First feature: The Man With The Golden Arm (1955)
By now, most people know the familiar rhythms of the classic addiction drama: the peer pressure to be daring and try something “fun” because “everybody’s doing it.” The first illicit thrills. The worsening situation. The destructive phase. The hitting bottom. The abrupt awareness of untenability, the awakening of shame, and the slow crawl back to normalcy. At this point, the story is predictable enough that films can dive into the story at any point in the arc without confusing viewers. And modern movies about addiction generally take advantage of that by focusing intently on one segment of the arc: starting well into the “worsening” phase, stopping shortly after the “hitting bottom” moment, or both.
It’s also common for more recent stories to touch on addiction in passing, with alcoholism, drug abuse, or even neurotic obsession with the Internet as one aspect of a character—a way to up the narrative pressure on them, or give them a clear, exploitable weakness. And over the past few decades, there have been a rash of stories like the ones in Leaving Las Vegas or Thirteen or Requiem For A Dream, solely about plunging into the depths of addiction and examining the despair at the bottom. But stories centering primarily on characters actually fighting addiction are startlingly rare. At this point, it feels as though the arc is so familiar that it doesn’t interest filmmakers anymore.
Back when Otto Preminger adapted Nelson Algren’s The Man With The Golden Arm, that arc was already familiar, but still rarely seen in cinema, outside of heavy-handed morality plays. The powerful Production Code Administration forbade alcohol abuse, narcotics, and drug trafficking as acceptable film subjects, and films made without PCA approval were effectively banned from mainstream distribution. Though the book was a lauded award-winner, the PCA discouraged attempts to bring it to the screen: PCA director Joseph I. Breen warned that the subject matter was simply unacceptable, and repeatedly advised the initial screenwriter and producers to give up on the project entirely.
They didn’t, and the PCA stuck to its guns, refusing to pass the finished film, but United Artists similarly stuck to its guns in releasing it. It wasn’t Preminger’s first film to fail the PCA test—1953’s The Moon Is Blue was also released without a seal of approval—but it was the first time a major studio had openly, publicly backed a film with no PCA seal. UA’s gamble paid off: The major theater chains defied the PCA and showed Golden Arm anyway, and PCA-aligned organizations like the National Catholic Legion Of Decency refused to condemn the film, which ultimately earned millions in theaters and was nominated for three Academy Awards, including Best Actor for star Frank Sinatra. The following year, the PCA relaxed the Production Code for the first time since its 1930 inception, according to the New York Times. Later, Peter Bogdanovich’s book Who The Devil Made It claimed Preminger “went independent and almost single-handedly ended movie censorship with his landmark cases,” Man With The Golden Arm key among them.
But even by today’s far more indulgent standards, Man With The Golden Arm is seedy, intense, and shocking. Sinatra stars as Frankie Machine, a former addict returning to his run-down Chicago stomping grounds after a jail stint, during which he got clean, learned to play the drums, and made a few contacts that he hopes will get him a legitimate job playing with a big band. His prison counselor warns that going back to his old friends and his old ways will make it easy to fall back into drug use, but given his poverty and his needy, wheelchair-bound wife Zosch (Eleanor Parker), he doesn’t have many options. From the moment he arrives in his old neighborhood, he’s beleaguered by familiar pressures. His pusher Louie (Darren McGavin) keeps tempting him with a free hit. Zosch clings, whines, and throws tantrums when he shows any signs of independence or ambition. And Schwiefka (Robert Strauss), Frankie’s former boss at an illegal underground poker den, is perfectly willing to blackmail him into resuming the job that sent him to jail in the first place.
One of the most striking elements of The Man With The Golden Arm in 1955 was its open sympathy for Frankie, who isn’t the era’s usual thrill-seeking young dope fiend, but a troubled adult desperately seeking the straight and narrow path, and constantly getting pulled back and cornered by the predators around him, including his own wife. Elmer Bernstein’s Oscar-nominated jazz score howls out Frankie’s distress whenever he relapses; Sam Leavitt’s camera pushes in close to capture the growing pain in his face as the cravings hit him, and the subsequent slow relaxation whenever he accepts a hit. (In Algren’s book, Frankie was a war vet with a morphine addiction; in Preminger’s film, it’s implied that he’s hooked on heroin, but the drug is never named, and as a sop to the PCA, the telling shots of the drug’s preparation were initially excised.)
The most striking features of the film today are Sinatra’s agonized lead performance and the plot’s busy tension and sheer nervy tautness, as Frankie’s associates deliberately trap him over and over, pulling him back into addiction because it makes him easier to control and predict. Frankie is such a talented poker dealer and house player that most people in the neighborhood simply call him “Dealer”—a petty irony, given that his own dealer is hovering hopefully over him at every moment. Schwiefka can’t afford to let him go because his talent as a dealer means a good rep for the house—everyone wants to play against the dealer with the golden arm. That title comes into play early in the film, as Frankie says his prison counselor told him he was a natural at drumming, a talent with a regular golden arm—but the third unspoken meaning hanging over the film is that he keeps pumping all his money and his future into that arm, as he visits Louie for another brief taste of calm. That golden arm is the center of the film’s biggest complexities: It represents how his associates want him for a talent he doesn’t value, how he instead wants to be known for a talent no one around him respects, and how he’s killing both skills with drug use. In keeping with Preminger’s best films, The Man With The Golden Arm is a terrific, evocative, misery-soaked movie in which all the competing goals combine into breathtaking drama.
Second feature: Smashed (2012)
James Ponsoldt’s Smashed was shot in a much less charged cinematic environment, where the problem with making a small movie about the effects of alcoholism wasn’t getting past a board of tut-tutting moral censors, but finding the money for a small, intimate movie that was never intended to generate a $200 million payout. The micro-budgeted feature actually cost less than Golden Arm did back in 1955; it’s an intimate film with just a handful of characters, facing much less dynamic pressure, but dealing with the same basic arc.
Mary Elizabeth Winstead stars as Kate Hannah, an elementary-school teacher coming to terms with her own alcoholism. She bonded with her husband Charlie (Breaking Bad’s Aaron Paul) over their shared love of joyous partying, but as the film begins, she’s starting to realize that she can no longer take a few drinks and call it a night: One glass of wine leads to another, which leads to bad decisions, which leads to waking up by a creek, cuddling an empty wine bottle, or peeing on the floor of a bodega when the bathroom turns out to be locked. When Kate vomits in front of her class and one of her students asks if she’s pregnant, she seizes on the convenient excuse, but the lie spirals, as her principal (Megan Mullally) enthuses over her and her co-workers throw her a baby shower. Only her co-worker Dave (Nick Offerman), a former alcoholic himself, recognizes the signs and gently points her toward AA.
Both The Man With The Golden Arm and Smashed start late in the addiction arc, with the protagonists wising up and fighting their old habits, and both films take a daring but painful tack on the fight to get clean: The protagonists are frustrated to find that kicking the habit not only doesn’t solve their problems, it creates new ones. At her AA meetings, Kate explores, with a mix of wry humor and bitterness, how sobering up was supposed to fix her life, but instead let her see all the problems she was ignoring: her troubled marriage, her lies at work, her own weaknesses. Frankie leaves jail clean, enthusiastic, and confident, then has to confront his wife’s hateful neediness and the reality of his economic situation. He also has to deal with simple boredom and restlessness. He doesn’t take waiting well, and his new life is all about waiting.
Both protagonists also wind up cornered and helpless, with their only means of escape coming from a romantic interest. In Frankie’s case, it’s his old flame Molly (Kim Novak), who was clearly sorry to see him cornered into marrying Zosch, and protects him—even against a murder rap, even in the deepest throes of a harrowing attempt to quit cold turkey—out of devotion and belief in him. Dave’s attempts to help Kate are more complicated. While he covers up for her at work and steers her in the right direction, he also confesses to a crush on her, in such off-puttingly graphic sexual terms that she ends their personal relationship, and finds a new, safer patron in her saintly AA sponsor Jenny (Octavia Spencer, circling uncomfortably close to the “Magical Negro” archetype; while she does have a past and goals of her own, they’re barely realized, and her interest in rescuing Kate is never addressed).
But what most unites the two films is their examination of addiction both as a personal battle and as a social one. Kate and Frankie both have friends in their corners, but they also have people in their lives who are actively invested in their failure. Kate’s husband Charlie is mostly tolerant of her attempts to clean up, until they provoke a confrontation, but he continues to drink heavily around her, and when his friends occupy their house and push her toward just one little drink, she has to battle the party culture that’s defined her life. The people working against Frankie are more insidious and more openly malicious—no wonder, since their livelihood depends on his cooperation. But in both films, the stars aren’t fighting addiction in a vacuum, they’re surrounded by the equivalent of angels and devils sitting on their shoulders, tugging them in opposing directions. Zosch sums it up in Golden Arm when she wails at Frankie about the specter of changes in their lives, even positive ones: “Why you gotta go changing things? Why can’t it be like always?”
And in the end, neither film ends cleanly or definitively. Both characters still have their issues to settle; both are likely to keep fighting the rest of their lives. “I’m so thankful for this boring new life of mine,” Kate says, wearily but without irony, at the end of Smashed. In both cases, the best the addict can hope for is respite, not total or permanent victory. And they aren’t alone, either. As Molly tells Frankie when her old boyfriend comes around trying to cadge a buck for some booze, everybody’s addicted to something. On some level, everybody can understand the battles they’re facing.
From dusk ’til dawn: Again, films centered on the battle against addiction are much less common than films about the descent, or films that treat addiction as a tangential subject. A few interesting places to continue include Blake Edwards’ 1962 film Days Of Wine And Roses, in which alcoholic PR man Joe Clay (Jack Lemmon) forces his wife Kirsten (Lee Remick) to join him in his addiction, and they wallow together, between bouts of trying to sober up. The film can be spectacularly over-the-top at times, but the performances are terrific, and the sequence in which Lemmon franticly tries to find the liquor he hid in a greenhouse is unforgettable. And Steve McQueen’s 2011 tour de force Shame follows Michael Fassbender down a rabbit hole of sexual addiction, again with some odd byways, but again with a tremendous lead performance. Both films end grimly and with little uplift, acknowledging that kicking an addiction of any kind is more complicated than the movies’ catharsis-and-redemption process often makes it look. And then there are films that examine more outré versions of addiction: 2007’s Mr. Brooks is a memorable, cracked, thoroughly enjoyable thriller about a serial killer (Kevin Costner) trying to kick the habit, while his inner demon (William Hurt) slyly urges him on.
Best to avoid: Those early morality plays that demonize addicts as one-note monsters. Reefer Madness is the best-known; it’s watchable as camp, but has nothing to say about drug addiction that couldn’t be summed up with South Park’s repeated line, “Drugs er bad, mmkay?”