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.

Nicolas Cage in Leaving Las Vegas

History will not be kind to Nicolas Cage. He’s made a few too many awful movies (see: Ghost Rider) and hammed it up a few too many times (see: Wicker Man). But he’ll always have Leaving Las Vegas, for which he won an Oscar for the role of Ben Sanderson, the charming, seemingly bottomless alcoholic determined to drink himself to death.

From the opening scene where he picks out booze bottles in a grocery store to the bitter end, Cage’s performance constantly catches you off guard. Even though the film is riddled with cliches (hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold and all that), Cage manages to keep things interesting and all too real.

Ryan Gosling in Half Nelson

The best drug addict performances are great performances first, and great drug addict performances second. Take Half Nelson’s Ryan Gosling, who plays Dan Dunne, a crack-smoking inner-city middle-school teacher. The film follows his relationship with one of his students, Drey, whose brother is a drug dealer, and their mutual attempts to save each other.

Gosling, a Mickey Mouse Club alum, was nominated for an Oscar for his performance, and deservedly so. If most movie drug addicts’ lives careen out of control in three tidy scenes (see: Traffic and Boogie Nights), Dan Dunne manages to keep his head above water on the outside while drowning on the inside.

Laura Dern in Citizen Ruth

Alexander Payne’s first feature film is an often-overlooked political satire about the culture wars of the 1990s. Laura Dern plays Ruth Stoops, who slips away at any chance she gets to huff patio sealant, spray paint, Drano, or anything else she can get her hands on. At some point she gets pregnant (for at least the fifth time) and is then arrested for drug possession. When the judge orders her to get an abortion, Ruth becomes the unwitting pawn in a battle between pro-life religious nuts and equally zealous pro-choice feminists. Ruth is a drug addict of the screw-up variety who has no redeeming qualities whatsoever. She doesn’t know why she does what she does, and wonders why bad things keep happening to her. The fact that Dern manages to make Ruth likable is testament to her talent as an actress.

Paul Newman in The Verdict

There’s a lot of charming druggies on this list, having a good time on their way to the bottom. But not Frank Galvin, the alcoholic ambulance chaser—actually, it’s more like funeral home chaser—who gets one last shot at redemption when he sues a Catholic hospital for malpractice.

It’s a serious film and a serious performance from Newman. His hands shake before he’s had that first shot of the day and his eyes have a powerful, remote gaze, as if the world is somehow a distant concept to him. Whether he’s drinking beer and playing pinball, or arguing with James Mason, there’s a subtle loneliness about him—something we don’t often get to see from old blue-eyed Butch Cassidy.

Samuel L. Jackson in Jungle Fever

Ostensibly a Spike Lee film about a black architect who has an affair with a white woman, Jungle Fever is altogether stolen by Samuel L. Jackson as Flipper’s crackhead brother, Gator, who begs Flipper for money by reasoning, “I really hate having to resort to knocking elderly people in the head for their money. But I’ll do it! I’ll do it!” He then proceeds to do a song and dance about how much he likes smoking crack.

His character shares much with Christian Bale’s in The Fighter—both are charming brothers to the protagonist, who bring tragedy to their families. And while Gator is more of a caricature than Dick Eklund, he still manages to pull off comedy and tragedy in the space of two hours with only a supporting role. Plus, he’s really, really scary; it’s quite clear that he’d knock almost anyone in the head for a few dollars, or a small baggie of crack.

Elizabeth Taylor in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Has there ever been a crueler film than Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Martha (the late, great Elizabeth Taylor) and her history professor husband George (played by Taylor’s then-husband Richard Burton) invite a young couple over for “drinks”—which puts it rather mildly. The four proceed to get tanked while George and Martha first terrorize each other and then set their sights on their mousy young guests. Taylor, who won an Oscar for the role, manages to be in turns acerbic, manipulative, cute and desperately sad. She also delivers a stream of brilliant Edward Albee dialogue that seems to flow right out of her. She and Burton make what has to be the finest alcoholic couple ever put on screen. Sometimes art really does imitate life.

Sean Penn in Hurlyburly

Cocaine isn’t central to Hurlyburly, David Rabe’s play-turned-movie about a handful of mid-level Hollywood players, yet it seems to fuel the film as much as it fuels its wired and world-weary characters. Penn’s Eddy is fast-talking and neurotic beyond belief—and that’s when he’s sober. Once he’s had a couple of lines, he’s instantly transformed into a paranoid emotional wreck, fretting about the apocalypse one minute and begging for a blow job the next, his eyes watering and his throat filling with phlegm. His philosophical angst is only a stalking horse for his own spiritual emptiness, which ends up scaring everyone else away.

Chloe Webb in Sid and Nancy

This movie gets a lot wrong about the punk rock scene—director Alex Cox never even bothered talking to Johnny Rotten, and it shows. But it gets a lot right about junkies, and junkie couples in particular, giving equal weight to both the depravity and the monotony of drug addiction. Unlike, say, Requiem for a Dream, the movie shows the hopelessness of drug addiction without the melodrama.

Sid and Nancy are, of course, Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen, the most famous junkie couple of all time. Gary Oldman is wonderful as Sid, but it’s Chloe Webb—whose biggest previous role had been a bit part in an episode of Remington Steele—who steals the show as Nancy. The genius of Webb’s performance is that she manages to be shrill and irritating, while also showing us why Sid was completely head over heels for her. She may be annoying, but she’s exactly what Sid isn’t: street smart.

Al Pacino in Panic in Needle Park

We know what you’re thinking: how could we leave out Frank Sinatra for his role in The Man With a Golden Arm? Let’s face it: he’s basically just Frank Sinatra who sweats a lot. For the junkie classics, we prefer Panic at Needle Park, an independent film, way ahead of its time, that still resonates 40 years later.

In his second movie role, Al Pacino played Bobby, a young junkie hustler on his way to the bottom. On his way, he meets Helen (played by Kitty Winn, who won Best Actress at Cannes), a middle class girl from Indiana. Bobby introduces her to heroin—and the life in Needle Park on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.

It was largely on the strength of this performance that Francis Ford Coppola cast Pacino as Michael Corleone in The Godfather, choosing him over such established stars as Robert Redford and Warren Beatty. While Bobby is a good guy and genuinely loves Helen, it’s clear that he loves heroin more, and we see through Pacino’s performance—in brief angry flashes—what happens when something stands in the way of him getting his fix. A not-unfamiliar feeling for some of us.

Hillel Aron is a writer living in Los Angeles, where he was born and raised. His work has appeared in the LA Weekly, The Huffington Post, and neontommy.com. 

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