When I chose Lost Weekend and Deliverance as a Blindspot pair, I did it with a vague idea of a common theme of men overcoming major obstacles. As it turns out, the biggest obstacle each central character faces and needs to overcome is staring right back at him in the mirror. That’s not to say there aren’t a few other hindrances in their way throughout each story (addiction and hallucinations in the first, raging water and crazy backwoods hunters in the other), but each man has to come to the realization that he has worth, courage and the ability to “dig deep”. For some, it takes desperate and dire circumstances to finally get the message across.
In Billy Wilder’s Lost Weekend, Ray Milland plays Don Birnam – a miserable alcoholic who (even though he has managed 10 days sobriety) continues to be his own worst enemy. We actually meet one of his bottles of rye (hanging out the window in one of the few hiding spots his family haven’t found yet) before we meet him. As the camera moves into the apartment, we learn that Don is preparing to go to the country with his brother for a weekend away from all temptation. However, Don has every intention of bringing along some of his favourite refreshment if he can just divert his brother’s attention for a few minutes. If he plans to get some writing done, he needs to be creative and he believes that alcohol allows his mind to “toss the sandbags overboard so the balloon can soar”. But that’s the thing about someone in Don’s condition – they can rationalize just about anything and lie as easy as most of us breathe. And not just to his brother or girlfriend (Jane Wyman with the loveliest set of cheekbones you ever did see), but mostly to himself. He may become far more loquacious when liquored up (or “tight” as they used to say in the old days), but he hasn’t made a lick of progress on his novel. “Suddenly I’m above the ordinary. I’m confident, supremely confident” he says as he riffs on other supremely artistic people and he may very well feel that way, but Don is far too scared of failure to truly commit to his writing. Hence the booze and the roadblock that is himself.
In John Boorman’s Deliverance, Ed (Jon Voigt) seems to have everything he wants (nice job, nice house, nice wife, nice kid – everything “nice”…), but he’s somewhat unsure of himself in comparison to his outdoorsman buddy Lewis. One of their early conversations while drifting down the soon-to-be-flooded Cahulawassee River is about why Ed even comes along on these trips. Lewis directly mocks his comfortable life and implies that he has a deep-seated need to break out. Lewis, on the other hand, is always bursting – whether it’s scoffing at the idea of insurance or barreling through the deep woods in their jeep to prove to the locals that he can find the river himself. Ed’s a bit frightened by this demeanour, but awe-inspired as well. Lewis may be rude and easily disparaging of others, but he outwardly exudes confidence – even if it’s more bravado than anything else, it still appeals to Ed. On their first night of camping by the river, Ed and their two other friends have imbibed freely while Lewis remains stone cold sober. The next morning Ed borrows Lewis’ crossbow to try some hunting and fails completely as he falls all over the place and misses his target wildly. He seems ashamed of himself and wants to “confess” to Lewis…This opening to their simple paddle-down-the-river-before-it-disappears weekend accomplishes a great deal: it sets up our travelers as disrespectful of these rural people, disrespectful of nature itself and dishonest with themselves.
That dishonesty is Don Birman’s biggest issue. It’s not that it’ll be easy to kick his long term habit if he admitted it, but at least he could see that his drinking is more crutch than creative tool. During his weekend bender that encompasses the film, he does actually take a moment to get down on paper his stories. He’s just told his regular bartender that this time he’s gonna do it and (after a few drinks to get the juices flowing) he heads back home to pour his words onto the page through his typewriter. But as soon as that blank page stares back at him, he almost immediately reaches for a drink…The cupboard is bare, though, and his scheming to get more commences. It seems the search for the booze is half the addiction and it overwhelms any desire to create his art. The binge starts after he convinces his brother to take Helen to a concert instead of taking the earlier train. They agree to leave him alone and take a later train since he has no access to any money, all hiding places of liquor have been emptied and every nearby bar has been told not to supply him. Of course, the second they leave Don’s gears start grinding. He finally finds a stash of money meant for the cleaning lady and bolts to the liquor store and then his favourite bar to celebrate. The bartender gives in since Don assures him that he’ll definitely leave at a specific time in order to meet his brother. Don also has some remaining money, so it’s an easy sell to the man tending bar. Of course, the drinks pile up while the clock ticks down and Don misses his rendezvous time. His brother leaves without him (fed up with the pain and suffering Don continues to leave in his wake) while Helen begins searching for him. Back alone in his apartment, he uncorks the bottle…
Meanwhile on the Cahulawassee, Ed has switched rowing partners and is paddling now with Bobby (Ned Beatty) – a somewhat annoying and overly condescending businessman. When they pull off to the side of the river, they encounter a couple of local moonshiners who don’t take kindly to Bobby’s attitude and rolling eyes. Ed tries to diffuse the situation somewhat, but fails again and what follows is one of the more infamous scenes in 70s American cinema. Though the physical abuse Bobby undergoes is hard to watch, the toughest thing about the scene is seeing how he is completely humiliated and dehumanized. Lewis and Drew (Ronny Cox) arrive and help them escape, but the consequences of their actions affect everyone in very different ways. Drew is shattered by what they had to do to escape, Lewis is humbled and Bobby (at least by the end) starts to find goodness in others. In Ed’s case, he has to take on a leadership role as the group is pursued and gets caught in the rapids and the rocks. The plot shifts allow for the film to switch gears from an environmental warning tale to a road/river picture to a dark horror to an adventure and finally returns to the tale or warning (respect nature and it’ll respect you). Though certainly responsible for many people’s view of the “hillbilly south” (the early duelling banjos scene, the mannerisms and speech of the locals, etc.), the film does no favours to the city folk who intrude upon the landscape. It’s like the Cahulawassee is hitting back at the “civilized” folks who dare to flood her banks.
Of particular note in Deliverance are the many river navigation scenes. Each paddle is handled and each rapid navigated by the actors themselves. It lends an air of excitement and danger to the film that makes it feel all the more real and visceral. And when Jon Voigt climbs that rock face, Jon Voigt is actually climbing that rock face (no doubt with some extra safety precautions, but still…). Naturalism reigns in this part of the country as it does in the film in style and acting. You can’t help but Join Ed on his journey to discovering his hidden ability. Whereas in Lost Weekend, melodrama and artifice are the underpinings. The street scenes and sets (apartment, bar, etc.) look realistic, but the acting, the monologues, the blaring music and the heightened emotion all call attention to themselves. This isn’t a bad thing of course – the script is typically sharp and Don’s speeches are so very eloquently crafted by Wilder that they are just pure joy to listen to (even if covering depressing or pathetic ground). Ray Milland won an Oscar for his decidedly non-natural performance, but it fits those words and creates one big emotional arc towards his own self-discovery. Two vastly different films reaching for similar conclusions.