National Film Registry Review: Days of Wine and Roses

Kristen walking away from her husband in Days of Wine and Roses

“They are not long, the days of wine and roses.” Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick give vivid and powerful performances as couple caught in the grips of alcoholism.

In the past, alcoholism was a subject that was danced around. It wasn’t something people talked about in “polite society.” There were treatments of sorts for people who were looking for help, but more often than not people went without help. Those who did find help were often said to have “taken the cure.” Fortunately today there are more avenues for people suffering from alcoholism to find help than there was in the past.

Hollywood, in the general sense of the word, hasn’t always shied away from risky subjects like portraying alcoholics on screen. Social problem, or social justice, movies were popular in the early decades of cinema. Marvin LeRoy’s I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932) showed the horrors of life for prisoners on a southern chain gang. The Grapes of Wrath (1940), based on the John Steinbeck novel, followed the lives of migrant workers during the Depression. 

Blake Edwards’s (The Pink Panther series, 10, That’s Life) Days of Wine and Roses wasn’t the first movie to tackle the subject of alcoholism. Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend (1945) told the story of Don Birman whose drinking resulted in days of blackouts and alienation and Lionel Rogosin’s On the Bowery (1956) documented the lives of homeless men scrounging and scamming for their next drink. 

Joe Clay on the phone hiring girls for his client
There’s a fine line between a social drinker and an alcoholic.

Days of Wine and Roses stars Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick. Lemmon plays Joe Clay. Clay is introduced in a smoke filled bar finishing a cocktail and ordering another one. He’s in public relations at a time when most people had no idea what public relations was or if it was even an actual job. Later in the movie Clay will say part of his job is drinking. Clay is what today we would call a “functioning alcoholic” until he’s not and he becomes a full blown alcoholic.

Clay meets Kristen (Lee Remick) while procuring girls for his client Traynor, played briefly by Jack Albertson (Grandpa Joe in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory). To say the two don’t get along when they first meet is an understatement. However Clay’s persistence lands him a date. It’s a short trip down a long slide for them both after Clay introduces Kristen to Brandy Alexander, a drink that tastes like chocolate. 

Kristen takes a sip of a Brandy Alexander
The first drink is the easiest.

It would be easy to say it’s Clay’s fault Kristen found herself at the wrong end of a bottle. Even the synopsis of the movie (An alcoholic marries a young woman, who he systematically addicts to booze, so they can share his “passion” together) blames Clay for the problems the two face in the movie. However, nothing could be further from the truth.

First, the synopsis makes it sound like Clay had an evil master plan to wrong a woman he would eventually marry. There’s no evidence in the movie that this is the case. In fact, there’s more evidence that shows Clay loved and cared for Kristen. There’s also plenty of evidence to show he loved the booze the same, if not more than, Kristen. If he did have a master plan Kristen turns the tables when she gets Clay to relapse after he finds her at a hotel room drinking by herself.

Joe looks for Kristen in an empty apartment

Second, the synopsis relieves Kristen of any responsibility she has for her own actions. Kristen’s love of chocolate had already been established by the time Clay bought her the chocolate flavored drink. Chocolate, as Jim Hungerford (Jack Klugman, 12 Angry Men) says later in the film was Kristen’s addiction. Would she have started drinking if she had not met Clay? Odds are she wouldn’t have picked up a cocktail on her own, but once she does Kristen bares some of the responsibility of her own actions.

Lemmon and Remick were nominated for best acting awards (the awards went to Gregory Peck and Anne Bancroft). Lemmon had starred in mainly comedy movies and in comedic roles like C.C. Baxter in The Apartment, Jerry the witness to a mob hit who disguises himself as a woman in Some Like it Hot, and in wacky World War II inspired movies. 

Joe tries to get Kristen to stop drinking
“Look at us. We’re a couple of bums!”

Days was a serious turn in Lemmon’s acting career. Lemmon would return to comedy time and time again, but Days was his first outing as a serious actor. Although there are a few scenes that may be laughable to today’s audiences, most notable the scenes in the sanitarium, Lemmon is believable as the alcoholic, the man trying to stay sober, and the father who chooses his daughter over the bottle. 

Remick was no stranger to serious movies. She had already starred in Otto Preminger’s Antatomy of a Murder, Martin Ritt’s The Long, Hot Summer, and Elia Kazan’s A Face In The Crowd before starring in Days of Wine and Roses. Other actors may have portrayed Kristen as a shrinking violet, but despite the IMDB synopsis Remick’s Kristen is in full control of her own agency. Her choices are her own and no one else’s. Her final choice of the bottle over her daughter is perhaps the strongest scene in the movie. Kristen knows she’s not ready to return to a normal life with Joe and his daughter. Instead of putting them through more heartache she walks down the street and out of their lives.

Joe looks for Kristen

Edwards, and J.P.Miller’s script, adeptly shows the destructive nature of alcoholism on the addict and on their family and friends. The final scene of Kristen walking from Joe and their daughter is one of the most heart breaking scenes in the movie. It’s a tragic movie from beginning to end with little hope. Clay becomes sober with the help of Jim Hungerford, his Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor, and finds a new job, but Kristen is destined to bounce from place to place drinking as she goes along. 

Is it fair Joe is sober while Kristen drinks and shares her bed with other men? Perhaps it isn’t fair  and there are those who will accuse the movie of being anti-female, but that’s the nature of alcoholism. Some people can find the strength to become sober, others need to hit rock bottom before getting help, and others who won’t ever admit they have a problem. Days isn’t anti-female or pro-male, it’s a movie trying to show the realism of alcoholism in a time when alcoholism wasn’t openly talked about and few outside the program knew anything about AA.

Year released- 1962

Year added to list- 2018

Thanks to Warner Archives for the preview copy of the movie. The Days of Wine and Roses Blu ray is available on their website.

Blu-ray edition of Days of Wine and Roses
Warner Archives edition of Days of Wine and Roses