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The Lost Weekend is a dramatic film directed by Billy Wilder and starring Ray Milland and Jane Wyman. The film was based on a novel of the same title by Charles R. Jackson about a writer who drinks heavily out of frustration over the accusation that he had an affair with one of his buddies while in college. The reference to the homosexual affair is removed in the film, and the main character's descent into an alcoholic binge is blamed on personal frustration and more general doubts about his identity.

The film's musical score was among the first to use the theremin, a musical instrument, which was used to create the pathos of the disease of alcoholism. This movie also made famous the "character walking toward the camera as neon signs pass by" camera effect.

Rights to the film are currently held by Universal Studios as they own the pre-1950 Paramount sound feature film library.


Milland drinks at a bar.
The film recounts the life of an alcoholic New York writer, Don Birnam (Milland), over the last half of a six year period, and in particular on a weekend alcoholic binge.

Moving from a shot of the Manhattan skyline to an apartment, with a whiskey bottle hung outside a window, Don and Wick are packing for a weekend vacation. Don, a supposed recovering alcoholic, has been on the wagon for ten days Wick believes. After Don's girlfriend Helen St. James (Wyman) arrives, Don urges his brother to agree to taking a later train, and urges him to go to a Barbirolli concert with Helen, while he collects his thoughts at home. Wick (Phillip Terry), having disposed of his brother's hidden supply of drink, reluctantly agrees, despite seeing Helen as his brother's 'girl'. Helen, slightly mockingly, claims to be trying not to love Don while he is trying not to drink. On their way out of the building, Wick reassures Helen he has found Don's hidden supply of alcohol, and points out Don is broke. A few minutes later, the cleaning lady arrives for work, but Don cons her out of her wages, and sends her away.

Don misses the later train he is meant to catch by overstaying at his favorite watering hole — Nat's Bar on Third Avenue, based on the legendary P. J. Clarke's. Now effectively rejecting his brother, Wick intends to leave without him, though Helen is wary of leaving Don alone for four days; she is currently very busy with her work at Time magazine. While Wick is leaving the building, he urges Helen to give herself a chance by dropping Don, but Helen waits; Don sneaks into his apartment to drink and hide the cheap whiskey he has bought. The following morning he finds a message from Helen pinned to his front door, urging him to call her.

While drinking back at Nat's Bar, Don recounts his history to Nat (Howard Da Silva), who is reluctant to fuel Don's habit, though he easily gives way. Don met Helen three years earlier at the Metropolitan Opera after a matinee performance of La Traviata thanks to mislabeled coats. In his mind, during "Libiamo ne' lieti calici" ("the drinking song") in the first act, the singers on the stage are converted into a row of raincoats identical to Don's; his contains a bottle of rye whiskey. He leaves the performance early, and on collecting his coat is presented with a woman's leopardskin coat. After the performance ends, he waits until everyone has claimed their coat until he is able to exchange coats with Helen; they had sat in neighboring seats, but evidently did not speak. She finds him rude, but they quickly develop a rapport, especially after the bottle falls out of his coat pocket (allegedly intended for a friend), and he accepts her invitation to a cocktail party. In the event, he drinks tomato juice and avoids alcohol for weeks.

Things become serious. One day he is due to meet Helen's parents, visiting from Toledo, Ohiomarker, whom he overhears taking apart his perceived character in the hotel lobby; his anxiety overpowering, he escapes into the phone booth as Helen arrives and, while clandestinely observing her, asks her to go ahead with dinner without him. This incident was responsible for his return to drink. Later, after Wick attempts to cover for his intoxicated absence, Don comes out of hiding and confesses his problem with alcohol to Helen. He recognizes himself as two people: 'Don the writer' and 'Don the drunk', who is dependent on his brother. (Repeatedly in this scene, the Londonmarker version of Sunflowers by Vincent van Gogh is shown on Don's living room wall.) Don explains that he dropped out of college (earlier revealed to be Cornellmarker) because he was convinced he was already a Hemingway, a 'great writer', but as doubts over his capabilities grew in his mind, he found drink offered a release. Don says he can only gain ideas as a writer while drunk, but forgets them when sober. Don suggests Helen drop him, but his words only strengthen her resolve to help him.

In the present, Don cannot find a hidden bottle of whiskey, but discovers the name of a bar he has not visited before on a pack of matches. In order to pay his bill at Harry & Joe's, he removes a woman's handbag, and in the men's room, succeeds in retrieving a sufficient amount to pay his bill. The woman though has recognized the theft, and he is identified as the culprit; he admits to the money he has taken. The woman takes pity on his drunken state and does not press charges. He is thrown out, after being told not to return.

The next day, Saturday, the phone rings repeatedly. Don supposes it is Helen, but ignores his caller. Later, he fails to pawn his typewriter; all the Third Avenue pawnshops are closed because of the Yom Kippur (day of atonement) holiday (which dates the weekend to late September or early October). Nat finally refuses to serve him. Don visits another habitué of Nat's Bar, Gloria (Doris Dowling), who he had half-seriously propositioned at the bar after she had fobbed off the janitor of his building (as it later emerges), but who has admitted being attracted to him. She is now angry over his broken dates, but after he kisses her in desperation, she gives in and hands over a little money. He then falls down the stairs and is knocked unconscious. Coming around in the alcoholics ward of a hospital on Sunday, he is confronted by 'Bim' Nolan (Frank Faylen) who mockingly recounts the histories of other patients at 'Hangover Plaza', though he admits admissions were more numerous during prohibition, and offers him a solution to counteract the effects of the DTs, which Don refuses. At the second attempt, during the night, Don succeeds in escaping from the ward while the staff are occupied with a more disturbed and violent patient, and the hospital by early morning, despite only wearing a stolen coat over his pajamas.

Meanwhile, Helen sleeps on the stairs outside his apartment. Don always ignores his delivered milk and newspaper, but Helen is woken by the milkman. Don's unsympathetic landlady assumes he is on one of his benders, and because of his drinking, tells Helen she would be better off if he were dead. Elsewhere, Don snatches a cheap bottle of whiskey from an assistant at a liquor store just opening for the day. He returns home: he ignores the phone. Later, while inebriated, he imagines a mouse appearing out of a crack in the wall and a bat flying around his living room; 'Bim' had explained earlier that alcoholics usually imagine seeing small animals rather than 'pink elephants'. Helen returns, alerted over the phone by Don's landlady who can hear his screams, and finding him in a delirious state, vows to look after him, spending the night for reasons of propriety (and the Production code) on Don's couch.

In the morning, Tuesday, Don is again absent. Helen finds out that Don has pawned her coat (the one which brought them together) for his gun. Once more, Helen returns to Don's apartment: he is eager to get rid of her, though she asks for, and is loaned his raincoat, and Don claims their relationship is at an end. Helen though spots the gun concealed in the wash basin in the bathroom, via a reflection in a mirror, and offers him drink as a distraction. Quickly, she is able to retrieve the gun, and reiterates her love for him.

Nat returns Don's typewriter, which he lost at Gloria's home during his fall. After Helen persuades him that 'Don the writer' and 'Don the drunk' are the same person, Don finally commits to writing his novel The Bottle, dedicated to Helen, recounting the events of the weekend. He drops a cigarette into a glass of whisky, rather than drinking it. Recalling, while packing for his lost weekend, that his mind was on a bottle suspended just outside his window, he ponders, over a reversal of the opening shot, how many other people are in the same position as himself in New York City.

Awards and honors

Academy Awards

At the 18th Academy Awards, The Lost Weekend received seven nominations, from which it won four awards.

Cannes Film Festival

This film also shared the 1945 Palme d'Or (Golden Palm) at the first Cannes Film Festivalmarker and Milland was awarded Best Actor. To date, The Lost Weekend and Marty (1955) are the only films ever to win both the Academy Award for Best Picture and the Palme d'Or.

Adaptations to Other Media

The Lost Weekend was adapted as a radio play on the January 7, 1946 broadcast of The Screen Guild Theater, starring Ray Milland and Jane Wyman in their original film roles.

In popular culture

  • In the 1947 Bugs Bunny cartoon Slick Hare, a caricatured Ray Milland is shown sitting at a bar and paying for his drink with a typewriter — getting small typewriters as his 'change'.
  • In Tex Avery's 1947 cartoon King-Size Canary, a mouse character is shown reading a book called "The Lost Squeak-end".
  • Tribute was paid to the film in the Simpsons episode "A Star Is Burns": Barney Gumble's short film "Puke-a-Hontas" recreates several of the iconic images such as the main character lying on his bed surrounded by the detritus of his addiction.
  • In The Simpsons season 11 episode Pygmoelian, the entrance sign to 'Duff Days' (a festival sponsored by Duff Brewery) billed the festival as "A Lost Weekend for the Whole Family"
  • In the Stephen Fry novel The Liar, the main character, Adrian, quotes The Lost Weekend talking about alcohol when he is expressing his love for a fellow boy at his public school to a friend.
  • Some of the scenes of Don Birnam wandering the streets in search of an open shop to pawn his typewriter were used in the ending credits of the Roseanne episode "One For the Road". In said episode, 14-year-old Becky gets drunk while her parents are out of town.
  • Elements of the movie were incorporated into Steve Martin's noir-parody film Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid.

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