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Oscars and Alcoholics: What a Great Movie!

Nebraska's Oscar nomination isn’t breaking new ground. Stories about characters who struggle with booze or drugs have long captivated filmmakers, and by extension Oscars. Why do addicts so endear themselves to awards voters?

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By Brian Macaulay

02/28/14

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Lights… Camera… Addiction. Oscar time is here again, and as is so often the case, the Academy has seen fit to lavish nominations on a film about a character who can’t drink like normal men.

That film is Alexander Payne’s Nebraska. Starring Bruce Dern as Woody, an alcoholic patriarch increasingly unfit for the world and a growing burden on his adult children, Nebraska’s portrayal of an aging father unable to handle his liquor is a subtle one—Payne’s story is much more concerned with the family unit produced by Woody’s behavior over the years, rather than the traditional alcoholic drama of drunk driving accidents and races to the emergency room. Regardless, he’s a crusty old drunk shaking his fist at the world, and for that the Academy has nominated the film for seven Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Actor for Dern.

Faithful Oscar watchers will quickly point out that, in this regard, the Academy isn’t breaking new ground. Stories about characters who struggle with booze or drugs have long captivated filmmakers, and by extension awards voters. Last year, Denzel Washington picked up a Best Actor nomination for his portrayal of an alcoholic airline pilot in Flight. In 2012, Nick Nolte was nominated for Best Supporting Actor in his turn as a recovering alcoholic in Warrior. Nolte was actually a return contender in the outstanding-actor-as-addict field, having received a Best Actor nomination in 1999 for his pot-smoking sheriff in Affliction.

Sometimes, they even win. Nolte’s alcoholic father in Affliction, James Coburn, took home the statue for Supporting Actor that year. It was one of his final performances, and the only Oscar in a career spanning more than 40 years. Perhaps the most memorable alcoholic Oscar win in the modern era was Nicolas Cage’s for Leaving Las Vegas in 1996. To research the role of a man bent on literally drinking himself to death, Cage famously binge drank in Dublin for two weeks and had a friend videotape the results.

Why do addicts so endear themselves to awards voters? In an era where drug addiction and alcoholism are more and more out of the shadows and up for public consumption and analysis, perhaps this is to be expected. However, this logic doesn’t hold water in Oscar’s timeline. As far back as 1946, Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend virtually conquered the awards, taking home four trophies including Best Picture and Best Actor for Ray Milland, as a tormented writer unable to escape the bottle.

Another plausible theory for the popularity of addiction during award season is the makeup of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences—industry insiders—and the timeless popularity in Hollywood of addiction, alcoholism, and (sometimes) redemption. The overlap between history’s most famous stars and most famous addicts is overwhelming. Young hopefuls can get off the bus at Hollywood and Vine and find a souvenir shop in any direction selling glossy facsimiles of Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley. Peering into these, one can read the hope of dreams on film coming true, or a cautionary tale about dying too young of an overdose. There’s no business like show business, wherein it’s a cliché to imply these things are inseparable.

In very meta turns of art-imitating-life-imitating-art, Nolte was arrested for DUI while driving in Malibu in 2002—between the aforementioned nominations—and went to rehab, while in 2011 Cage was taken in by New Orleans police on suspicion of domestic abuse, disturbing the peace and public intoxication. Those charges were later dropped.

In the recent run up to the Oscars, and in any discussion of celebrity addiction, the most shocking development thus far in 2014 was the tragic death of Oscar winning actor Philip Seymour Hoffman on February 2nd, of an apparent heroin overdose. During his career, Hoffman received four nominations, and won a Best Actor statue for his 2006 portrayal of Truman Capote, the famous writer in whose own death an L.A. coroner identified drugs as being a factor. That same year, Hoffman had gone public about his more than two decades of sobriety, before a recent relapse which ultimately led to his end in a New York apartment. Most recently, the actor was nominated last year alongside co-star Joaquin Phoenix for their work in The Master, a film in which the two imbibe industrial chemicals to get high. When Hoffman won for Capote in 2006, he had beaten Phoenix for the prize, who had been nominated for his performance as a drug-addicted Johnny Cash in Walk The Line.

While the correlation between drugs and alcohol, and Hollywood, appears to be very real on and off-camera, the popularity of these characters and stories may also be rooted somewhere much broader, and more basic.

In theaters, production companies, classrooms, and coffee shops, storytellers of all sorts are right now striving to create effective drama. In that recipe, conflict is the key ingredient. Aristotle, as evidenced in Poetics, recognized this as essential to holding an audience’s interest more than 2,000 years ago, long before the Oscar telecast was first beamed into households.

Modern theorists see whatever a movie’s conflict might be as easily fitting into a very select group of categories. Sometimes they overlap, but in any example of effective human drama, one or more can be found. These are, with some variations, man versus man (think Tom Hanks versus the pirates in Captain Phillips), man versus society (Chiwetel Ejiofor versus the oppressive establishment of slavery in 12 Years a Slave), man versus nature (Gravity’s George Clooney and Sandra Bullock versus, well—gravity, effectively), and finally that which concerns the dramatic conflict of addiction movies and within addicts as characters: man versus self. Some even see the last category as the only one, and interpret all dramatic works as such, believing the real conflicts to be questions such as, can Captain Phillips find the strength within himself to survive his ordeal and triumph?

However applicable man-versus-self may be to all drama, there is perhaps no more pure example of it than a story about a person fighting against their own urges, and powerless in the struggle. The big winner at the box office last year was The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, a well-received man—woman, it should be noted, in a film market where this is too rare—versus society story based on a wildly successful book, but it won’t be taking home any Oscars. That film’s drama was clear and effective, with viewers keeping their eyes on the screen to learn whether Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss Everdeen would survive the titular games and gain ground in her struggle against the power structure of a future dystopia. Unfortunately, there was not a lot of room for questions about what choices Katniss would make. They knew her to be strong and skilled, a believer in what is just, and a protector of her family and others. Expectations were met. The heroine acted within these parameters. Elsewhere last year, Iron Man, Thor, and Superman showed up in movie theaters to do the same, all with equivalent recognition from the Academy.

Contrast these characters, and their journeys, with Best Actor-nominated Denzel Washington’s Whip Whitaker in Flight. He is an airline pilot whose behavior is suddenly under incredible scrutiny after saving a planeload of passengers’ lives in a near disaster. To maintain his career and reputation, he must act appropriately and follow the advice of his lawyer, played by Don Cheadle. The catch? Whip Whitaker is an alcoholic. All he needs to do to weather this storm is stay sober, and maintain his story. But, as stated—Whip Whitaker is an alcoholic. Throughout Flight, Washington’s character makes decisions and takes actions contrary to his own goals and well being, all to satisfy his addiction, and it’s never clear in any specific instance whether he will or won’t be able resist his own urges. Cheadle’s razor sharp Hugh Lang can anticipate and create strategies for problems posed by politicians and regulators, but he can’t predict or control Whip Whitaker’s alcoholism. Any time the viewer begins to believe that a turning point has been reached, and that he knows what Whitaker will do or say next, the character zigs rather than zags, all the way into Flight’s climax.

One dimensional characters aren’t always a bad thing. Two opposing characters, each of a single dimension, can create all the tension and drama an audience needs. However, there is no way to craft a realistic, one dimensional portrayal of an addict. If examined closely enough, there is always a person underneath who suffers at their own hand, whether their exterior obstacles are the weight of the whole world, or nothing at all.

Perhaps Oscar doesn’t favor addicts, at least not directly. Instead, might it be that in addiction and addicts, there are inherently more than enough sparks for engaging, interesting fire? If so, fire appears to have caught this year for Nebraska, and surely it won’t be the last time. The Academy Awards will air live on March 2, on ABC.

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