With the recent passing of Blake Edwards, here's another look at one of his best pictures. Days of Wine and Roses.
In Blake Edwards' Days of Wine and Roses you can easily see -- even if you didn't know the movie was about alcoholism -- that Lee Remick is going to fall, hard and bad, for liquor. Beginning the movie as a teetotaler, a woman who's only vice is the love of chocolate; we see her weakness arrive when her date (played by Jack Lemmon) insists she imbibe. Knowing that she'll enjoy it, he orders her a fancy chocolate cocktail and watches her delicately down the concoction with an almost vampiric joy, as if knowing another potential boozer is a sixth sense. It's a sad moment watching poor Remick throw that drink back, her innocent enjoyment and eventual giddiness made all the more tragic by how unaware she is. In the midst of an almost predatory drinker and harboring the right kind of troubled past or brain chemicals or addictive personality, we know this woman will not be able to innocently drink again.
First directed in 1958 for the classic television anthology Playhouse 90, Days of Wine and Roses was originally filmed by John Frankenheimer in a searing TV play that starred Cliff Robertson and Piper Laurie. The grittier vision with a darker, more complicated, experimental director at the helm (watch Seconds, The Manchurian Candidate, All Fall Down -- this man understood human pain) the original has long been considered superior to the 1962 big screen adaptation and Laurie the better actress. Since I revere the great, underappreciated Frankenheimer, I can understand the preference. And yet I think Edwards' version is just as interesting -- I enjoy and pity watching Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick squirm -- especially Lemmon. All through his career, from The Apartment to Glengarry Glen Ross, the high-strung, twinkly-eyed actor always seemed craving more out of life. But that something, even when given a happy ending (like The Apartment) he will probably never satisfy. He may win Fran Kubelik in the end but will he keep her? Or will she become Remick's Kirsten Arnesen Clay?
The actors are indeed different in the alternate versions (both written by J.P. Miller) but all bring something specific and true to their performances. That Lemmon and Remick appear the passive, nice, normal, All-American couple, even kind of annoyingly fluffy or obnoxiously "regular," their fall into the abyss plays almost shocking at times. These are the people who get married, have kids and move to the suburbs, not a flop house next to the closest watering hole.
Lemmon starts the movie as a drunk (though he doesn't know it) and much like his legendary character in The Apartment engages in unseemly activities to move up the sleazy corporate ladder. A gregarious PR executive with less charm than he thinks he has, he goes so far as to supply hookers for his bosses just to keep a job that will prove to be unrewarding. Remick is the pretty, Encyclopedia-reading secretary (whom he mistakes as one of the girls at a party -- an awkward, harsh moment) and in a moment of fate for two future sots sharing an addiction they don't even know they have yet, they fall in love, marry, have a child and become desperate drunkards. He loses his job, she can't take care of their neglected child, he tries to dry out, she hits near rock bottom, sleeping with strangers for liquor. And by film's end, we don't know what their future holds.
As acted by a twitchy, sometimes smarmy Lemmon and a wide-eyed, dippy, eventually bitter Remick, both actors become sympathetic with characters who go from lovable to potentially unlikable to absolutely shattering. You feel for them. When Lemmon digs up and destroys Remick's father's greenhouse (a wonderfully stoic Charles Bickford) on a selfish, hysterical search for one bottle of booze, his desperation is so embarrassingly human and so pitiful that you're not only shielding your eyes from his destructive digging but for his abasement. And when a strung-out Remick comes home later in the movie to Lemmon fresh from AA, no one needs to further discuss what she's been doing all night, how much she's lowered herself.
Though the AA sequences have been considered heavy handed and maybe a bit irritating, this seems the point. What a drag, spending the rest of your life being lectured, living whatever de-mystified new life AA expert Jack Klugman is leading. How depressing to be so average. And yet, perhaps not-so-average. Who knows what will become of this couple. And yet, unlike sexy Ray Milland's clever, writer, "don't be ridic" dipsomaniac of The Lost Weekend, or Susan Hayward's melodramatic Lillian Roth and all her "crying tomorrow," Lemmon and Remick's most interesting characteristic is, sadly, that they are alcoholics. They're not whip smart clever, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf's George and Martha, whose addiction and spitefulness are, in a highly dysfunctional way, weirdly romantic. Lee and Jack -- they're like a lot of people -- just regular drunks. This feels even more tragic. No wonder they drink.