Friday, February 14, 2014

in praise of "days of wine and roses" - almost

Jack Lemmon and I used to engage in friendly debates about the merits of Blake Edwards' "Days of Wine and Roses" (1962), a film of which Jack was very proud. And with reason. His first truly dramatic role on screen (not counting Robert Parrish's "Fire Down Below"), the Edwards melodrama on alcholism inched the actor closer to the kind of credibility and respectability that usually evades affable light comedians and, of course, brought him his fourth Oscar nomination, third as best actor.

Personally, I appreciated anything that earned Lemmon kudos but, for me, "Wine and Roses" always plays as a rather facile polemic, a little too obvious and lacking in any subtlety whatsoever. This is epitomized by Jack's big scene where he tears apart a greenhouse looking for the booze his character hid there. It never fails to make me squirm and cringe.

Frankly (and I hate to say this), all of Jack's "harrowing" scenes in the film are rather cartoonish. Oddly, Lee Remick, as the adoring wife his character pulls into alcoholism, is much more effective in her moments of deterioration, poignantly so. Jack's best sequence in the film, hands-down, is the one where he comes home from a company party drunk, wakes up Remick and their baby and then, mortified by his own behavior, begs for forgiveness, clutching Remick and burying his head in her stomach. This scene leads to the film's downward-spiraling second half.

The film's first half, lighter and more naturalistic, is really quite wonderful, with the playful interplay between Jack and Remick during their courtship scenes setting up both of them as sympathetic and likable characters. That's important because we're supposed to care about these two people, especially as they are enveloped by evil alcohol.

Lemmon's Joe Clay in these scenes seems like a cousin to his Bud Baxter in Billy Wilder's "The Apartment" (1960). Both are ambitious careerists and one can see Clay as an extension of Baxter as they share the same wrong-headed path. Clay is what Baxter surely will turn into.

Having just come off Richard Quine's "The Notorious Landlady," Jack is still in his nimble, boyish mode in these early sequences and Remick's natural girlishness complements him, shrewdly coaxing the innocence hidden beneath his Public Relations Man swagger to the surface.

BTW, Turner Classic Movies will telecast "Days of Wine and Roses at 10 p.m. (est) on 15 May. Check it out - and feel free to disagree.


m. said...

Having seen the Playhouse 90 version of JP Miller's harrowing tale when it was re-broadcast several years ago on cable, I have avoided watching this movie ever since. I happened to catch part of it yesterday on TCM as part of their tribute to 1962's films (was it really half a century ago?). I realize that the best scenes in terms of showiness belong to the leading man, but the truth at the center of the drama is the role heartbreakingly evoked by Lee Remick, though Lemmon is excellent in the scenes when he is struggling with sobriety, not inebriation.

Having loved several problem drinkers (I was related to most of them by blood), it is still compelling and awful to watch this slice of life. I don't mind the lush score or the touch of romanticism that helps the characters begin their spiral down--such trappings are part of every drunk's desire to idealize life and keep reality at bay.

I understand what you mean about Lemmon's cavortings at times (I think the direction of Robetson by Frankenheimer in the earlier version was better), but I think the film may have had an emotional hold on Jack Lemmon, in part because of his mother's alcoholism (an open secret in the Boston area when he was growing up) and his own life. Such things are not easy to shake off or to look at intellectually when it is so close to the bone. Thanks for writing about this movie.

joe baltake said...

m! Thanks for the insight, both cinematic and personal. -J

Brian Lucas said...

I have always thought that both Lemmon and Remick gave two of their best performances in this film. The famous greenhouse scene also makes me cringe when I watch it but in a horrific way as I am watching this lovable normal guy hit rock bottom. It truly portrays the evils of alcoholism in a much more honest way than most other films of it's kind. There isn't any happy ending here. The neon bar sign that brings the film to a close still haunts me.

joe baltake said...

Brian! I think we cringe at the greenhouse scene for different reasons. For me, it's not that the moment is particularly harrowing, but that the acting is so - how shall I put this - obvious. It is arguably my least favorite Jack Lemmon moment on screen. He is much better in a quieter scene - when he hugged Lee Remick's very pregnant belly,in tears, and apologizes for being drunk.

John said...

I just like that Edwards had Lemmon leave the country so as not to be able to change the ending before release. Good thinking.