You might not be aware of this but Frank Sinatra starred in TWO addiction movies. The better of the two flicks, The Man with the Golden Arm, directed by famous Austrian helmer Otto Preminger, was a controversial film for its time showing addiction not simply as a morality tale, but as a blend of constitution and consequence. Frankie is a troubled man, but the world around him is equally troubled, making his journey through addiction and his attempts to break-free, a far more realistic experience than the dramatized mayhem of Traffic.
For a certain generation, this film of boozy heartbreaking romance is a de rigeur classic, but for younger audiences, they might not have been aware that old Jack Lemmon could play such a convincing drunk. AA is featured in the film, which was groundbreaking for its time, introducing general audiences not only to the sad and hard fates of modern alcoholism, but also the 12-step program that would come to affect nearly every aspect of our self-help world. Lee Remick’s tragic role as the female drunk (and Jack’s wife) puts Liz Taylor’s operatic boozer in Virginia Woolf to shame. You can still see the goodness that lies beneath the bottles of her life, even as she sacrifices everything for them.
Alcoholism and addiction show up in all cultures and certainly in plenty of international films, but Stray Dogs, written and directed by famed Taiwanese legend, Tsai Ming Liang, stands out as an avant-garde translation of the world filtered through the lens of addiction’s eyes. The long, lingering shots remind us of the boredom and repetition of addiction. As the main character, played by Kang-sheng Lee, battles his alcoholism while trying to parent his now homeless family, the true desperation of the disease comes into view. The film also showcases the undying love children have for parents who are caught in the grips of addiction.
Caught somewhere between Barfly and Fear and Loathing, Tales of Ordinary Madness is based on yet another Bukowski book. Directed by Italian filmmaker, Marco Ferreri, Tales stars the always under-appreciated, Ben Gazarra. In this full-on bender of sex, drugs, and, well, more drugs, Gazarra shows us the bacchanalia side of drugs, and what happens when one has long surpassed the edge of abandon. At times hysterical, Tales is more often than not, painful (particularly for those who have seen too many consecutive sunrises), Tales of Ordinary Madness shows the glory and depravity of losing oneself to addiction and the heartbreaking losses one must suffer along the way.
Often regarded as the poor man’s Drugstore Cowboy, Another Day in Paradise is directed by Larry Clark and stars Melanie Griffith and James Woods, who play the perfect codependent couple (if Woods actually dated women his own age). The film also features a young Vincent Kartheiser before his star-turning role as the dickhead "Pete" on Madmen. Crossing California, Griffith and Woods team up with fellow junkie-couple Kartheiser and Natasha Gregson to rob stores, have sex, and act like assholes. It’s so bad, it’s fucking amazing.
Lost between Tender Mercies and Crazy Heart, Payday is about another boozy country star, here played by Rip Torn. What sets this film apart is the fact that you’re never supposed to feel pity, empathy, or even affection for Torn. He’s a cynical, drunken asshole who doesn’t deserve anything good that’s come his way and certainly deserves all the bad shit that does. It’s a reminder of how light in the loafers filmmaking has become since the '70s (now that everyone deserves a shot at redemption). Torn’s character wants you to hate him, and that’s okay. Sometimes, the things drunks do, demand as much.
Paul Schrader directed this film about a drug dealer getting cold feet about his profession, and it feels like a film directed by Paul Schrader, the writer of feel-good movies like, Taxi Driver and Raging Bull. Overwrought and atmospheric, Light Sleeper stars Willem Dafoe as a reformed addict turned drug dealer who is in the middle of a morality crisis about, well, being a drug dealer. It is one of the rare films to show the often tender relationships that dealers form with their clients—playing father figure, therapist, lover, friend, and doctor. But when the drama around Dafoe’s character gets too intense, he begins to question whether the benefits of his work are worth the losses.
Ferrara’s cult masterpiece is more of an allegory about addiction than a straightforward film on the topic, but it’s no wonder people sometimes refer to junkies as vampires. In Addiction, the vampires are real, but as they deal with cravings, withdrawal, and the desperate need for more, the metaphor becomes crystal clear: like vampirism, addiction forces you to live off other people, hurting them in order to feed your needs and hurling the addict into a vicious cycle of shame and escape. The vampires depicted are not without remorse, but they also know that the lives they live demand the darkness, for the light will kill what little of themselves they have left.
French existentialism meets the underbelly of an apéritif in this 1963 film from Louis Malle. Maurice Ronet plays the doomed alcoholic who is sent to a private hospital in Versailles to undergo treatment, not unlike the French do today, in an American-style rehab that looks more like a 1960s sanitariums. Ronet’s character can’t quite divorce the man he is from the one that he might become should he put down the Cote du Rhone. Filled with heavy French dialogue about the nature of addiction and depression, you are rooting for Ronet’s character long after he stops rooting for himself.
A young Al Pacino plays a junkie who introduces his sweet homeless girlfriend to shooting dope in 1970s New York City. While this film could have been used in the DARE program, Needle Park also displays the natural codependency of drug use—and how the same limits one is willing to surpass for love, one could also surpass for drugs. Without the anal gangbangs of Requiem For a Dream, Panic in Needle Park manages to show the contagious nature of addiction, and how one addict helping another is as old as addiction itself.