Hollywood's Best Addict Performances

By Hillel Aron 03/24/11
Nicolas Cage in 'Leaving Las Vegas' ©1995 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios

In many ways, playing an alcoholic or a drug addict is Oscar bait, just like tackling any other mental illness. Yet these roles carry many pitfalls—overplay your hand and you risk drifting into Scarface-esque camp. And if you have too much fun? Well, you may be accused of glorifying drug use.

Christian Bale’s recent Oscar win for his role as Dick Eklund in The Fighter—not to mention Bradley Cooper's current, eye-catching turn as a user of the fictional drug "NZT" in Limitless—got us wondering about the best portrayals of addicts we’ve ever seen. Of course, any list like this is bound to be subjective. So we’ll just say right now: yes, we know about Trainspotting. Of course we didn’t forget about The Man with the Golden Arm. And rest assured that Ray Liotta’s Goodfellas coke meltdown is permanently embedded in our consciousness. While we expect to hear all about what we got wrong in the comments, these are the performances that topped our list.

Richard E. Grant in Withnail and I

The chaotic zaniness of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was predated by Withnail and I, a very weird, very British film about two unemployed, alcoholic actors who head off to the countryside for a holiday. Richard E. Grant plays Withnail, a histrionic addict who gets to utter the immortal line: “We want the finest wines available to humanity, we want them here, and we want them now!”

The film has a massive cult following in the UK and a well-known drinking game there involves chugging every time Withnail drinks. Of course, since, through the course of the film, he downs 13 shots of whiskey, 10 glasses of red wine, six glasses of sherry, half a pint of ale, and one shot of lighter fluid, it’s hard to imagine such an undertaking leaves any survivors.

Grant gives an unforgettable performance despite being a lifelong teetotaller—director Bruce Robinson made him get drunk on champagne and vodka one night during the production, so he would experience the sensation.

Robert Downey Jr. in Less Than Zero

According to drug film lore, Less Than Zero was the first time most moviegoers saw a white guy smoke rock. That particular white guy was Robert Downey Jr.—easily the best element of this uneven and loose adaptation of the Bret Easton Ellis novel about upper-class kids in Los Angeles, wrestling with the emptiness of their lives.

The main character, Clay Easton (played by Andrew McCarthy), was changed in the film to make him more sympathetic and more, uh, heterosexual. In the book, Easton is bisexual and does way more drugs, whereas in the film he strives to help his friend Julian (played by Downey) get clean.

Julian's character remains, like some artifact from the book, although he becomes more of a desperate victim in the film (he deals drugs in the book—a big no-no in the rules of 1980s drug morality). Either way, it’s a heartbreaking performance from Downey, who later said the role was “like the ghost of Christmas future,” since his own drug addiction, if anything, ended up overshadowing Julian’s.

Jeff Bridges in The Big Lebowski

Is “The Dude” a drug addict? Well, hardly a scene goes by where he’s not lighting up a joint or sipping a White Russian. Let’s not split hairs here. Am I wrong?

Jeff Bridges plays The Dude, perhaps the most indelible stoner in cinematic history (with the possible exception of Sean Penn’s Jeff Spicoli). As a protagonist, he’s a complete and utter failure—any attempt to rectify his situation simply makes matters worse. The most hilarious example is when he tries to figure out what porn mogul Jackie Treehorn is up to by tracing his notepad with a pencil, a la Phillip Marlowe, only to reveal a crude drawing of a man with a boner. But as a comic anti-hero, he’s perfect—a lovable and profane loser. Someone the straight community won’t care about.

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