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15 of the greatest drunks in cinema history

January is traditionally a time for sun, beach, sandals, singlets and booze. What better way to enjoy fine weather — so the old school Aussie ethos goes — then to crack open a can, or a bottle, or a case of something alcoholic and soak up some rays?

Therefore, now is as good a time as any to rewind the clock to various eras of alcoholism in the cinema and cherry pick the finest drunkards film has to offer. From a silent era Chaplin co-star to a stop motion animated clump of clay, here are Cinetology’s picks for 15 of the greatest movie booze hounds.

Some of these portrayals celebrate the fun and folly of a good (or bad) drop; others spotlight the hazards of reaching for the proverbial bottomless glass. This list was originally 10, expanded to 15, and could easily have reached 20 or 25. The intention was to keep it varied and eclectic, and every decade from the 30s has been accounted for.

Got any you want to add? Pop ‘em in the comments below. Here they come…

Harry Myers as ‘An Eccentric Millionaire’ in City Lights (1931)

It takes a special somebody to make pouring a bottle of spirits down the pants of Charlie Chaplin appear so effortlessly accidental. While despairingly drunk, a character billed only as ‘Eccentric Millionaire’ (Harry Myers) in the 1931 gem City Lights prepares to suicide by jumping into a river but is saved by Chaplin’s inimitable Tramp. A friendship is instantly born and a great many shenanigans ensue, including a super smooth rendition of the ol’ seat-pulled-out-before-ya-sit-down chestnut.

Ray Milland as Don Birnam in The Lost Weekend (1945)

Consuming alcohol early in the day is the way to go: in the afternoon it’s drink but in the morning it’s medicine, at least according to struggling novelist Don Birnam (Ray Milliand) in Billy Wilder’s preachy but powerful drama about the perils of rolling out the barrel a few times too many. Don, one of many “poor bedevilled guys on fire with thirst,” is an expert at stashing bottles — hiding them in the wall, under the mattress, on top of his chandelier, even tied to rope dangling out of his lounge room window. Based over one torturous weekend, an exemplary performance from Ray Milliand (the silky smooth villain in Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder) evolves from baggy-eyed angst to clawing at the walls intensity and hits a high water mark during an unforgettable scene involving a bat and a mouse.

James Stewart as Elwood P. Dowd in Harvey (1950)

No drunk in cinema history has ever been as gosh darn pleasant as Elwood P. Dowd (James Stewart), the adorable mild-mannered protag in Henry Koster’s oddball 1950 charmer. Dowd may drink, and drink a-plenty, but he unwaveringly maintains his manners — in fact, every person he meets in the film he invites home for dinner. Health professionals have reason to be worried about Elwood’s mental state, however, and not just because of the booze — the film is named after a seven foot imaginary rabbit who follows him everywhere.

Betty Davis as Jane Hudson in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962)

Jane Hudson was an all singin’ all dancin’ child star who grew, Norma Desmond-like, into a bitter and jaded wrecking ball desperately clutching onto memories of a rosier past. She lives with her older sister Blanche (Joan Crawford) and has only two hobbies: tormenting Blanche and drinking. In a single order, putting on a different voice for the liquor store attendant, she racks up six bottles of scotch and two bottles of gin. Bringing Jane to life with terrifying energy, Betty Davis contributes a despicably authentic performance spilling with snarl and snigger, and direction from Robert Aldrich (The Dirty Dozen) is pitch-perfect.

The entire town in Wake in Fright (1971)

They do one thing bloody well in the barren sun-parched Aussie town of Bundanyabba: drink beer. Lots of it. It wouldn’t be entirely fair to say that visiting teacher John Grant (Gary Bond) can’t handle his booze — he’s virtually forced by virtually everyone in virtually every scene to refill his glass while excruciating heat and humidity bear down upon him — but given all that grog and sun pushes him to the brink of suicide, that description is not entirely unfair. Ted Kotcheff’s brilliant thriller (adapted from a pithy page-turned by Kenneth Cook) is a harrowing salute (of sorts) to the pot, the pint, the jug and the outback Aussie watering hole.

Walter Matthau as Morris Buttermaker in Bad News Bears (1976)

In the establishing shot of Michael Ritchie’s classic underdog sports movie, Coach Morris Buttermaker (Walter Matthau) pulls into a family sports ground in a dodgy convertible, parks, grabs a can of  beer from an eski, pours some of it onto the ground and tops it up with whiskey. Yes: this man is all class. Buttermaker drinks virtually everything, smokes heavily and in his less admirable moments collapses on the field drunk. But when he’s eventually kicked into care mode — a good third into the film — he becomes a kick-ass coach. Walter Matthau nails the performance, combining an unpredictable blend of glum resignation with nonchalance and vitriolic sprays. Like most chronic drunks, Buttermaker has a nasty selfish streak that kicks in just when you think his character has solidified into stereotype.

John Belushi as John Blutarsky in Animal House (1978)

When we meet John Blutarsky (John Belushi) he’s clutching a (full) gigantic wine glass while urinating — the perfect introduction to a character whose skills include perving at women, sneaking horses into offices, consuming huge burgers in a single bite, smashing bottles on his face and drawing from an endless playbook of prankster shenanigans in John Landis’ boozy campus comedy (Landis’ next film, FYI, was The Blues Brothers in 1980). The ever-inspiring Blutarsky is a constant source of chest-banging one-liners such as “my advice for you is to start drinking heavily” and “was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor?”

Paul Newman as Frank Galvin in The Verdict (1982)

In Sidney Lumet’s consummate court room drama, dodgy part time attorney and full time booze guzzler Frank Galvin (Paul Newman) gets a shot at redemption, his involvement in a high profile court case involving a Catholic hospital’s alleged mistreatment of a patient used as a metaphor for his battle to conquer the drink. “If I take the money I’m lost. I’ll be just a rich ambulance chaser,” he says, knocking back a pre-trial deal in a moment of clarity. When the case kicks into gear Frank scales back on his favourite things — pinball and alcohol–  and fights against the odds to make the big guys pay, big time. The film is one of several Lumet masterpieces.

Mickey Rourke as Henry Chinaski in Barfly (1987)

Playing a version of Charles Bukowski (who wrote the screenplay on which Barfly is based) living in a skid row neighbourhood where scungy bars are populated by women who say things like “nobody in this neighborhood can swallow paste like I can,” Mickey Rourke is a ball of rotten energy as Henry Chinaski, a fight pickin’ stool occupier who moves in with a fellow alcoholic (Faye Dunaway) and stumbles through life from bottle to bottle. Rourke is fiendishly good in the mould of a brilliant and eloquent writer both boosted and stymied by insatiable thirst for the devil’s juice.

Randy Quaid as Russell Casse in Independence Day (1996)

Not every drunk can claim to have saved the world from alien annihilation. Although wacky ol’ Russel Casse (Quaid) never survived to bask in much deserved glory, he was the true hero of Roland Emmerich’s White House zapping ET invasion flick by finding the secret to taking down Earth’s “nnooooo ppeeaacccee!” alien visitors. Russ long maintained he had once been abducted by aliens, but who would believe the town drunk? Quaid’s spiritedly blabbering performance provides the quintessential “crazy old boozer was right all along” character.

Billy Bob Thornton as Willie in Bad Santa (2003)

Billy Bob Thornton’s wickedly entertaining performance as a dirty-mouthed alcohol-drenched safe cracker who masquerades every year as a department store Santa Claus instantly emblazoned his slovenly physiognomy into the photo album of cinema’s ultimate drunks. Thornton admitted to filming much of Bad Santa while intoxicated, in a role originally considered by Jack Nicholson and Bill Murray. Willie (Thornton) drinks beers flavoured by cigarette butts, pees his pants in the same suit children sit on (unwashed, of course) and has a fetish for heavy-set women. In a tight spot he also has the gift of the gab. “I’ve boned a lot of fat chicks in my time, sure,” he explains to a concerned manager, “but as far back as I can remember, I’ve never fornicated anybody.”

Jennifer Connelly as Kathy in House of Sand and Fog (2003)

It’s one thing to portray a drunkard driven to give up the bottle and another to play a reformed alcoholic’s journey back off the wagon. When a real estate dispute turns bitter — really bitter — in director Vadim Perelman’s devastating House of Sand and Fog, recently homeless and formerly drug-addicted Kathy, sober for three years, turns to an old friend in a glass bottle. Although she is only seen drinking in one scene in the film, the so-real-it-hurts authenticity of Jennifer Connelly’s performance perfectly encapsulates how moments of desperation can lead to the unleashing of old demons.

Paul Giamatti as Miles in Sideways (2004)

Not all booze bounds are cut from the pee-your-pants-and-go-to-Hooters cloth. Some travel to idyllic wineries, nurture sophisticated palettes and expend considerable energy espousing the apparent ills of merlot. Miles (Paul Giamatti) knows an awful lot about wine; he’s smart, articulate, well-spoken but nevertheless tinged in Giamatti style neurosis, meaning he maintains at all times the potential to spill over the precipice into a pool of grape-infused panic and desperation.

Vera in Mary and Max (2009)

Great drinkers don’t have to be made of flesh and bone. They can also, as writer/director Adam Elliot proved in his beautiful stop motion animated Mary and Max, be made of clay. Young Mary’s mother Vera whittles away her time stealing, watching cricket and baking. Her secret ingredient is sherry — always sherry — which she tells her young’un is “a type of tea for grown-ups that needs constant testing.” Test it she does, until the evening Vera gets so blotto she accidentally tests a bottle of poison.

Jeff Bridges as Rooster Cogburn in True Grit (2011)

There are certain things in life that are, at least until the end of the world, sure-fire inevitabilities: the sun will rise and fall, there will always, as they say, be death and taxes, and casting Jeff Bridges to play a drunk with never ever fail. Bridges was fabulous as a White Russian sipping hippy in The Big Lebowski (1998) and an over-the-hill muso/alcho in Crazy Heart (2009) but his performance as law enforcing whiskey guzzling sharp shooter Rooster Cogburn in the Coen Brothers’ True Grit takes the cake. And blasts it to pieces.

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  • 1
    Life of Ryan
    Posted January 3, 2012 at 7:03 pm | Permalink

    Nic Cage, Leaving Las Vegas. And the guy from Withnail and I.

  • 2
    paddy
    Posted January 3, 2012 at 7:07 pm | Permalink

    Not a bad selection of drinkers there Luke.
    But you missed my favourite “functioning alcoholic”.
    Ashley Judd in “Come Early Morning”. (Swoon) :-)

  • 3
    gazman
    Posted January 3, 2012 at 8:06 pm | Permalink

    Luke,
    Good list but what about Peter Finch in Network and Jeff Bridges in The Big Lewbowski (those Pink Russians!) And surely a Nick Nolte film must feature, too.

  • 4
    Posted January 3, 2012 at 8:18 pm | Permalink

    Leaving Las Vegas came very close, and so did Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Jeff Bridges got a nod for True Grit (including a mention for Lebowski!)

  • 5
    mrsynik
    Posted January 4, 2012 at 4:03 am | Permalink

    What about Nick Nolte in 48 Hours? His breakfast is a Cigarette and a swig from the hip flask.

  • 6
    paul of albury
    Posted January 4, 2012 at 8:29 am | Permalink

    Charlie Allnut (Humphrey Bogart) in The African Queen?

  • 7
    savemejeebus
    Posted January 4, 2012 at 8:34 am | Permalink

    Lee Marvin as Kid Shelleen in Cat Ballou. How on earth is he not on this list?

  • 8
    Janine
    Posted January 4, 2012 at 9:23 am | Permalink

    Jeff Bridges in 8 Million Ways to Die.

  • 9
    EKDV
    Posted January 4, 2012 at 11:59 am | Permalink

    No love for the cheery drunks in the Thin Man? Would we were all that witty when soused.

  • 10
    Mark from Melbourne
    Posted January 4, 2012 at 2:41 pm | Permalink

    As you note the list is endless. Maybe because most Hollywood writers subscribed to the rule that you should write about what you know…

    Definitely a vote for Lee Marvin’s Kid Shelleen. And his horse.

    Not sure they imbibed themselves but Aunt Abby and Aunt Martha’s elderberry wine in Arsenic and Old Lace certainly was best avoided.

    Gene Wilder’s character in Blazing Saddles.

    Pretty much any WC Fields movie.

    Dean Martin in Rio Bravo

    I reckon John Wayne played a better drunk than Jeff Bridges.

  • 11
    Scott Grant
    Posted January 4, 2012 at 4:04 pm | Permalink

    Days Of Wine And Roses? Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick.

  • 12
    chrsowen
    Posted January 4, 2012 at 4:13 pm | Permalink

    George C Scott in The Hospital. Kurt Russell in The Thing.

  • 13
    Raggy Anne
    Posted January 4, 2012 at 4:31 pm | Permalink

    I know he extended much further than just alcohol but how about Hunter S Thompson’s characters, played by Bill Murray and Johnny Depp. Also, Matt Dhillon from Factotum.

  • 14
    Phen
    Posted January 4, 2012 at 4:37 pm | Permalink

    Now i could do with a pint!

  • 15
    Gerry Hatrick, OAP
    Posted January 4, 2012 at 6:09 pm | Permalink

    So the Withnail And I drinking competition has it’s own page coming up?

    Withnail drinks in the order of 9 1/2 glasses of red wine, 1 pint of cider, 1 shot of lighter fluid, 2 1/2 shots of gin, 6 glasses of sherry, 13 whiskeys and 1/2 a pint of ale through the film. Here they are in order:

    http://www.withnail-links.com/drinking.htm

  • 16
    Peter Ormonde
    Posted January 5, 2012 at 9:16 am | Permalink

    Ah yes Xmas cheer….I look forward to the follow-up: the 15 best smack addicts. Doesn’t quite have the same ring to it does it? Yet alcohol is a much more socially damaging drug. But heck it’s part of our seasonal festive character innit?

    Where are our positive role models for folks on the jab?

  • 17
    Johnfromplanetearth
    Posted January 12, 2012 at 8:36 am | Permalink

    You missed Walter Matthau in Earthquake, he was pissed throughout the film and had no idea there was an earthquake and survived the lot!

  • 18
    SBH
    Posted January 12, 2012 at 12:42 pm | Permalink

    Thank you Life of Ryan for mirroring my two picks and Scott Grant for noting the most obvious omission. I prefer the Duke’s Drunk to Bridges, and his Rooster for that matter.

  • 19
    HaTeMaiL
    Posted February 10, 2012 at 12:42 pm | Permalink

    Wot?

    No Dudley Moore in Arthur?

    It’s a crime I tell ye.

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