1945 Best Picture: Enter the Social Issue Drama
With the catastrophe of World War II in recent memory, the Academy plunges itself into the predicaments behind inconspicuous tenement walls. Billy Wilder's The Lost Weekend is the first of four social problem pictures that won Best Picture in the latter 1940s. The others would be 1946's The Best Years of Our Lives, which tracks how veterans integrated themselves back into society, 1947's Gentleman's Agreement which investigates anti-Semitism in post-war America and 1949's All the King's Men which delves into populist politics. Wilder’s unlikeliest film follows Don (Ray Milland), an alcoholic writer on a cataclysmic four-day bender.
Fresh off the train of film noir royalty with Double Indemnity, Wilder mixes similar qualities — flashbacks, a gloomy, thunderous score and a love interest — with a simultaneously cynical yet flourishing tender heart. Hollywood fawned over the source novel, penned by best-selling author Charles Jackson (take as you will), and an adaptation was inevitable.
Wilder made the film to explain himself to Double Indemnity co-screenwriter Raymond Chandler, who had recently relapsed into alcoholism. That kernel comes through bountiful monologues — Wilder hammers his audience with intent. There’s an emotional beat too, and a robust intensity that is not nervous to uncover alcohol’s dark side.
However, his film often teeters unsurely between PSA and heartfelt, crucial drama. That comes up often in this era. Luckily, Wilder flexes a visual competence that often speaks louder than those spiralling monologues. The La Traviata sequence is incredible — at an otherwise mundane performance of the famous opera, the ensemble on stage helps themselves to champagne. In the audience, a restless Don gets an itching. The dancing figures on stage materialise into his nightmarish ally.
Milland, who won the Best Actor Academy Award may be unconvincing when he outbursts, though don’t discredit his commendable perception as one of the first portrayals of its kind. Wilder sucks us into Don’s inner torment and desperation over a disastrously chaotic, pitiful and manic weekend. Milland tops it all off. The Lost Weekend signalled, with alarming effect, the dramatic segue from the likes of escapism into documentarian realism. A similar motive will be repeated copious times over Academy history, to varying results. True, the message is frequently on the nose though to Wilder’s credence, there’s a drive, a purpose, and an important reason to share this perspective. Put yourself in the shoes of an Oscar voter. If that passion isn’t enough to prick your ears, or sway your heart, what is?
1945 (18th Academy Awards) Best Picture Lineup
The Lost Weekend
The Bells of St. Mary’s
My Winner: The Lost Weekend
My Runner-Up: Mildred Pierce
Write-In Nominee: Brief Encounter