Critica Retro and Wide Screen World are hosting the Jack Lemmon blogathon, and I thought I would jump in and contribute since Jack Lemmon was such a great actor, and I particularly admire his versatility and dedication to the screen. He was cast in such well-known films as Some Like It Hot (1959) and The Apartment (1960), but I thought I would talk about the more controversial and serious Days of Wine and Roses (1962). I would also like to thank Paul at Paul’s Cinema & TV Reviews for recommending that I watch this film after my previous review of similar-themed The Lost Weekend (1945).
Days of Wine and Roses  – ★★★1/2
“They are not long, the weeping and the laughter,
Love and desire and hate;
I think they have no portion in us after
We pass the gate.
They are not long, the days of wine and roses,
Out of a misty dream
Our path emerges for a while, then closes
Within a dream.” (Ernest Dowson)
The film’s title was taken from this poem by Ernest Dowson, and the film’s story is about Joe Clay (Jack Lemmon), a public-relations man who does not mind to indulge in drinking as part of his job arranging and going to parties. When he meets beautiful Kirsten Arnasen (Lee Remick), both become smitten with each other, and Joe soon introduces Kirsten to the pleasures of drinking by pouring a crème de cocoa in her brandy. After their marriage, however, the pair’s slide into booze-madness gets steeper, and, as their drinking intensifies, both of them no longer see a way out.
The opening sequence is the song Days of Wine and Roses by Henry Mancini/Johnny Mercer, which won an Academy Award in 1963, and which provides for a nice intro into this film, which incidentally was a TV drama first. Now, as a film, it is directed by Blake Edwards (Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961)) and written by JP Miller. The plot may require patience at the beginning, but, because of its strong portrayal of the disease, all-round character study and fantastic performances, the film proves to be an engaging drama. From The Lost Weekend to When a Man Loves a Woman (1994) and Flight (2012), the portrayal of alcoholism in film has been diverse, if somewhat predictable. However, in “Days of Wine and Roses”, arguably, there is another angle to its portrayal entirely. First of all, in the film, there is so-called “folie à deux”, with the lovers feeding their alcohol addiction to each other, fuelling their bottle-madness. As both Joe and Kirsten recognise in this story, there has always been a bottle between them, a third party in their marriage, and alcohol did play a role in bringing them together. Secondly, even when Days of Wine and Roses shows the usual downward spirals associated with alcoholism, such as a job loss and a family break-up, it is also wise enough to cover not only the extent of a problem, but also possible roads to recovery. The characters admit that the way to combat their addiction is first to recognise themselves being in trouble and being “alcoholics”, something which Kirsten fails to do successfully, being afraid of the stigma. This may also explain why she is averse to the idea of attending “Alcoholics Anonymous” meetings, as for a woman the burden may be twice as harsh as for a man, seeing that a woman is supposed to represent exemplary motherhood and utmost modestly in her habits and behaviour. Finally, unlike many other similar-themed movies, Days of Wine and Roses shows the whole journey of a person from her first drink to the state of denial and desperation. In this case, it is Kirsten, who first starts drinking “seriously” with Joe, and then her addiction gets so bad that she inadvertently sets fire to an apartment, and even later denies that she has any problem at all.
The chemistry between Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick lights up the screen, and their initial meeting feels almost original, because it is so memorable. From their very first scenes, Kirsten is a challenge for Joe. He mistakes her for one of “party” girls on a yacht, and says that she is dressed wrongly, and, then, she brushes him off as offensive and demeaning, while he tries to provoke any reaction from her. Also, from the very first scenes of their romance, alcohol enters their relationship. “Can I buy you a drink?”, asks Joe casually; “No, I don’t drink”, says Kirsten; Joe then asks: “What do you have against booze?”, and she replies: “I don’t see much point in it”; “Well, it makes you feel good”, he concludes. As the drinking brings them together, so, unfortunately, it separates them in the end.
It is clear that Days of Wine and Roses is the Jack Lemmon movie. He plays a “normal” guy with a steady job, who is downright dislikeable and selfish at times, and, at other times – charming and welcoming. Jack Lemmon’s versatility on screen is admirable. He can make the audience horrified by his character’s lack of self-respect and maniac obsessions, but, in a few seconds time, he can also make this same audience totally heart-broken and feel the plight of the same character, who is now on the verge of a mental breakdown. Lemmon makes Clay both: an “average” cursing Joe and a classy gentleman, who can make any lady swoon, and his performance in the film is among his greatest. Oddly, his “funny” scenes of drunkenness are the saddest to watch, because they are so realistic, be it where Joe searches frantically for booze in the orangery, or displays sheer hysteria while confined to a straight jacket. Lemmon is also an expert in showing the rapid changes of mood that his character can undergo: from total desperation and hopelessness, when Joe is crying his heart out, rolling on the floor and searching for a drink, to happiness and euphoria, when Joe laughs maniacally, having found his bottle. Joe’s pursuit of a drink is sometimes akin to one’s pursuit of an elixir of life, and Lemmon shows clearly all the obsessions, and highs and lows of Joe’s struggle. Professional, sober and polite Joe? Happy, charming and romantic Joe? Reckless, paranoid and apprehensive Joe? Angry, violent and scary Joe? Lemmon can do it all, and with the ease few actors could master.
Jack Lemmon’s co-start, Lee Remick, is as good in her portrayal of Joe’s wife. Remick is tasked to portray seemingly two different personalities/sides to Kirsten, and her portrayal is very believable: raw and genuine. From a happy, easy-going, careless girl in love with her father and husband, Kirsten turns into a completely drunk and nonsensical woman, tired of life. However, there is another side of Kirsten too, and, sometimes, she is reflective and melancholic. For example, when Kirsten talks of her dream where she is murdered by thugs and her father is forced to carry her body, thanks to Remick’s believable performance, the audience really gets this sense that there is another “layer” to Kirsten, something mysterious and deep, perhaps hidden way behind her merry blue eyes.
The problem with this film is that, ironically, it is sometimes very hard to sympathise with the character of Joe Clay, and this issue has little to do with Lemmon’s portrayal of Joe, but rather resides in the script. Joe is supposed to be an ordinary guy with his weaknesses and vices, but there must also be present a sense of humility, repentance and sympathy. Were not these the qualities in the character which won the affection of the audience towards the end of The Lost Weekend? Unfortunately, given the film’s circumstances, Joe never manages to present himself in a really good light, and the emotional connection between him and the audience is never truly established. Firstly, the awful way Joe treats his wife in the film will raise many an eyebrow in the twenty-first century, but the problem is not even that. It is Joe who is responsible for introducing alcohol into Kirsten’s life by mixing her favourite chocolate with brandy, and when they both seemingly “gave up” on drinking half-way through the film, it is again Joe who re-introduces alcohol into their lives, and starts their “vicious circle” all over again. Thus, at the end of the film, when “alcoholic” Kirsten comes to already “sober” Joe, it looks like an irrational and irresponsible criminal coming to a “common-sense” judge, which is simply a wrong way too at it, because Joe should really bear the sole responsibility for Kirsten’s state, and Kirsten is the victim. Moreover, Joe, as Kirsten’s husband, makes little attempts in the story to seek treatment for her, and even leaves her to drink in a motel. Therefore, when Joe comes to seek forgiveness from Kirsten’s father, and her father says: “You have started my daughter drinking”, there is little here to feel apart from the sheer heart-break for the father who has just “lost” his daughter to a bottle thanks to Joe.
The film’s subject matter may not have an immediate appeal and there is still an unfair anti-female character message felt that resonates throughout the film. However, Days of Wine Roses is still a very-well acted, engaging drama. The merit of it lies in the way it portrays the struggle with alcoholism: realistically and without unnecessary embellishments. Thanks to the outstanding performances by Lemmon and Remick, the film is both: engaging and romantic, and also deeply melancholic and tragic.