'll Cry Tomorrow, as the chanteuse Lillian Roth and for Smash-Up, the Story of a Woman. In My Foolish Heart, the only thing standing in the way of Hayward's alcoholic stupor are the exceeding high percentage of screen tears. But Hayward had to go to the electric chair in I Want to Live before the Academy voters felt she paid enough screen penance to get the Oscar® as Best Actress. Oh yes, she drank quite a bit as party girl Barbara Graham but her final reprieve was not getting reprieved.
     The beautiful Jessica Lange broke through the wall of prejudice against woman drunks on screen. Lange manages to look beautiful in any circumstances, so when she's under the influence it's never too unseemly by Hollywood standards. Lange toyed with alcohol and substance abuse as actress Frances Farmer  in Frances and the dynamic performance garnered her an academy nomination only to lose out to Meryl Streep's heart-rending role in Sophie's Choice. A dozen years later Lange tipped the bottle on screen again in Blue Sky. Lange's rage as the pathetic Army wife, liberally plied with alcoholic rage, got the big prize. Though she does some great drunk scenes in Blue Sky, ultimately the film is not about alcoholism.
     But men rule the alcoholic Hollywood award roost.  Legend has it that for his role as Gypo Nolan, the IRA stool pigeon in John Ford's The Informer, Victor McLaglen was plastered on the set most of the time. Playing drunk drunk is probably a tougher task than you might imagine, but  director Ford purportedly wanted to alter McLaglen's acting style, so he plied on the booze during breaks in the action. McLaglen blabbered and slobbered his way to the podium on Oscar® night with the top 1935 acting honors. Aside from the massive consumption of alcohol, the fact that three male stars of Mutiny on the Bounty were nominated for Best Actor just may have split the vote in McLaglen's favor. Clark Gable, Charles Laughton and Franchot Tone should have had their ration of rum increased.
    Talk about a great Hollywood award cocktail: Ray Milland plays an alcoholic writer. That's great for a start, but Milland takes it even one step further. Don Birnam wants to write a book about alcoholism, "The Bottle," but he can't even get past the title page. Too bad the character couldn't transfer some the ingenuity at secreting bottles to breaking the dam of words. Milland, after many years of doing the class act on screen got a grand opportunity to check out the DTs in Billy Wilder's dynamite The Lost Weekend. The romantic core that lends heart to the portrayal of Birnam's alcoholic stupor provides the film with a measure of artful pathos. Jane Wyman's suffering, sunny and supportive Helen St. James provides great contrast tot he edgy Milland performance. Wilder's script is tightly controlled and splendidly visual without resorting to the equivalent of visual stupor. Add a lurid score from the great Milos Rozsa and Milland reveals the last hidden bottle as none other than uncle Oscar®.
     The first time I remember Jack Lemmon bandying the brew was in Mr. Roberts. Lemmon's good nature mixed a mean cocktail. Lemmon mixed that brew all the way to the podium on Oscar® night, coming home with a Best Supporting Actor. Several years later Lemmon found the right formula again for an Academy Award. No fool, Lemmon hoisted the bottle and turned in one of his finest performances, in the moving Days of Wine and Roses. Lemmon had some practice with the role having done the teleplay several years before on live television. No, he wasn't really drinking on the air. Days provides a double alcoholic whammy as both Lemmon and costar Lee Remick battle demon rum.
     Perhaps Humphrey Bogart's wonderfully wry Charlie Allnut floats on the on the periphery of successful alcoholic performances The magnificent Bogart remains unshaven and beautifully greasy on the rough voyage down the Ulonga-Bora River, but his Oscar® chops are built more on the raging rapids of the river than on any alcoholic embellishment. Allnut may be a confirmed worshipper of the hooch, Bogart's performance in The African Queen is not really booze based but scores mammoth points for irascibility. Bogart got his lone Oscar® for Best Actor playing opposite the great Kate. Katharine Hepburn's straight-laced missionary lady Rosie provided the perfect foil for Bogart's river rat. A leech or two may have helped seal the Bogart victory on Awards night in 1951.
     Yeah, into the valley of booze strode cool Paul Newman, stylishly slurring his words. With bleary blue slits for eyes, he stumbled almost non-stop to the dramatic court denouement as souse lawyer Frank Galvin. At the end, Newman delivers the closing arguments without so much as a drop of help hooch to help. Newman did not get got the shiny statuette for his troubles as the Academy was in a reactionary mood, handing Oscar® gold to Ben Kingsley for sitting on his dhoti as Gandhi. , But Newman he must have been priming the Academy members; a little alcohol goes a long way, since four years later in The Color of Money, Newman reprises his great role of Eddie Felson, the pool hustler, now a liquor salesman, and came away with Oscar® gold. Newman tuned up on booze several years before tossing bottles and smashing parking meters in Cool Hand Luke in 1967 and added to his history of screen alcohol with some hard drinking time in Tennessee William's 1958 Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.
Mere alcohol is not insurance after all for victory on Oscar® night. The list of nominees who couldn't drink their way to an Academy Award® is significant. One of the great alcoholic roles is Norman Maine in A Star is Born. In 1938 Frederic March picked up the bottle, tossed back too many glasses and pretty much debased himself and abused co-star Janet Gaynor looking for Oscar® gold as the actor who can't resist the booze. Playing an actor on the way down should have provided sure fire Oscar® bait in 1937, but March ran up against a brick wall that no amount of alcohol could penetrate. Spencer Tracy's unforgettable performance as the fisherman Manuel in Captain's Courageous took home Oscar® honors. Remaking A Star as Born with a musical base for Judy Garland was a brilliant call. Garland plays long-suffering, loyal Esther Blodgett/Vicki Lester to James Mason's Norman Maine. Mason is fabulous as the rambunctious drunk, glaring at every glass of whiskey before downing it with pure self destructive fury. Mason may have slurred with the best of them as Norman Maine, but Marlon Brando's mumbles in On the Waterfront proved too tough for every Oscar® contender.   
     Who'd have thought the diminutive Dudley Moore would ever dig deep enough into his acting arsenal to garner an Oscar® nomination. It took alcohol to do it, lots of alcohol. As the stumbling, bumbling rich man floating on the sauce, Moore's Arthur was often hilarious. Was there a drunk joke not touched upon in that flick? John Gielgud's marvelous support, ever so straight-laced, helped make Moore's drunken asides that much more fun. This time out is was cold sober support was rewarded as Gielgud received an Oscar® as Best Supporting Actor of 1981.
     Other nominees who may not have downed enough booze for Academy Oscar® sanction include Lee Remick in Days of Wine and Roses, Dennis Hopper as the town drunk Hoosiers for his role .Bing Crosby played a singer, not a big stretch, in The Country Girl, but instead of preaching against the sins of alcohol abuse as he might have in his Going My Way garb, Der Bingle plays pathetic as the singer gone to pot who can't deliver the goods anymore. Director John Huston knew a thing or two about tipping back the bottle and he knew even more about filmmaking. In his 1984 film, Under the Volcano, Albert Finney added a dash of the sauce to his already saucy dialogue delivery to earn an academy award nomination as the alcoholic diplomat Geoffrey Firmin. Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep playing drunks?  It's easy to picture Nicholson abusing the booze, but Streep's a stretch. In 1987's Ironwood, he and Meryl Streep traded glasses and hopelessly amorous glances. Both of them even got nominated in the Best Acting category, but the Buffalo setting undoubted went against the grain of the Academy when doling out the Oscars® as Jack and Meryl had to sit on his past laurels. The producers should have moved the setting to Hollywood.
       Watching the Hollywood life through the scandal sheets often provides a view filtered through drugs and bottles. The booze train runs pretty fast in Hollywood, but maybe it's a training ground for the next great alcoholic role. Actors have piled up a serious treasure of Oscar® gold walking an inebriated road.

Oscar® Booze on DVD

     You can catch Lee Marvin slipping and sliding from his saddle on DVD in Columbia's release of Cat Ballou. The vintage film looks like fresh made hooch on DVD, with lively colors and consistently sharp images. Delivered as a special edition, the DVD includes audio commentary from stars Dwayne Hickman and Michael Callan and Director Elliot Silverstein's memories of making the film in a short accompanying the video feature.

     The Lost Weekend is available from Universal in a lovely  black and white transfer.. Images are consistently sharp and blacks are rich and deep. The DVD transfer has plenty of punch with outstanding light output. The range of grays is accurately presented. A few scraps of element damage and dirt are in evidence, but it's very minor. The wonderful Rozsa score is delivered cleanly in mono sound.

     You can catch up with Nicolas Cage in Leaving Las Vegas in the excellent MGM DVD. Shot in Super 16 by director Mike Figgis, the grainy and dark nature of the film is potentially video problematic. Grain is handled very well in this transfer.

    Norman Maine is available in glorious color in Warner's outstanding release of the remake of A Star is Born. Overall, the elements are smooth and detailed. There are a number of scenes in which grain shows prominently on solid light colored fabrics. You might catch a hint of grain on faces in several scenes.  Some very slight edge flicker shows up, but it's minor. There is one scene in which there's a momentary frame glitch when Judy sings "Heaven's Door."  Color depth is exquisite, showing off the lush production to best advantage.  A few scenes have color pulsing due to element deterioration. Blacks are sumptuous with layers of black on black clearly defined. Saturation of bright solid colors is a virtual explosion of vitality.  Shadow detail is excellent. Mixed to Dolby Digital 5:1, the music and songs are treated with elegant clarity. Dialogue is cleanly delivered with occasional directionality.

Jack Lemmon looks fine mixing his Mister Roberts cocktail. The source material for the transfer is quite good. Some scenes are a bit too grainy, but the overall look is pleasing. The transfer never injects itself between the viewer and the film. Images are reasonably sharp, colors adequately saturated. The soundtrack has been remastered in Dolby Digital 5:1. Dialogue is easy to understand and the Franz Waxman score, though not extensive, sounds fine.

You can watch Jessica Lange chew up the scenery in Blue Sky on an anamorphic widescreen enhanced for 16 x 9 DVD from MGM.

Paul Newman may keeps his drinking under control for another crack at pool hall fame in The Color of Money. The Buena Vista DVD is very sharp and the colors are deeply saturated. Presented letterboxed widescreen with no anamorphic enhancement.

Released on DVD in 1997, Arthur is presented by Warner in a full screen only version.




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