An A-Z of Film Themes

A Random A–Z of Film Themes: A Is for Alcohol

A Is for Alcohol

Imagine the scene: Harry Potter star Daniel Radcliffe staggers out of Los Angeles drinking-hole Barney’s Beanery and into the California night. Stooped and dribbling, he slurs into his cloak, ‘You don’t need to drink to have a good time’, then barfs up chilli in a nearby gutter. Santa Monica Boulevard is used to late-night revellers, loaded debauchery, lubricated hijinks. But it is not used to this. With a loud abracadabra, Radcliffe nonchalantly displays his ‘wand of lust’ (to quote fellow drunk thespian Oliver Reed) to a group of Japanese tourists. Not long after, he’s cuffed to the inside of a police car heading downtown, bound for tomorrow’s front page.

January, 2025: Hogland hits cinemas. Fast approaching middle age, Radcliffe plays Jake Hog, an alcoholic ex-wizard forced back into the sorcery game after his estranged daughter is kidnapped by gangsters. After ten years in rehab wilderness Radcliffe is hailed as a comeback king, the next Mickey Rourke. ‘Get off my lawn,’ he snarls as he dispatches drug king-pin Carlos Voldemort to the afterlife. He slumps back in his sun-lounger and thinks ‘Well, that whole drinking scandal wasn’t so bad after all. Who wants to be Harry Potter all their life?’ Sometimes, in order to save one’s star persona it is first necessary to destroy it.

According to the papers, Daniel Radcliffe has a drinking problem. Hardly hell-raising; one could not place his peccadilloes in the same league as the inebriated antics of other teenage actors – Drew Barrymore, River Phoenix, even Macaulay Culken. Yet Radcliffe’s confession does (tentatively) follow in a long line of child-star-turns-addict tabloid scandals. And it certainly invites the question: what kind of drunk? Indeed, given cinema’s rich history of on- and off-screen guzzling his confession feels rather incomplete. Was he a wise-cracking drunk, cattily needling Emma Watson about her latest outfits and/or boyfriends? Was he a brawler, or did he just mumble a few curses, drool into his Butterbeer and pass out? Perhaps he was more Richard Burton, majestically mounting a barstool and reciting Shakespearean sonnets to his dipso peers. Either way, now that he seems to have his problem under control, Radcliffe should not despair for, as the following few examples testify, the Dream Factory has always had a place in its heart, not to mention a juicy role or two, for the drunken actor. Harry Potter is dead – long live Harry Pisshead.

Since the late nineteenth century, cinema and booze have enjoyed a close – some would say tight – relationship. One of the first ever filmed adverts to be produced pictured three kilt-clad men jigging up and down in front of a banner for Dewars Scotch Whiskey’ (1898). Short and sweet, it gets its point across: if you drink this you will dance. Pioneer French filmmaker Alice Guy produced in 1899 what is thought to be the first filmed reference to absinthe. Like the aforementioned advert, La  Bonne Absinthe is short and has a comic tone. A long-haired dandy arrives at a bar and orders a glass. The waiter brings him the absinthe and the requisite pitcher of water. Reading the newspaper, the man is unaware that he is missing the glass as he decants the water. He gulps down the undiluted absinthe and all hell breaks loose. Stumbling backward and forward and providing a dopey Chaplin-esque twirl of his cane, the man is eventually doused with water and trips off-screen. Both the Dewars ad and La Bonne Absinthe provide early examples of what will become drunk film archetypes later in the century (the staggering buffoon, the merry Gael – ‘Some men are born two drinks under par’ as the merry Scottish doctor in Ealing Comedy Whisky Galore would have it) but they are hardly complex narrative films. Were Radcliffe around at the turn of the twentieth century, he would have been unlikely to find such films suitable vehicles for his acting talents. He’d have had to wait a few years for the meatier roles to appear.

From 1908, around the same time that cinema was beginning to develop as a narrative form, a number of films were released that treated alcohol with extreme sobriety. As Lee Grieveson notes in his excellent book on early cinema censorship, Policing Cinema, filmmakers at this time began producing a cycle of pictures intended to warn of the dangers of excessive drinking. Desperate to distance themselves from associations with the illicit and lowbrow and to legitimate their product in the eyes of the middle class, they sought the approval of the well-to-do with a string of ‘temperance dramas’. These sombre tales chronicled a man’s ruin at the hands of alcohol, and the struggle to reform his wicked ways. Just a single drink – a small beer at work, a sip of wine – would lead these unfortunate addicts on a downward spiral into oblivion. Grieveson argues that films such as What Drink Did and A Drunkard’s Reformation (both 1909) demonised the drinker as weak and impulsive, cruel to his wife and children. In other words he was not a proper man. By eventually giving up booze and returning to the family, his sanity and, just as important, his masculinity were restored.

‘Lips that have touched alcohol will not touch mine.’ So might Emma Watson have said to Radcliffe had they both been around to star in these temperance dramas. She would certainly have been well-advised to steer clear of his advances, were he to attempt any friskiness. According to prevailing attitudes of the day, drinking did not just lead to drunkenness, but to a whole raft of tragic consequences: insanity, mentally ill children, licentiousness, venereal disease. In What Drink Did, an evening at the pub ends with a barroom brawl and dead daughter. The French public information film Trois Films de Prevencion (1918) neatly weaves several of these unpleasant side-effects together into a rabid anti-boozing tract. ‘One small drink isn’t much,’ begins this early animated picture, ‘but one a day can make you an alcoholic.’ Cue the unpleasantness: the drinker’s children are mad, serial killers; they look like old men, or monkeys, old monkey men – spawn of the vertically challenged! A nice visual touch later in the film shows a large wine bottle pouring an army of drunks into a mental institution. ‘Such are the possible effects of a daily glass’, a subtitle intones.

While few films adopt so strict a view toward the odd drink these days, the association of alcohol and masculinity has been incredibly pervasive. In many ways the whisky glass provides us with a lens through which to view shifting notions of what constitutes the ‘ideal’ man. If the above-noted temperance dramas presented all drinking as spawn of the devil, and men who drank as ‘unmanned men’, later films offered up what might be seen as a pantheon of drunken masculinities. Historically, the functioning alcoholic has become something of a Hollywood hero. On- and off-screen we have been presented with a roll-call of noble sponges that seem unaffected or even improved by their gargantuan thirst. According to the movies, the hero can hold his drink. The villain, effeminate man and ethnic stereotype often cannot. John Wayne might drink until the mules come home, but rarely does he lose control. Even when he has too much – such as in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) – he is still capable of a noble deed (see the film’s conclusion). Rarely does a scene go by without Humphrey Bogart sipping something strong. He still manages to, as the saying goes, ‘hold it down’. Off-screen, Bogart has long been the subject of celebratory articles on the old-school ‘hell-raisers’. His drinking and cavorting has, along with that of Robert Shaw, Sam Peckinpah, Lee Marvin, Oliver Reed, John Huston, Richard Harris, Burton (the list goes on), been enshrined in Hollywood folklore. These guys got drunk daily: they could be rude, obnoxious and do some pretty horrendous things, but their antics are often looked back upon with affection. Books like Robert Sellers’ Hellraisers revel in the antics of Burton, Reed, Harris and Peter O’Toole. The enduring message seems to be something along the lines of ‘They don’t make em like they used to.’ Interestingly, while Sellers mentions Burton’s then wife Elizabeth Taylor, and even notes the opinion of some that she could drink her husband under the table, she does not take centre stage in his narrative. Even in our post-ladette culture, the drunk female actor is not shrouded in the same mystique. While for the men drunkenness is almost a badge of their masculinity, there remains a certain seediness in accounts of women’s drunken antics. Taylor’s temper tantrums, Rachel Roberts’ crawling around biting people – they do not inspire the same ‘Ahh those guys’ reaction as does Reed flapping his todger around or Peckinpah hurling knives at fellow crew members.

Like taming a wild horse, or winning a gunfight, being able to act decisively in the face of raging drunkenness is, for men, a performance of masculinity. Confronted by a world seen in double vision, turned upside down and back-to-front, the hero remains stoic and true, if not always particularly dignified. ‘Proper’ male drinking is associated with control, with dominating the drink, with taming a new frontier – albeit in this case an existential one – all traits stereotypically associated with the ‘good’ man. The few representations of female drunkenness available on screen (and do correct me on this if anyone disagrees) seem to me to show women out of control, in need of male supervision or, simply, beyond ‘moral’ salvation: a ‘woman of ill repute’, an elderly dowager, etc. How many memorable quotes on drinking – and there must be thousands of them spoken in films and by industry figures – have been attributed to women?

Drinking is spoken about in terms of male bonding (think The Hangover), or eccentricity (Pirates of the Caribbean, Withnail and I) or sorting the men from the boys. In Stagecoach (1939), Wayne the real man is juxtaposed against perpetual Irish drunk Dr. Josiah Boone, who does little but imbibe and fall off his horse. In older films one often sees the juvenilising of white ethnics – especially the Irish – by way of drunkenness. In In a Lonely Place (1950) Bogart takes on the role of a quasi-father figure to the elderly drunk Irishman who he calls ‘Thespian’. Something similar happens to the whistling elderly scamp in the John Wayne star vehicle The Quiet Man (1952). The drunk Paul Newman in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955) may be rude, but he seems about the most honourable and honest character of the whole film. Jack Sparrow in the Pirates of the Caribbean films minces his way through adversity with an inebriated elegance. Heavy drinking can be associated with wittiness. ‘It shrinks my liver doesn’t it,’ concedes Don Birnam (Ray Milland), the drunk hero of Billy Wilder’s classic journey into the life and mind of an alcoholic, The Lost Weekend (1945). ‘It pickles my kidneys, yes. But what does it do to my mind?’ Birnam goes on to extol the genius he believes emerges from lubricated lips: ‘I’m Michelangelo moulding Moses’ beard … I’m John Barrymore before the movies got him by the throat … I’m W. Shakespeare.’ Wilder was no stranger to the drinking quip himself, famous for coining the phrase ‘Let me get out of these wet clothes and into a dry Martini.’ W.C. Fields has about a million quotes on the subject. A woman turned him to drinking apparently, and he never ‘had the courtesy to thank her’. And so on.

The red-nosed W.C. Fields

The performance of drunkenness is as intrinsic to a character’s, or actor’s, identity as the clothes they wear, the accent they have or the stories they tell. This is the case in films and in the stories that emerge surrounding actors’ private lives. Returning to Radcliffe, the cynic might suggest his confession to be an attempt to re-align his star persona. Having ‘been through it’, come of age, he is imbuing himself with masculine traits missing from his public image. To be forever associated with a squeaky-clean boy wizard is typecasting of the worst kind, particularly now he’s too old to play those kinds of roles. In an industry where image is everything and personal narratives are used as promotional devices, Radcliffe’s sharing this aspect of his private life, whatever his intentions were, will do his career no harm whatsoever. And yet, still there remains the question: did he go far enough? It all feels a bit tame at the moment, a couple of drinks too many, but no lurid paparazzi shots or falling off bar tables or stripteases or street fights. If he’s serious about getting the hard-bitten roles later in his career it’d do him well to reveal a few more juicy details. I’d like to meet Radcliffe in a bar sometime (if he still visits them) and say two words to him. ‘Hogwarts Babylon,’ I’d say. And I would offer to write it. It might do both our careers the world of good.

That’s about enough of that. Next up, inevitably, is B. B is for Baby or, as it is sometimes spoken, Babe.

PS: According to a 2009 survey of the most popular films attended by European cinemagoers, an unlikely movie topped the Hollywood booze stakes. Of the American funded/produced films it was not The Hangover, but Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince that contained the most references to alcohol consumption. You can view the report here http://www.eucam.info/content/bestanden/trendreport-alcohol-portrayal-in-popular-movies.pdf and then say ‘Well, that explains it.’


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