When considering which actors and which roles redefined the craft of acting, it’s a shame that Ray Milland’s performance in 1944’s “The Lost Weekend” rarely comes up. Milland plays Don Birnam, a hopeless drunk. He has no job and lives with his brother who supports him. After claiming to have been sober for several days, he goes on an epic drinking-binge. In one weekend, he consumes three bottles of whiskey, is arrested and put in an asylum. Then he escapes, robs a liquor store, and pawns his girlfriend’s fur coat in exchange for a gun so he can commit suicide. Milland takes his character through a disturbing and yet moving journey, one that is rare for films of that era.
His performance belongs next to De Niro in “Raging Bull” and Tom Hanks in “Castaway” in terms of emotional range and depth. It’s far too hip and daring compared to what passed for leading roles in the 1940s.
The brilliant and prolific Billy Wilder wrote the adapted screenplay from an already daring novel. What made it into the film was so audacious that Milland was told the role would be career suicide. In the preceding years, leading actors won Oscars for playing wholesome and heroic roles (it was just two years earlier that Bogart got gypped out of his statuette for “Casablanca”). Finally, and to the delight of the audience, Milland took a chance and started a new genre of film acting – the emotional epic.