ALCOHOLICS ASSEMBLE! SOME “GREAT” ON-SCREEN DRUNKS! BY PAUL LAIGHT
“I was in love with a beautiful blonde once. She drove me to drink. It’s the one thing I’m indebted to her for.”
— W.C. Fields, Never Give a Sucker an Even Break
Cinema and booze have always been two of my favourite things to distract me before I stagger off to the great pub in the sky! So, why not have a look at some of the great drunks, characters and performances I have enjoyed over the years on the box or at the cinema.
AL PACINO – SCARFACE (1983)
While the rise of Pacino’s monstrous Cocaine-Capitalist owes much to narcotics and murder, he also plays a mean and nasty drunk. This is seen most notably in the restaurant scene where he spits and spews insults at his wife and the upper-middle classes surrounding him. Never has intoxication been so nasty and yet as sociologically adroit.
ARTHUR HOUSMAN – LAUREL AND HARDY (VARIOUS)
Laurel and Hardy are still the funniest people ever committed to celluloid but they had also had a fine “mess” of supporting actors. One of them was Arthur Housman, who was the go-to-guy when you wanted a funny lush. I reckon acting drunk is far more difficult than it looks but this guy nails it perfectly.
BARNEY GUMBLE – THE SIMPSONS (1989 – )
Barney Gumble’s status as a boozer is so legendary he actually makes Homer’s drinking look normal. Rarely is Barney sober and even his catchphrase is a supersonic belch from the pits of hell. Occasionally he will clean up or venture into normality but Barney will always be a hilarious alcoholic we’ve come to love.
BILLY BOB THORNTON – BAD SANTA (2003)
We all love a Christmas piss-up but Billy Bob Thornton’s drunken Santa does it all year round. He basically drinks in order to escape the shittiness of his life and a job he hates. This film is one of the greatest comedies of all time as Willie Stokes hits rock bottom and the self-destruct button too!
DEAN MARTIN – RIO BRAVO (1959)
Part of the original Rat Pack, Dean Martin, was known for his wild drinking ways off-stage. So, when he played drunkard, the Dude, in classic Western Rio Bravo (1959) there’s a thick varnishing of truth brought to the role. Martin’s Dude is a ridiculed because of his over-reliance on booze, thus the character attempts to get back some self-respect in a narrative heavy on machismo and redemption.
DENZIL WASHINGTON – FLIGHT (2012)
A jaw-dropping plane crash and landing introduces us to super-pilot Whip Whitaker. He should be celebrated as a hero but the character’s downfall is he performed this death-defying feat while high on drugs and alcohol. Washington is incredible in this brilliant evocation of a man battling addiction and his struggle is brilliantly orchestrated by Robert “Back to the Future” Zemeckis.
LEE REMICK & JACK LEMMON – DAYS OF WINE AND ROSES (1962)
This heart-breaking film — with brilliant performances from Lee Remick and Jack Lemmon — shows the power alcohol has as it systematically shakes you like a rabid dog until one’s soul is hollowed out. The story shows a couple succumbing to the demon drink after which their relationship is torn apart. It’s also demonstrates the power of AA in aiding treatment for recovery.
MICKEY ROURKE – BARFLY (1987)
Charles Bukowski was one of the great boozers of all time as he actually drank incessantly AND became a celebrated author. He didn’t just write about drinking and women but also his failure to reconcile with the futility of existence. Thankfully such dark materials made some great books as well as Barfly starring Mickey Rourke and Faye Dunaway. It’s painful to watch but a faithful rendition of Bukowski’s jet-black wit and mordant writing.
MICHAEL ELPHICK – AUF WEIDERSEHEN PET (1983 – 1984)
Elphick was a stalwart of British TV and cinema for years and brought a grizzled but often empathetic quality to his roles. He was comfortable as the lovable rogue and vicious hard man; none more so when he played psychotic drunken Irishmen McGowan in classic 80s comedy-drama Auf Weidersehen Pet. His character was so scary even Jimmy Nail’s Oz was fearful of him. Sadly, Elphick himself would pass away due to alcohol-related illness.
NICOLAS CAGE – LEAVING LAS VEGAS (1995)
The “Town Drunk” and “Tart with A Heart” are staple characters throughout our culture and these archetypes are breathed new life through incredible performances by Nicolas Cage and Elizabeth Shue. Cage’s writer is determined to drink himself to death while Shue’s hooker is just trying to survive. They are an unlikely romantic couple as this hard-hitting drama plays like a touching prayer to the bottle, the gutter and the emptiness of existence without love.
PETER COOK AND DUDLEY MOORE – DEREK AND CLIVE GET THE HORN (1979)
Derek and Clive were the filthy alter-egos of comedians Peter Cook and Dudley Moore. They released a series of sexually explicit, racist, sexist, homophobic, scatological and scurrilously hilarious albums in the 1970s. Moore and Cook basically got smashed and committed to tape a string of obnoxious sketches unsuitable to man nor beast. Both were alcoholics and the film version of Derek and Clive illustrates that. Dudley Moore would even have a box office hit as millionaire pisshead Arthur (1981) but this film, shot as they were kind of splitting up, is raw, funny and at times painful to watch.
RAY MILLAND – LOST WEEKEND (1949)
This dark noir is another filmic masterpiece from Billy Wilder. Ray Milland’s writer battles the bottle and those closest to him in an attempt to feed his addiction. Milland won an Oscar and not only lost weight but stayed in a mental institution in preparation. It’s an important film as it was one of the first to show alcoholic’s destructive nature rather than present the comedic drunk that had appeared mostly on screen up until that then.
RICHARD E. GRANT – WITHNAIL AND I (1987)
“We want the finest wines available to humanity. And we want them here, and we want them now!”
This often quoted but rarely bettered screenplay is one of the greatest I have ever witnessed and read; brimming with towering poetry, bilious insults and drunken repartee. Richard E. Grant is incredible as the paralytic, pathetic and cowardly actor who with Paul McGann’s eponymous ‘I’ for company laments a lack of career opportunities at the fag-end of the 1960s. It’s a hedonistic and bitter sweet joy with Withnail drinking every liquid known to humanity attempting to obliterate the now to avoid the tomorrow. Unbelievably, Richard E. Grant was teetotal so director Bruce Robinson had to get him “pissed” in preparation for a role he never bettered in his whole career.
W.C. FIELDS – VARIOUS
W. C. Fields was a comedy genius who began on the stages of Vaudeville as a juggler and became one of the most famous drunks on the silver screen. One may argue he simply transferred his alcoholic persona onto film but there’s some skill in being able to turn a weakness into a towering comedic strength. His one-liners and insults have gone down in history as some of the smartest and sarcastic ever written and when compiling this list his was one of the first name’s on it.
WILLIE ROSS – RITA SUE AND BOB TOO (1987)
Last but not least is the imperious drunk Willie Ross. His is the best lagging-pisshead acting I have ever seen on screen! His character in Rita, Sue and Bob Too was a racist, sexist, unemployable, drunken bully who when stood up to would simply cower amidst his own weak character and lack of bravado. Club comedian Ross also appeared in classic British TV drama Our Friends in The North as Daniel Craig vicious alcoholic father and also on stage in plays by Chekhov and Coward.