Surly with Slurred Speech: the Scariest Drunks in Film

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For a long time filmland was full of hilarious, loveable drunks — from an inebriated Charlie Chaplin doing battle with his home furniture for a full 20 minutes in 1916’s One A.M. to Dudley Moore’s 1981 romp as liquor-soaked heir Arthur Bach. On the flipside of all the mush-mouthed proclamations and giggling pratfalls, we have the darker region that excessive alcohol consumption can lead one into. Truly, alcoholism is a very real and serious problem, one that can lead to a miserable, regretful, turbulent existence. And all of that is, of course, fertile ground for some potent, compelling drama and great acting performances. Let’s look at the absolute lowest, shakiest, fightingestand skankiest drunkards in all of cinema:

5 James Coburn as Glen Whitehouse, Affliction (1997)

Coburn won a late-career Best Supporting statue for this abusive monster to a brood of shaken, damaged children — one of whom grows up to be hard-bitten cop Nick Nolte, as craggy and grumpy begets craggy and grumpy. Whether physically brutalizing them in their youth or berating them to their faces as “candy-asses and Jesus freaks” in adulthood, perpetually whiskey-soaked Glen is a definite believer in “tough love” when it comes to his kids and it speaks to their forgiving, loyal nature that they even bother to care for the venomous old coot in the wake of their mother’s passing. When Nolte finally has enough and takes a shotgun butt to dear ol’ dad’s head then burns his body in the tool shed, we definitely share in the feeling of release.

4 Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton as Martha and George, Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? (1966)

Elizabeth Taylor and real life husband Richard Burton tear up the screen in this adaptation of a Broadway play concerning a hateful middle –aged alcoholic couple who go way past passive-aggressive, ultimately ending up at plain ol’ aggressive-aggressive. Shrill, brassy Taylor, who is the daughter of the man who presides at the college where Burton is a professor, heaps withering emasculations on her spouse, who weathers them with his own quiet, yet no less pointed wit. Bearing witness to the hellish histrionics are a young couple who join the two first in their home for drinks, then for what becomes an increasingly eye-opening night out that gradually uncovers the couple’s considerable issues (which go far, far beyond the bottle).The title refers to a drunken taunt made by Taylor’s character which will surely ring in your ears for years to come.

3 Joaquin Phoenix as Freddie Quell, The Master (2012)

Perhaps destined to join Milland and Cage as an Oscar-approved Best Alkie is Phoenix’s work in Paul Thomas Anderson’s mimicry of Scientology’s founding, The Master. As tormented and lost Freddie, a WWII veteran with a knack for making choice cocktails containing ingredients like jet fuel and paint thinner (poisonous to some, as seen earl on in the film), Phoenix is frighteningly real and at times absurdly funny. Spending his time leering at ladies, engaging in sloppy fisticuffs and sitting faithfully at the side of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s New Age guru/hustler, Freddie is an unleashed, unfocused mutt that sets every room and situation he walks into ablaze. His scuffle with several members of the Philadelphia Police Department and subsequent jail cell breakdown says just about everything you need to know about Freddie.

2 Nicolas Cage as Ben Sanderson, Leaving Las Vegas (1995)

This role, which stands as an eternal testament to the validity of Cage’s much-maligned career, is another Best Actor-earning portrayal of a drunken scribe, this one a Hollywood screen hack. Cage’s Ben is a deeply suicidal and volatile alcoholic, determined to drink himself to death over a weekend in Sin Cityin the company of beleaguered prostitute Elisabeth Shue, to whom he issues a single demand:“You can never ever ask me to stop drinking.” And why on Earth would she, lest we be robbed of the epic (even for Cage) freakout that occurs when Ben learns from a casino waitress he can’t get a Bloody Mary at the blackjack table. In a film that is bittersweet, with extra bitter, Cage delivers a sympathetic, sad soul, who we are practically happy for when he takes his final, yet satisfied breaths at the close of the ultimate bender.

1 Ray Milland as Don Birnam, The Lost Weekend (1945)

Perhaps the founding father of our list, seeing as beforehand most film drunks were primarily comic relief, until the release of director Billy Wilder’s (Some Like It Hot, Sunset Boulevard) harrowing portrait of a struggling writer trapped deep in the bottle. Milland’s Don is that drunk that stashes booze in secret hiding places, a guy who pre-emptively buys two bottles of the cheapest rye off the shelf of his local liquor store before proceeding to his favorite dive bar to drink the day away. Perhaps most off-putting is Don’s veneer of cheerful acceptance towards his quite horrifying condition, as he constantly subverts the best efforts of his long suffering brother and female companion to get him clean, sober and steadily writing. Ray Milland won the Academy Award for Best Actor thanks to this classic study of artistic temperament grappling with insecurity and substance abuse.

Honorable Mention

Ed Harris as Jackson Pollock, Pollock (2000)

Ed Harris scores as the legendary abstract painter (and alcoholic), in an unglamorous biography that contains a tragicomic scene of Pollock drunkenly crashing his bicycle while transporting a crate of beer, then desperately attempting to salvage the sweet barley nectar.

Richard E. Grant as Whitnail, Whitnail and I (1987)

This black comedy features one of the funniest, most incorrigibly arrogant drunks on record, Whitnail, whose snotty attitude is juxtaposed with his shabby appearance and desperate alcoholism, which ultimately leads him to imbibing lighter fluid in one of the film’s darker scenes.

Those are the most stewed prunes in Top 5’s movie drunk tank. If you think we missed the mark, have at it yourself.

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