One of the many things that separate the movies of Hollywood’s classic era from those of today is their indulgent attitude to alcohol and drunkenness. So many famous scenes from studio pictures made in the years between the coming of sound in 1929 and the mid-Fifties are chained in memory to the bar or the drinks cabinet that hard liquor and cigarettes seem integral to the medium, as essential as klieg lights and mascara. From Rick’s bar in Casablanca, to Margot Channing’s theatrical salon in All about Eve, to any Western saloon, booze is the magnifier for all that 30-foot-tall emoting.
As Alan Rudolph’s lugubrious 1995 biopic of Dorothy Parker, Mrs Parker and the Vicious Circle, illustrates, it was Prohibition that made boozing an essential act of transgression among the Hollywood crowd of the Twenties and Thirties, matching the literary hard drinking of the writers around Scott Fitzgerald and Hemingway. Actors were even encouraged in their cups by movie fans. According to the pioneer producer J. Stuart Blackton, ‘Prohibition ... brought about the unique situation of reminiscent and heartfelt applause from the audience whenever a man is seen to take a drink on screen.’ The quality of a Beverly Hills host’s illegal liquor was a mark of his sophistication, and by the time the Volstead Act of 1920 was revoked in 1933, the drinking habits of film-makers had become ingrained and were transferred to the screen with the inebriate glee that makes boozing seem a natural part of Hollywood’s prime.
But booze and the movies were not always such ‘natural’ companions. Lack of access to early cinema has effaced wider knowledge of the implacable enmity that once existed between the cinema exhibition and liquor trades. Kevin Brownlow’s study of movies of social conscience in the silent era, Behind the Mask of Innocence, records how the building of a new movie theatre usually meant the closure of several saloons. Moreover, the early film-makers were among the most vociferous supporters of Prohibition, making hundreds of temperance movies. Brownlow reckons that the ‘alcoholic genius’ D.W. Griffith ‘made 13 pictures against the evils of drink at Biograph’. Griffith’s hypocritical example is more typical of Hollywood than W.C. Fields’s ‘lust for alcohol’ in It’s the Old Army Game (1926) or Chaplin’s mockery of temperance in The Cure (1917).
Characteristically, the studio producers waited until after Prohibition before they risked depicting Hollywood’s own wild party. The paradigm of all movies about Hollywood is probably William Wellman’s 1937 melodrama A Star is Born, which has been remade twice as a musical and was itself based on George Cukor’s What Price Hollywood? of 1932. The basic story contrasts the inexorable rise to stardom of an unassuming waitress with the fall into alcoholism of a cynical veteran of the screen – a man who has seen, in the parlance of the time, the tarnish on the tinsel. The drunken anti-hero starts out as a gentle soul, whose sensitivity makes him open to the charms of an ordinary waitress but hopeless in the face of the relentless demands of the movie business. A paternal producer figure eventually has to let him go, triggering a suicidal binge. Although largely a creation of David O. Selznick, a producer with a predilection for sentimental narratives, What Price Hollywood? draws on the career and decline into alcoholism of the silent era director Lowell Sherman, who himself plays the dissipated drunkard Maximillian Cady. Cady and his successor, Norman Maine in A Star is Born, stand for many careers that foundered in drink and suicide.
Today’s Hollywood producers and executives make more literal use of watering holes. Deals are christened with Perrier and story-pitching film-makers are met with clear eyes, even if the listener’s antennae are tuned to what’s going on elsewhere in the room. The discreet stimulant of choice is cocaine, and public inebriation taboo. So it is in recent movies about Hollywood. Larry Levy, an executive in Robert Altman’s The Player (1992), tells his rival Griffin Mill that ‘AA meetings are where the best deals are happening.’ The film follows Mill’s wandering but pin-sharp attention as he listens to increasingly bizarre ‘high concept’ story pitches in various bars and restaurants. It’s a scene that must be familiar to the director Mike Figgis, who has made three feature movies in Hollywood: Internal Affairs, Liebestraum and Mr Jones, respectively a successful police thriller, a quirky psychological drama and a character study of a manic-depressive. It is a stretch to imagine him pitching his new movie, Leaving Las Vegas, in similar circumstances.
Leaving Las Vegas is about a failed screenwriter, Ben Sanderson, who decides to quit Hollywood and drink himself to death in the Nevada gambling city. The screenplay was adapted by Figgis from a novel of the same name by John O’Brien (who himself committed suicide shortly after Figgis had acquired the rights to film his book). Figgis signals his awareness of Hollywood’s current sweep-it-under-the-carpet attitude to alcohol in the deftly judged opening scene. Looking haggard, unshaven and wobbly, Ben Sanderson, played by Nicolas Cage, enters an exclusive Beverly Hills bar and approaches Peter Brackman, an agent he knows, to borrow a few dollars. Plainly worried about his reputation, Brackman gives Ben the money but adds: ‘I think it would be best if you didn’t contact me again.’ The reason Ben inspires such fear and hostility in his erstwhile friend is that Ben’s condition is so visible. What gives the scene an ironic edge is the certainty that, were he to read it, Brackman would feel similar emotions about Figgis’s screenplay. He would not want to make a movie about drunkenness, because booze amplifies human failure in public. (Figgis did not in fact raise significant Hollywood finance on Leaving Las Vegas.)
Modern Hollywood is in denial about booze. Hard drinking may still have a glimmer of the macho aura that surrounded it when the Hemingway-influenced generation of screenwriters filled the studio writers ‘buildings in the Thirties, but in Nineties blockbuster movies even policemen and criminals mostly drink off-screen. Action heroes played by Stallone, Schwarzenegger and their ilk never touch it. (Bruce Willis in Die Hard has hangovers because he loves the wife who left him, but we never see him getting drunk.) And in independent movies, there is a general preference for hard drugs. Only in films set in the past do you see any amount of drinking. There’s a lot of it in Carl Franklin’s Devil in a Blue Dress, which is set in the Forties, but aside from Cage in Leaving Las Vegas; the only other recent portrayals of drunks that come to mind are both by women in movies set in another era: Sharon Stone in Casino and Jennifer Jason Leigh in Mrs Parker.
It is all the more revealing, then, to see Cage’s face, puffy and grey with liver-abuse, in Leaving Las Vegas; to see him chugging from a bottle of Jack Daniels or staggering pop-eyed and shaking with need towards an empty refrigerator. This sort of thing hasn’t been seen in American mainstream cinema since Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend (1945), in which Ray Milland plays an alcoholic writer who conspires to send his girlfriend away so that he can go on a binge. Yet even Milland’s big moment, when he hauls his typewriter up Third Avenue to pawn it for more drink only to find all the pawnshops are closed for Yom Kippur, falls short of the intensity of Cage’s crawl towards a sodden death. Milland cannot quite sacrifice his movie-star vanity to the extent that Cage does.
Like Albert Finney’s British Consul in John Huston’s tedious version of Under the Volcano, Milland is haunted by the hallucinatory spectres of drink to the point of abject misery. But Cage’s Ben Sanderson is beyond agony or remorse, if not quite the concomitant self-pity. He wants out of life and not to bore anyone on the way. Weaving down the path to his doom with an unsteady sway of the hips, Cage reveals the charm of his character through his politeness to a prostitute, Sera (Elisabeth Shue), whom he accidentally meets and then befriends, and through his enjoyment of the banality of his situation. Boozing clichés – ‘I can’t remember if I drink because my wife left me or my wife left me because I drink’ – are shouted with the bitter relish of a writer who knows their true worth. Disapproving people are greeted with a gently mocking insincerity: ‘great ass!’, ‘outstanding, sir!’ In darker moments, Cage’s body heaves with need but he is spared serious delirium. The symbolic terrors and guilty flashbacks that haunt a drunk’s worst moments in The Lost Weekend, Under the Volcano, Powell and Pressburger’s wonderful The Small Back Room, and for that matter Dumbo, are left out in favour of an intimate, physical sense of disorder. Cage’s one transmutation of what he sees is when the neon sign of his dingy motel THE WHOLE YEAR INN becomes THE HOLE YOU’RE IN.
Yet despite so much that is uniquely uncompromising about his perfomance, Cage flirts with the sentimental tendency in movie drunks of the post-Prohibition era. Cukor said of Lowell Sherman in What Price Hollywood? that he had a ‘slightly odious quality’ that kept pathos at bay. There’s something slightly repellent about Cage, too, and he occasionally wears the doleful, little-boy-lost look that dominates Lowell’s and March’s performances – usually when Ben is forced to reflect on why he is drinking himself to death. And something about the folksy cadences of Cage’s caressing enunciation of the name Sera recalls James Stewart. Henry Coster’s 1950 movie Harvey features Stewart playing another of Hollywood’s charming, indulged drunks, Elwood, a harmless nobody with a ten-foot rabbit friend that nobody else can see. Elwood is as matter-of-fact about his rabbit as Ben is about his certain death.
Such links to the lovable drunks of Hollywood’s past only add to the power and poignancy of Leaving Las Vegas, paying off the debt that John O’Brien’s novel owes to Selznick’s paradigmatic narrative. O’Brien’s best contribution is to have junked the rags-to-riches story of the rising star for the subtlety of a woman character, Sera, who has convinced herself, in the teeth of her degradation, that she is in control of her life. Sera, too, is a new twist on a classic Hollywood archetype – the golden-hearted tart – but she also doubles as the drunk’s essential companion, his guardian angel (sera-phim). In the Selznick story, the angel becomes too compromised by earthly fame to save the drunk. Sera has only to acknowledge that Ben is not to be ‘saved’ at all. Nevertheless she does try temporarily to domesticate him, to remove him from the ‘hole he’s in’ to her apartment, but this is not an attempt to thwart his drinking, only a wish to re-assert her self-deluding sense of control.
The hole you’re in and the angel who minds it form the parameters of the traditional male drunk’s world. The bar can be any bar, anywhere, but home will be a simple room that nevertheless has a thousand places where a bottle can be concealed. The angel may tidy up and offer support, as Kathleen Byron does to David Farrar in The Small Back Room, telling him to ‘have a drink’ from the unopened bottle of Scotch which was 20-feet tall and toppling towards him just before she came in. More often though, she will have given up and drifted away, leaving only a photograph or two on a dusty shell as glue for the drunk’s fractured memory. That’s how it is for Maurice Ronet in Louis Malle’s Le Feu follet. His wife has sent him back from New York to Paris to dry out in a clinic. He is momentarily ‘cured’, but realises that he is already spiritually dead and moves like a ghost through a compromised world. Ben and Sera are also ghosts, detached from their city of choice having opted out of its cash-stripping action. But Ben is determined to avoid the sentimental traps of the drunkard’s den: his room is anonymous and new to him, he has burnt all his photographs, and he flaunts his trolley-load of famous brands. Sera is a welcome accident, come too late, a premonition of the bliss of for getfulness. They are, like Frankie and Johnny, heroes of a long, drunken ballad, and Figgis sets their few days together against a score of cut-up torch songs and exquisitely sad blues.
Many commentators attribute the commercial and critical success of Leaving Las Vegas in America to a yearning among mass cinema audiences for adult storytelling, an appetite for darker endings. But Leaving Las Vegas is an anomalous modern wonder for more reasons than its narrative courage. O’Brien’s story may initially have attracted Figgis because of its bitterness towards Holly wood. In Figgis’s hands though, and as a movie, it becomes much more than the forlorn love letter of a spurned writer. Leaving Las Vegas has far-reaching symbolic power because drinking yourself to death is Hollywood’s old way of opting out, and if you can depict such a death and yet restore missing human qualities to the medium, as Figgis does here, you are triumphing over more than Hollywood hypocrisy.
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