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Addiction Onscreen: The Days of Wine and Roses (1962)

This is the first in a series of posts exploring the various ways that addiction and recovery are represented in popular culture.

Today, Kuraĝo editor Matt Williamson discusses the Blake Edwards classic The Days of Wine and Roses with Lauren Walther, LCSW, LCDC, Director of Driftwood’s Courageous Family Program.

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In October 1958—25 years after the end of prohibition, and 23 years after the first Alcoholics Anonymous meeting—CBS aired a live performance of JP Miller’s teleplay The Days of Wine and Roses.

Directed by John Frankenheimer—who would go on to fame with movies like The Manchurian Candidate and Seconds—and featuring a cast led by heavyweights like Cliff Robertson and Piper Laurie, The Days of Wine and Roses was an early example of “event television.” (The Criterion Collection would include a recording of the telecast in its Golden Age of Television box set.)

Four years later, Days returned as a high-profile theatrical movie, with a Henry Mancini score, an Oscar-winning top-40 theme song, a bigger director (Blake Edwards) and a much bigger star (Jack Lemmon, who would get the second of his eight Oscar nominations for his performance here). Last year, this version was added to the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress. (Its fellow inductees included Jurassic Park, My Fair Lady, and another movie that we’ll probably get around to discussing on this blog, The Shining.)

On TV and in theaters, then, The Days of Wine and Roses was a major hit. More significantly for this blog, it was the last of what sociologist Robin Room has called the “alcoholism movies”: a 17-year run of post-war films, beginning with The Lost Weekend, that were centrally about substance abuse.

Unlike the temperance plays and slapstick comedies that had come before, these movies used the term “alcoholism” and even depicted Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. They signaled a generational shift in thinking about addiction. Often written and directed by AA members, they boosted the rise of 12-step programs and the adoption of a more humane way of speaking and thinking about alcohol dependency.

Although we’ll include a spoiler warning at this point, the plot is fairly simple:

Joe, a PR representative, meets and woos Kirsten, a secretary at his San Francisco firm. It’s a double seduction: he tries to win her affection, and also tries to convert her into a drinking buddy. (Kirsten is initially repulsed by the taste of alcohol, but likes chocolate, so Joe entices her with a chocolate liqueur.) Joe and Kirsten marry and have a child (though the daughter, unfortunately, feels more like a prop than a three-dimensional character). In short time, Joe and Kirsten have become compulsive drinkers: withdrawn from society, unable to hold steady work. They try, and fail, to get sober on their own. Joe finally, and successfully, turns to AA for help. Kirsten, however, does not give up drinking; the movie ends with her estrangement from her husband and daughter.

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Matt Williamson: What does The Days of Wine and Roses get right about addiction and recovery? What does it get wrong?

Lauren Walther: This was my first time seeing this movie and I was stunned by how much the movie gets right. Generally, I am dissatisfied with how movies dramatize the addiction and recovery process (which I'm sure we'll get to as we put out more of these), but this movie is pretty spot on!

The progression of alcoholism from fun "it makes me feel good" party-time lubricant to devastating life-destroyer was exquisitely portrayed in the deterioration of their physical environment, social circle, personal value system, and physical form. Ugh, some parts were hard to watch.

Similarly, on the recovery side, the characters' reluctance to accepting that they have this illness—the blow to one's sense of identity and the social stigma associated with accepting the label of "alcoholic"—continue to this day. Additionally, the starts and stops of "drying out" and getting into recovery all felt very accurate.

I particularly loved the scene where Joe's button falls off on his way into the AA meeting: the self-consciousness people feel when they're connecting with people in a vulnerable and authentic way in early recovery was wonderfully captured in that moment. The way AA meetings and AA members are portrayed in movies generally makes me want to cringe. According to most movies, AA is a gathering of blowhards and sad saps who say contrived catchphrases to one as a form of support. The illustration of AA in this movie was closer to the actual experience—a gathering of normal people with alcohol problems sharing what they know about the disease and how to live differently. Maybe the actors were all just better than who they normally get in movies these days, but I appreciated a more accurate portrayal for once.

MW: It's got a lot of memorable imagese.g., an early shot of Joe holding a cocktail to one cheek and his phone to the other, as if he's literally propping himself up with booze. I also enjoyed all of the black-and-white Bay-Area cityscapes.

One interesting factoid about this movie: its director, Blake Edwards was, by his own later accounts, heavily dependent on alcohol and drugs at the time he made it. He got sober a few years after making this movie. And Jack Lemmon was, for decades, a "three-martini lunch" guy. He was arrested, once, for DWI. Later in life, he quit drinking and began to refer to his drinking problem as "alcoholism."

Some people in recovery talk about "the yets" –"I haven't been arrested yet," "I haven't gotten divorced yet"—as rationalizations for continued drinking. The ultimate "yet" might be "I haven't been put in a straitjacket yet." Most alcoholics, obviously, never end up in straitjackets, banging their heads against padded walls.

Do you think this movie exaggerates Joe's "rock bottom" moment in a way that reassures viewers that they aren't alcoholic?

For me, the moment when Joe trashes his father-in-law's greenhouse while looking for a hidden bottle is terrifying enough. It's clear, at this point, that Joe's addiction is destroying the things that matter most to him, causing him to harm the people he loves, making it impossible for him to keep his promises. When the movie intensified Joe's crisis by moving the action to a sanitarium, I was surprised.

LW: This is a great question because the movie allows us to view the progression of the disease of alcoholism. (Substance use disorders are considered progressive illnesses, meaning that they worsen without intervention or treatment.)

That rock-bottom moment at the asylum was the only moment where I was like "whoa, this is a bit much," but then I reminded myself that back in the day that's exactly what patient care looked like. Historically, they also didn't think of drug and alcohol issues as something that required medical treatment, so it was much more likely for the illness to progress into its later stages where folks are much more severely physically and mentally compromised. Approaches to treatment have been improved, so thankfully we catch substance use disorders in their earlier stages now. However, it is still accurate that folks experience multiple hospitalizations on their road to recovery.

So there may be some viewers who recognize themselves in the early stages of the progression like "yeah, I get into fights with my partner about my drinking," or "I scared my kid that one time," but they can differentiate themselves by saying, "I haven't lost multiple jobs," or "I'm not gnashing my teeth at the asylum." This is where I'd tell folks to look for the similarities rather than the differences. If a person is connecting with some of those early stage warning signs, it couldn't hurt to explore one's relationship with substances with a mental health professional.

MW: Do you have any ideas about why Joe is able to admit that he is an alcoholic, and seek help, while Kirsten is not?

LW: That is the question and I'll tell you up front there's no clear answer. There's a scene where Joe is asking his sponsor why he and Kirsten became alcoholics when other people drink the same, but don't become problem drinkers. The sponsor responds, "It's a lottery and you lost." That's not a satisfactory answer, so Joe presses: "Well, how?" The sponsor later says, "How many strawberries does it take to start an allergy? And which one gives you the hives?" Unfortunately, science hasn't gotten much further in answering the question why certain folks develop substance use disorders and why some folks' behavior looks problematic, but they're able to stop eventually.

The conundrum is similar for recovery. We do have data about risk factors and protective factors. For example, a person who has a family history of alcoholism, a history of trauma, early drug experimentation, and lack of parental supervision might be more likely to develop substance misuse issues. However, someone with this profile may not have any issues at all. Factors that influence a person's recovery include changes in someone's neural circuitry and brain structure (which we can't check, we just know that substance misuse causes brain changes), length of time in treatment and supportive relationships.

People's biologies and life experiences intertwine so uniquely, it would be impossible to tease out all the factors that contribute to the development of substance use issues or factors that support recovery. As folks get into recovery, I think it's valuable for individuals to construct a compassionate narrative about their understanding of their disease. As a clinician, I can make one up with some pretty educated guesses, but it's much more valuable and impactful for people to do that for themselves.

MW: A Driftwood alum recently mentioned to me that his parents used to beg him to stop “partying” so much. "Please, stop with the constant partying." His substance abuse was, at that time, solitary and isolating; he was surviving the day until he could get back to his apartment and be alone and drunk again. It wasn’t much of a party! In the beginning, though, his drinking had part of his rowdy college life, and my guess was that he had been a well-liked “character.”

The Days of Wine and Roses charts a similar trajectory. In the beginning, Joe is drinking with colleagues and clients and models on a yacht. On their first date, he and Kirsten are sipping Brandy Alexanders in a swanky bar. Later, the two are hiding together in a bedroom at her father’s house, drinking straight from the bottle. By the end, Kirsten has separated herself even from Joe, and is alone in a motel room.

LW: That's one of the most stunning features of the disease of addiction, in my opinion. We call it a "disease of isolation," and that plays out in a few different spheres. Unlike some other illnesses, the symptoms of addiction are behavioral as well as physical and psychological. On the surface, the behavioral component looks like a person turning into an unreliable selfish liar, which tends to deteriorate relationships, but underneath the surface something much more neurologically complicated is happening.

Even if people have loving, supportive people in their lives, like Kirsten has with Joe, the substance hijacks the brain into making a person think that the substance is needed for survival. That survival instinct is where the anti-social behaviors stem from—a person will do anything for the substance because on the brain-level it feels like life and death. The bottom line is it's hard to be in relationship with someone who considers substances their primary attachment. Simultaneously, a person gets sucked into their own personal shame vortex in their relationship with themselves. Unmet goals, poor self-care, social snafus, legal consequences, disappointed friends and families are just a few of the things that might contribute to some intense self-loathing. Sometimes a person "in their cups" doesn't even want to be around themselves anymore. So common sense says, "well, just stop drinking," but this disease doesn't operate on the common sense level. Breaking up with substances is much like breaking up with a toxic person, which is excruciating, especially if that person had become your whole world.

This is why we're big on getting people into community and into a lifestyle that fits their values because we want folks to heal those parts of the brain that have been hijacked. Healing happens by turning away from the relationship with substances and building relationships with actual people, which also helps us heal our relationships with ourselves.