In the 1950’s Hollywood was in trouble, as home entertainment from the new medium of television sent box-office receipts into freefall. One way to fight this trend was more spectacle and new technology (CinemaScope, 3-D). Another was to embrace television, by making movie versions of hit programmes and importing TV talent to work in Hollywood. Days of Wine and Roses was directed on television by John Frankenheimer (The Train, Seconds, Grand Prix), starring Cliff Robertson and Piper Laurie, and on film by Blake Edwards, another TV graduate.
This review of the film will compare it with the television original to illustrate how it was constrained by Hollywood’s dramatic conventions (even though it was adapted by the original author). Usually described as one of the most vivid film depictions of alcoholism, it is actually half romantic-comedy and half-melodrama, with a vaguely optimistic ending.
The credits play over a lilting love song, then we meet Joe Clay (Jack Lemmon), a PR man drinking in a bar as he tries to get a posse of ‘girls’ together to attend a client’s ‘party’. Joe loathes the job, and feels he is just acting as a pimp. At the party Joe mistakes his client’s secretary, Kirsten Arnesen (Lee Remick), for one of the ‘girls’. He tries to make amends by offering her a drink, but she is a non-drinker.
This marks the first difference between the film and TV versions. On TV, Piper Laurie was a hardened drinker from the start. Hollywood couldn’t handle the idea of a woman who actually enjoyed drinking, because in the language of film at that time, a woman who drank was morally tainted. Lee Remick had to be ‘corrupted’ by a man. For men, drinking was an acceptable ‘masculine’ form of social behaviour.
For the first hour we get romantic comedy as Joe makes clumsy efforts to woo Kirsten. Ominously (in the world of the film), he uses Kirsten’s love of chocolate to introduce her to alcohol via Brandy Alexander cocktails. Kirsten finds she enjoys the effect of alcohol.
They decide to marry and visit Kirsten’s father (Charles Bickford) who is very reserved about the news and closes his door on them. Kirsten’s reaction is to ask Joe to take her for a drink. The film’s one effort at psychological insight is to suggest Joe and Kirsten both had parental problems. Kirsten’s father is emotionally repressed, Joe’s parents were in show business and he never had a settled home life.
They marry, have a baby, and Kirsten gives up drinking (in quite a graphic moment for 1962, Lee Remick holds her breasts to emphasise why she can’t drink). This irritates Joe, and to show she is still a supportive wife, Kirsten pours herself a large Scotch - in effect, she has been emotionally blackmailed by Joe into becoming his drinking partner.
Now we change to melodrama as Joe’s drinking gets out of control and he’s demoted at work. He talks through his frustrations with Kirsten at home as they drink together. Here is another change from the TV version: Lee Remick is shown as a passive drinker, simply accepting the drinks Joe gives her. Piper Laurie was shown getting her own drinks, was far more aggressive in her views of the ‘office politics’ that got Joe demoted, and actually dismisses Joe's first concerns that perhaps they are drinking too much: "We're just having fun."
Joe is sent out of town, Kirsten gets drunk and burns their apartment, and Joe gets fired. Time passes (maybe two or three years, the chronology of the film is very fuzzy). Joe is now a ‘bum’ who can’t keep a job and Kirsten is a frowsy housewife drinking beer from the can. There was no such thing as a ‘high-functioning alcoholic’ in 1962 – the only way was down. In a highly-charged scene (original to the film and at least partly improvised, as Lemmon apologises for swiping the beer out of Remick’s hand and lines are fudged) Joe decides it’s time to stop drinking. They will work for Kirsten’s father and get sober.
All goes well until Joe decides too much sober is too much of a good thing and smuggles whisky into their room. The film really betrays its reputation here. Apart from Kirsten asking eagerly “Where is it?” there is no indication that these two are ever actually desperate for a drink (again, unlike the TV version which was much more realistic in this respect). They just want to drink to have fun (as many of us do during our lives). They do have fun until Joe decides they need the extra bottle hidden in a greenhouse. His failure to find it turns him into a raving maniac. Kudos to Jack Lemmon for his energy and commitment in the scene, but the reversal of mood and character is too much. (Kirsten, meanwhile, drunkenly bursts into her father’s bedroom for a goodnight kiss, a hint of repressed incest which plays no other part in the film.)
Joe ends up in a mental hospital, is visited by an AA man (Jack Klugman, overacting) and starts to recover. Irony kicks in because Kirsten won’t quit – the teetotaller is now a committed lush. The role reversal is emphasised as Kirsten goes on a bender and Joe finds her in a cheap motel and she gets *him* to drink with *her*. Here is another change from the original where it is quite blatantly suggested Kirsten is prostituting herself; Lee Remick just goes on a spree (albeit with different men).
In the final scene Joe begs a temporarily sober Kirsten to re-join their family, but she says she can’t face life without alcohol and leaves. The TV version ended here. In the film Joe explains to their daughter that mummy had to go away because she was ‘sick’. Will she get better? “Well, I did, didn’t I?” Fade out.
From a hard-hitting teleplay we get a more superficial Hollywood product. The lead actors were both Oscar-nominated. Jack Lemmon wanted a change of pace and achieved it, but still played safe with the comedy scenes and overall kept his good guy persona. Lee Remick did well, but her character was softened and ‘feminised’, where Piper Laurie's Kirsten was a truer personality.
Blake Edwards directs competently, and seems to have encouraged some improvisation from his actors. At one point in his DVD commentary he says: “Thank God they both smoked” because it added to their performances. As both Lemmon and Remick died of cancer (Remick was only 55), and could surely have faked smoking, this seems a very strange, almost tasteless, remark.
A number of films in the late 1950’s started to question the cost of the rat race and American consumerism (No Down Payment, for example). Days of Wine and Roses tries to cover some of the same ground, but is ultimately constrained by the conventions of mainstream film-making (especially regarding female characters) and the attitudes and beliefs about alcoholism of the time.