The 21 Best Movie Alcoholics of All Time

A feature story by Blake French; Chris Cabin; Christopher Null; Don Willmott; Eric Meyerson; Jules Brenner; Paul Brenner; Pete Croatto; Jay Antani - Copyright © 2008 Filmcritic.com

Something tells us that when the Oscars next televise one of their precious "tribute montages" -- like they do for "comedy," "westerns," or "trains" -- it won't be to honor that most essential of cinematic characters: The drunk. And yet, flip through the history books and you'll see that some of cinema's greatest and most-honored performances have come from actors playing men (and women) who were a little heavy-handed with the bottle.

And so, in honor of the 75th anniversary of the repeal of prohibition (December 5), we've rounded our favorite movie drunks up in one place for our tribute to the best alcoholics ever to practice their addictions on the big screen. Pour a glass of Scotch and enjoy. Make it a double. -CN

1. Mickey Rourke in Barfly
Genius and addiction have been friends-with-benefits since the Renaissance. Mickey Rourke draws on that legacy in a thinly-veiled tribute to Charles Bukowski as Rourke's Henry Chinaski drinks his way into love, trouble, and money. Chinaski's whiskey rebellion is directed firmly against societal expectations, and it leads him happily toward a lifestyle of fights and feuds, often with Frank Stallone. Society may want Chinaski to be something, but all he wants to do is drink, write, and buy a round for "All my friennnnds." We'll get the next shot, Hank. -EM




2. Nicolas Cage in Leaving Las Vegas
Cage's jaunt is worth it just for that dance down the liquor aisle. On the suicidal bender to end all suicidal benders, Nicholas Cage's Ben Sanderson was a stiff, cold cloud of whiskey breath to what had been a career of minor drunken buffoons and dusty-jeaned drifters. Cage had played on his off-kilter charm in other roles but he learned how to moderate it with Sanderson, lacing his humor with a ghostly horror and the force of nature that appeared is one of the more painfully honest portrayals of someone drowning in grief... and gin. -CC



3. Ray Milland in The Lost Weekend
For creatively blocked writer Don Birnam "one's too many and a thousand's not enough" as Burnam, an alcoholic's alcoholic, crumbles fast during a weekend bender in New York City. Milland, previously seen in films as a lightweight romantic comedy lead, caused a sensation as a man who starts out hiding booze bottles in ceiling lights and ends up in a straight jacket in the Bellevue drunk tank with the DTs and shrieking in mad terror. Seeing a actor take a slug of cheap booze in a Hollywood film would never be the same. -PB



4. Matt Dillon in Factotum
Matt Dillon plays Hank Chinaski (the only character to appear twice on this list) but he may as well be playing Charles Bukowski himself, Chinaski's real-world equivalent. Donning shirt sleeves, a scruffy beard, and a slouching, scowling demeanor, Dillon looks the part, but it's his approximation of Bukowski's unperturbed balance between his drinking and his writing lives that has us wondering if he's been possessed by Bukowski's ghost. This is the unglamorous edge of the writer's life (at one point, he wakes, vomits, and cracks open a fresh beer, all in the same shot), and Dillon's fictional portrayal of L.A.'s skid-row poet laureate is spookily uncanny. Compare the actor's drunken shenanigans here with the real thing in the fantastic documentary Bukowski: Born Into This and you'll be hankering for a cold one yourself. -JA



5. Peter O'Toole in My Favorite Year
O'Toole brings a grandiose, exuberant panache to this bigger-than-life drunk act in My Favorite Year. Swann, modeled after swashbuckling matinee idol Errol Flynn, is a force of nature as his liver absorbs 1954 New York City in carefree abandon as he prepares for a live performance on King Kaiser's hit variety show. O'Toole adds slapstick tomfoolery to his acting creds as Swann disrupts the Stork Club, a chic party, and a family dinner in Brooklyn. Never addled, always quick with the riposte, Swann can claim center stage even when he staggers into a ladies room by mistake. "This is for ladies only" he is informed. Whereupon Swann zips down his pants and remarks, "And so is this, ma'am, but now and then I have to run a little water through it." -PB



6. Jack Lemmon in Days of Wine and Roses
A lot of younger moviegoers remember the late Lemmon as the fussbucket companion to Walter Matthau in such fare as Grumpy Old Men and (maybe) The Odd Couple. Not so fast. Lemmon was an actor of laudable depth who could bring out every facet of the everyman -- even the dark side. This is especially apparent in Days of Wine and Roses, as he and wife Lee Remick see their lives fall apart because of alcohol. The scene where a drunk Lemmon tries in vain to find a bottle of booze hidden in his father-in-law's greenhouse is shattering proof of just how far the once-talented PR man has fallen. It's also proof of a great actor in his prime. -PC


7. Albert Finney in Under the Volcano
John Huston's film version of Malcolm Lowry's "unfilmable" novel is an unvarnished look at a thoroughly seamy alcoholic haze, as seen through Albert Finney's staggering and staggered portrait of Lowry's Geoffrey Firmin. The character is changed from Lowry's novel from a writer to a diplomat, but the result is the same. Finney and Huston don't blink and the audience is forced to endure the debilitating pain. Dark clouds of anguish consume the film and the last half hour is a festival of torment of a tortured soul. By the end of the film, when Finney says "Hell is my natural habitat," you believe him, and need a couple of drinks yourself. -PB

8. John Belushi in Animal House
You'd have to head to YouTube if you want to see someone else slug an entire bottle of whiskey in one go. Belushi's Bluto is the kind of drunk that stereotypes are made of -- but oh, what a stereotype he was. From the window peeping to the food fights, Bluto's nothing but a sauced party on two stumbling legs. Too bad it looks like Belushi wasn't exactly acting when he guzzled all that liquor. Belushi died from an OD a quick four years after Animal House was released. -CN




9. Paul Giamatti in Sideways
For me, an alcoholic is only as good as what gets him hammered. And, when one's drink is as artfully described and defended as Miles Raymond (Giamatti) is, I drink to the lad. About Pinot Noir, he says, "Oh its flavors, they're just the most haunting and brilliant and thrilling and subtle and... ancient on the planet." And, over dinner: "If anyone orders Merlot, I'm leaving. I am not drinking any fucking Merlot!" (That statement alone is credited with sending Merlot sales plummeting.) Singular passion. He may not be a classic drunk, but he's our kind of wino. -JB



10. Richard E. Grant in Withnail and I
In his first role, Richard E. Grant more slithers than strolls through writer/director/co-star Bruce Robinson's acidic indictments of the end of Swinging London in a fog of addiction and empathy. Grant owns the film. Drugged and drunk on both his artistic ethos and any number of mixtures of bourbon and pills, Withnail provided the perfect decaying entity of 1960s Britain, the slow-moving disillusionment of the "love" movement into the decade that would bring both disco and Margaret Thatcher. -CC



11. Lee Marvin in Cat Ballou
Lee Marvin won an Oscar for his performance (actually a dual role -- he also plays notorious tin-nosed hired gun bad guy Tim Strawn) as Kid Sheleen, a once stellar gunfighter who even had a pulp western written about him, but is now a dissipated, pathetic, and cartoonish drunk, so drunk, in fact, that even his horse is gassed. Sheleen has lost his way and his marksmanship is a thing of the past -- he literally can't hit the side of a barn. This was a star-making film for Marvin and if you want to know why just look at the reactions he invests Sheleen with through The Kid's alcoholic haze. -PB



12. Billy Bob Thornton in Bad Santa
For Thornton's Willie, boozing is a year-round occupation. When he's not drinking away the money he makes as a safecracker/shopping mall Santa, he steals booze from neglectful bartenders while bladder control becomes wishful thinking. God knows how many kids he's permanently scarred, especially the neglected child (Brett Kelly) who, believing Willie to be the real Kris Kringle, invites the human parasite into his life -- for the better. Thornton's alternately riotous and human performance makes the miraculous happen: You root for Willie throughout, whether he's sodomizing the Big and Tall crowd or pummeling adolescent punks who threaten his charge. -PC



13. Dudley Moore in Arthur
How many drinks would it take to get you into the sack with Liza Minnelli? Precisely. That's how drunk Arthur Bach happily remains throughout most of this admittedly funny but somewhat troubling movie. Arthur drinks as if he were attempting suicide, and then, despite the fact he has a full-time chauffer, he gets in his fancy roadster and drives all over New York with an open vodka bottle between his knees. A comical imp with an obvious death wish. Weird. Will he ultimately learn his lesson and sober up? Not if sequel dollars beckon! -DW



14. Paul Newman in The Verdict
When we first meet hard-luck, hard-drinking lawyer Frank Galvin, played by Paul Newman in top form, in Sidney Lumet's smoky, booze-soaked legal puzzler, he's nursing a beer and a cigarette while trying his luck at a pinball machine at his local tavern. It's the perfect introduction to Galvin, whose life is as dreary and lonely as the January morning outside, with pinball his version of religion and booze his only companion. Things get worse for Galvin -- we feel his hangovers as much as he does -- before a crooked case gives him a shot at jump-starting his career, his self-esteem, and maybe (or maybe not) at putting away the bottle. -JA



15. Richard Burton in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Edward Albee's scathing rotgut satire of crumbling American values in which a college professor, continually badgered by failure from his harridan wife ("You know what you are? You're a flop. A big, fat flop.") and seeking solace from "his inadequacies" in a sea of booze, is usually played on stage as a meek, sarcastic shell of a man (eg. Arthur Hill, Bill Irwin) but Burton lends his George a towering Shakespearean intensity and hot acid cynicism. When George tangles with his equally smashed wife Martha (Elizabeth Taylor) during a drunken and debauched night of "get the guests," their verbal and physical grudge matches shake the heavens. Burton's venomous offer of a drink to his wife ("Rubbing alcohol for you?") and his curdled riposte when she explains why George should be grateful to be married to her, that a person would give their right arm for that chance ("Alas, Martha, the sacrifice is of a somewhat more private portion of the anatomy.") is pure, dry malice. But nothing tops Burton's snap out scene when he lunges at Martha and screams, "You satanic bitch" and almost chokes her to death. A true marriage made in the whiskey bottle. -PB



16. Joan Allen in The Upside of Anger
Obviously, this one isn't about a happy drunk. Anger is in the title, and that's just what Joan Allen's character feels after her husband disappears, presumably to be with a younger woman (but -- as she discovers -- one should never assume). She turns to Grey Goose to drown her sorrows bottle after bottle. Shake in a little Kevin Costner (shake not stir) and you have the ingredients for an eloquent, memorable vodka-fest led by one classy lady. Cheers! - BF



17. Dean Martin in Rio Bravo
For one brief, shining moment, Dean Martin proved that he could act with the best of them. In Howard Hawks's minimalist western, Rio Bravo, Martin plays a roving bum alkie, once the best of the best as a gunfighter, now a local joke and riddled with self-loathing and self-contempt. In a brilliant opening sequence, directed as if Rio Bravo were a silent movie, Martin's Dude slinks pathetically into the town saloon, desperate for a drink. The local hooligans throw a coin into a spittoon and Dude licks his lips, set on groping in the murk for it. At the last possible moment for complete degradation, John Wayne shows up and kicks the spittoon away, setting the stage for Dude's redemption. -PB



18. Dan Castellanetta (voice) in The Simpsons Movie
OK, this one's a bit of a cheat. Barney Gumble's role in The Simpsons Movie consisted of a mere trifle of typical Gumble gags, but his body of work demands serious recognition. For 19 years, Barney (voiced by Dan Castellanetta) has been the most awesomely funny town drunk in pop culture -- and animated, at that -- frequently providing comic relief on a program that has never needed it. As long as the Duff is flowing, Barney will keep Moe's Tavern a place where everybody knows your name, assuming he's conscious enough to notice someone entered the room. -EM

19. James Mason in A Star is Born
True, Judy Garland's walking-on-thin-ice crack-up intensity charges A Star Is Born with electric jolts, but it is James Mason's washed up movie star collapsing into alcoholism that is the center of the universe in George Cukor's 1954 film. Mason's drunk act at first bemuses Garland's Esther Blodgett ("Mr. Maine is feeling no pain") but she is soon swept away by Maine's drunken charm, finding out too late that the amusing and likable booze hound is a facade for a suicidal, hopeless shell of a man. Screw Gary Cooper. This is the performance that should have walked off with the 1954 Best Actor Oscar. Any doubts? Check out Mason's harrowing bust-up of an Academy Awards presentation in the film, begging the Hollywood big shots in the audience for another shot ("I made a lot of money for you gentlemen in my time through the years, didn't I? Well, I need a job now. I need a job. I need a job, that's all"). -PB



20. Susan Hayward in I'll Cry Tomorrow
Hayward barrels through I'll Cry Tomorrow in full-tilt masochism as real-life nightclub performer and sometimes Hollywood actress Lillian Roth in Daniel Mann's episodic biopic. The film ends up trumpeting Alcoholics Anonymous but not before dragging Hayward through a gauntlet of sleazebags that includes Jo Van Fleet, Richard Conte, and Ray Danton, a collection that would drive anyone to stupefaction. It certainly worked with Hayward, who attempted suicide for real at home two weeks before she was set to recreate Roth's own real life suicide attempt on a Hollywood soundstage, making Robert De Niro putting on the pounds to play Jake LaMotta seem downright limp. -PB

Lifetime Achievement Award: W.C. Fields
How could you pick a single performance from the late, great W.C. Fields to honor? He essentially played a drunk wallowing in some state of dysfunction or another in every movie he made. Perhaps our favorite for the purposes of the drunk list? His role as Egbert Souse ("soo-say!") in The Bank Dick, a classic Fields film by any measure. The quotes attributed to Fields (in character and out of it) are a running homage to drinking, including his classic line: "A woman drove me to drink and I didn't even have the decency to thank her." No, W.C. Thank you. -CN



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