Along with madness, intoxication is surely the most difficult condition for an actor to perform. Although there are countless different ways to be drunk, audiences are ruthlessly quick to spot an unconvincing portrayal of inebriation. A bad drunken scene can undermine an otherwise excellent performance, just as a good one can elevate a shambles.
It’s not just about technique—the physicalities of being drunk always amount to more than the sum of their parts. There’s a crucial plane of recognition that an actor needs to hit upon so that we believe that, yes, that is exactly how this character would behave after a few beers. The unconvincing movie drunks, which range from forgettable to excruciating, are too many to number. But the few great drunk performances, which I have collected here, are worth interrogating to uncover what they might tell us about drinking and being drunk.
Thus, I present five maxims of drunk acting:
i. Don’t act drunk
Drunk people are often doing their very best to appear sober. Habitual drunks, especially, are practiced at disguising their own intoxication. The appearance of sobriety is simply woven into everyday behavior—it becomes muscle memory. So, the self-consciously drunk performances—carefully slurred syllables, wobbly centers of gravity, outlandish non-sequiturs—are almost always the worst. With this type of performance, a very little goes a long way.
In Sidney Lumet’s courtroom drama The Verdict (1982), the very first shot tells us everything we need to know about alcoholic lawyer Frank Galvin (Paul Newman). Frank plays pinball alone in a bar on a winter morning; in a business suit and heavy coat, we already know that he’s not where he ought to be. He doesn’t seem to enjoy the game, but savors long, slow gulps of beer. Galvin has fallen from grace and drink has turned him in towards himself, but he will go on to risk everything against a seemingly hopeless case. In this grim opening scene, Newman barely moves, but his stillness communicates a desperation he can barely recognize himself.
Another subtle drunk appears in Andrew Dominik’s Killing Them Softly (2012), in which James Gandolfini plays mob hitman Mickey. Though a big hitter in his prime, Mickey has sunk into a depressive alcoholic stupor. Meeting a colleague at a bar he orders a martini, a cocktail whose air of sophistication is immediately torn apart when he downs the colleague’s beer while waiting for it to be made. He may share James Bond’s choice of drink simply for its strength, or to cover a crippling dependence. Gandolfini deftly manifests Mickey’s inebriation as ill bodily health: mouth hanging open, eyelids heavy, breathing labored. Even his walk across a room is a somnambulistic shuffle. He’s the lifestyle drunk, checked out for good, taking up space but not really there.
If Gandolfini’s drunk is all slackness, then Joaquin Phoenix in The Master (also 2012) is fiercely taut. His Freddie Quell, who maniacally brews his own toxic moonshine, has a body so clenched with tension that it’s a wonder he moves at all. His movements are unpredictable like a child’s, and yet gnarled like an old man—not too unlike the creaky drunken hobble of Daniel Plainview in the final scenes of There Will Be Blood (2007). Wound up and set to pop off at any moment (which he does, in violent bursts), he is an achievement in grotesquery that never quite tips into caricature. Hollywood trickster Phoenix is clearly at home in Paul Thomas Anderson’s anything-goes methodology, and cannot help but incorporate his own raucous off-screen behavior into the character. Watching Freddie take questions from Philip Seymour Hoffman’s smooth-talking cult leader recalls Phoenix’s notoriously spaced-out interview with David Letterman. For better or worse, he disappears into the role.
Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend (1945) is probably Classical Hollywood’s most nuanced and sympathetic take on alcohol abuse. Ray Milland stars as writer and boozehound Don Birnam, and he splits his performance in two: Around his family, who sincerely support his sobriety, Don is stressed and anxious, never quite believing his own pledges to stay clean. When he visits the bar, though, Don is relaxed, verbose, and even charming. Milland acts Don as two people at war: one the promising writer who can’t overcome his self-doubt, and the other a short-sighted drunk who sabotages success. And yet, in his brash confidence, the drunk Don transforms a disappointing life into a colorful landscape of myth and grandeur. While the whisky’s being poured, Don is everything he might have been. This dual register hits upon a dark truth on why we drink: to become the versions of ourselves who are untethered by the anxiety that might otherwise cripple us.
ii. Always focus on the task in hand, except when you don’t
Though it’s rarely a good idea to drink on the job, in the movies Dutch courage can go a long way when the stakes are high. When Fred Astaire had to perform a “drunken dance” in Holiday Inn (1942), he took a shot of bourbon before each take (the seventh and final take appears in the film). Somewhere on alcohol’s precarious high wire is a sweet spot where confidence and ability meet—not too much of one or too little of the other—but it’s hard to find, and harder to hold onto.
The best “drunk on the job” performance comes from the 1963 TV sketch Dinner for One. The sketch remains relatively unknown in many countries, but has become a wildly popular New Year’s Eve tradition in others. In this 18-minute single-take masterpiece, British comedian Freddie Frinton plays James, aging butler to the delusional Miss Sophie, who insists on having her 90th dinner party even though the guests died some time ago. Faithful to a fault, James takes it upon himself to drink each of their toasts in character, and he gets progressively more intoxicated with each course. But he needs to keep serving the food, and his endless circuit around the dinner table turns him into a sort of sloshed Sisyphus.
Frinton’s performance is a tour de force, capturing the various degrees of drunkenness through ritual. The more unfit he is to serve food, the more decorum he tries to display. The more incapable he is of doing the job, the harder he works to do it. He moves with a drunk’s roundabout logic, throwing wine at a glass from across the table and shouting out his lines before he forgets them. Frinton himself was a teetotaller, which seems like a miracle because the only thing rescuing his performance from pure nonsense is the deep recognition from anyone who has ever been drunk and had to carry out a task.
As those mere 18 minutes demonstrate, “a little drunk” can quickly escalate. You know that moment: you’re at a party, you’ve been drinking, then you go to the bathroom and look at yourself in the mirror. You think, that person is too drunk. You try to get your head straight, but you can’t focus for more than one second at a time. Maybe you didn’t check the percentage, maybe you didn’t line your stomach, or maybe, like Roger Thornhill in North by Northwest (1959), you’ve been forced to drink bourbon by thugs in order to stage your death as a drunk-driving accident.
As Thornhill, Cary Grant has the difficult task of playing someone who’s in imminent danger of driving his car off a cliff and yet whose inebriation makes it difficult to focus on the situation. Grant never went for realism where charm would do, and he doesn’t bother to show the deadly serious urgency that the circumstance demands. Rather, it is a drunk person’s approximation of such urgency. He even seems to fall asleep at the wheel, only to jolt awake a moment later and reassess the situation with genuine curiosity. Like Don Birnam, Thornhill is split in two by drink: one in the role of endangered protagonist and the other helplessly watching from the sidelines. He may be in the driving seat, but the bourbon is holding the wheel.
iii. Clown around
Being drunk lifts inhibitions and licenses characters to act beyond the bounds of their tempering sober restraints. When the interior life of a character is rage, this means danger and misery for the world around them, but put a fool in the mix and you have the makings of great comedy.
The grandfather of drunk comedy is Charlie Chaplin, whose most successful role on the vaudeville stage was “The Inebriate Swell.” The character reappears in the 1916 two-reeler One AM, in which the intoxicated Chaplin spends a full 27 minutes simply trying, and failing, to go to bed. That he finds 10 distinct ways to climb and then fall down his stairs is perhaps the purest illustration of Chaplin’s genius. As with all slapstick, the world itself seems to conspire against the hero, so that even wealth is cruel. It both fills his house with ornaments and then takes away the sobriety necessary to navigate them.
Chaplin’s most famous character, The Little Tramp, occasionally got drunk too. While the sober tramp’s physicality is merely eccentric, under the influence it assumes a wild opulence, no less chaotic for its intricacy. He walks in a two-forward-one-back tilt, face fixed in an expression halfway between concentration and sleep. His posture is stiff, head bobbing up and down as if the neck can no longer be relied upon. Chaplin exposes the comedic gap of understanding between drunk and audience—when the Tramp mistakes a party streamer for spaghetti in City Lights (1931), he eats his way all the way along it with great care. The funny thing is that alcohol slows down the otherwise hypersonic Tramp, so instead of succeeding by fluke he fails by deliberation.
Michel Simon makes a more imposing clown in Boudu Saved from Drowning (1932). If The Little Tramp is a fallible trickster negotiating a changing world, bearded hobo Boudu is an agent of chaos unleashed against all taste and temperance of the civilised classes. Simon, whose manner is as idiosyncratic as Chaplin’s but less lovable, balances childlike mischief against a barrelling, overbearing physicality. His speech doesn’t slur but bounces, honking out in a careless wah-wah monotone. Like a sacred clown, he unties signifier from signified, climbing over tables, cleaning his hands on a silk dress, and only making sense within his own absurd worldview. Boudu is the bourgeois fear of drink in the lower classes: an unpredictable, hedonistic, base force of bodily power.
No drunk body becomes quite as unbound as Jackie Chan in Drunken Master II (1994), probably Chan’s greatest film. He plays a comic version of the legendary folk hero Wong Fei-hung, whose drunken boxing fighting style mimics inebriation: all runaway momentum and unpredictable fluidity. When challenged, Fei-hung hones his abilities by getting really drunk, lending each fight scene an excuse for some wildly outlandish acrobatics. True to life, one drink is never enough, and the brawling Fei-hung craves more drink until he becomes a slobbering maelstrom of blind precision. The training takes over and his body is reacting faster than he can think. This means that the action operates on an inverse correlation between performer and character: the more impressive Fei-hung’s drunken skill, the more Jackie’s sober body suffers (including a full-body collapse onto hot coals captured in slow motion). Despite his dexterity, Fei-hung is repeatedly humiliated and rarely afforded an unqualified victory—the hangover always follows the scuffle.
The real treat of this drunk performance is how, in a traditionally masculine genre, Jackie’s drunken Fei-hung is made to abandon masculine intimidation (the 1978 Drunken Master was the story of Fei-hung learning the drunken style by embodying the mythological eight immortals, one of whom is a woman). Jackie’s coy smile and effeminate movements recall Chaplin’s giddy nervous breakdown in Modern Times (1936). In both cases, dislodging sobriety allows a camp clown to run circles around burly men. The drunken boxing story device lets Fei-hung dampen the fear of his ostensibly superior opponents; it also allows Jackie to strip Fei-hung of dignity and conformist gender performance. So the drunk clown both suffers humiliation and maintains dominance with his bewilderingly powerful movements.
iv. Find a drinking buddy
Just as an actor is only as good as their co-star, a drink is only as good as the people it’s shared with. Getting drunk is a social pastime, and the pure gregarious pleasure of inebriation is celebrated in The Thin Man (1934). Dapper detective couple Nick and Nora Charles mix their way from party to party amidst intrigue and suspense, but never stray far from their drinks. The chemistry between leads William Powell and Myrna Loy fizzes like fresh champagne, and carries the film without a trace of effort. Their detective work is an afterthought; the convoluted murder mystery simply fades away until all that matters is the bounce and shake of the cocktail mixers.
Preceding both the full enforcement of the Production Code and film noir, The Thin Man is a cheerfully optimistic film despite the violence of its storyline. It’s rare to see an onscreen romance about marriage rather than courtship; for once, husband and wife are not bickering and resentful, but rather wrapped up in a hedonistic love of life and each other. Nora matches Nick drink for drink, not out of spite but so that they can enjoy the party together. Released immediately after the end of Prohibition, The Thin Man is Hollywood’s big hurrah for hooch, advertising it as a social entertainment unparalleled in romance and buzz.
The underside of boozy romance is found in John Huston’s boxing oddity Fat City (1972). Set in a dead-end California town far from the Charles’ New York penthouse, this film follows various losers stumbling in and out of the boxing ring, struggling with commitment and punishment. Stacy Keach plays Tully, an alcoholic could-have-been with a half-sincere promise to get back into shape and become a champion. One thing holding him back is that his only friends are barflies, and his unexpected romance with Oma (Susan Tyrrell), a shrill but mesmerizing drunk with a string of failed marriages behind her, threatens success even further. Their barstool encounter could be the stuff of a thousand “meet cute” scenes, but Keach and Tyrrell’s drunk performances lend their coupling an unpredictable edge, both charming and tragic.
The lumbering Keach is off-kilter but charismatic, his handsome features loosened by drink. He’s quick to find humor, but struggles to hold onto a train of thought. Tyrrell is, in a word, fearsome. Her face sags as if weathered by rain, and for all her hoarse rants against mankind she maintains a sharp, determined wit behind wet eyes. Just as Nick and Nora drink to share in life’s pleasures, Tully and Oma are brought together by a mutual familiarity with hardship. Their version of flirting is to scream each other’s heads off, simply out of pure rage against the world around them. Tully only manages to win Oma over by smashing his head into a jukebox simply to demonstrate his capacity for pain. After just 10 minutes in each other’s company, they candidly admit that they are in love. Their unlikely romance is a reminder that to live drunk is to live in extremes, each emotion blown out of proportion by cheap beer and circumstance.
v. It’s you against the world
Depending on the time and place, getting drunk can be taboo or mandatory—one culture’s nightlife is another’s social blight. Therefore, drunk acting can always tell a story wider than mere individuals. Bruce Dern in Nebraska, quiet but stubborn, gets “Midwestern drunk.” Bragging Victor McLaglen in The Informer gets “Irish pub drunk,” buying drinks for other patrons with abandon. The cast of Superbad get “teenage drunk,” recalling excruciating memories for the rest of us. We inherit our drunkenness from the world around us, but it can still find ways to pit us against that very same world.
The British in particular love to drink, and have endless violent euphemisms for it: smashed, wasted, hammered, annihilated, etc. The World’s End (2013) is where British drinking culture meets the literal apocalypse. Addict Gary King (Simon Pegg) convinces four childhood friends to finish a pub-crawl from their adolescence, but halfway through they discover that their hometown has been taken over by aliens. To avoid getting annihilated for real, they decide to blend in. Of course, in the U.K., the best way to go unnoticed is to steadily down pints of beer. The gang get drunk as a survival method, and it ends up saving their skin: the authoritarian aliens set on controlling the world decide that a planet full of unruly drunks is just more trouble than it’s worth.
Pegg plays Gary as a single-minded nuisance, his desperate need for drink both motivating and undermining his charm. And though Gary’s drinking is clearly a problem, The World’s End paints its nation’s pub culture in affectionate terms. Getting drunk is an anti-authoritarian act, the quickest way to make oneself unmanageable. Despite the mess made along the way, the film finds virtue in this pastime that gives conformists a headache.
In the 1971 Australian thriller Wake in Fright, it is not the hero who is afflicted by alcoholism but rather an entire town. Middle-class schoolteacher John Grant gets stranded in the outback town Bundanyabba, and finds himself at the mercy of the macho, hard-drinking locals. Their brand of masculine camaraderie means that binge-drinking is a basic social nicety; Grant can hardly take a step without hearing, “Have a drink, mate?” If he turns down a glass of beer, he risks becoming a pariah. Donald Pleasence’s indigent town doctor explains that while his alcoholism meant exile from Sydney, it’s “scarcely noticeable” in Bundanyabba. There, beer is like water: if you don’t drink it, you’re in serious trouble.
This culminates in a nightmarish sequence where, after a couple of days’ drinking, Grant joins some men for a kangaroo hunt. The hunters are practically doused in beer, and their intoxication has unlocked a senseless thirst for blood. To film the sequence, the crew hired actual hunters to shoot the kangaroo. But they were drunk in real life too, and the hunt descended into something like what appears in the film: a wanton, sloppy bloodbath. This sheer force of violence, the film suggests, is the true cost of all that beer guzzled out in the dry desert. What happens to a society that runs on booze? There’s hardly a sober moment in Wake in Fright, simply because the town won’t tolerate it.
I took an interest in drunk acting when I was shooting my own short film, A Man You Don’t Meet Every Day, about an alcoholic who has one week to pay off a debt. Creating a solid drunk performance was one of the project’s more exciting challenges. I tracked down as many “drunk films” as I could get my hands on to figure out what might work. We ended up trying a few different approaches, including, for one scene, getting the actor drunk for real (for what it’s worth, this was the hardest scene to shoot but the best one to watch). Fortunately, I had a terrific crew and leading man, whose own expertise proved easily as valuable as any of my research.
Of course, these five maxims are arbitrary. My list of great drunk performances has not been exhaustive, nor has it looked at many worthy entries into the canon (these include Nil by Mouth, Withnail and I, Manchester by the Sea, The Shining, Harvey, Drunken Angel, Ironweed, and any number of W.C. Fields films). Most of these movie drunks are men, not only because cinema has historically been more interested in men than women, but also because it has painted men as drunk (i.e. tortured, brilliant, destructive, unbalanced), and women as their exasperated but supportive caretakers. This trope is just one that will be smashed by the movie drunks of the future.
Playing drunk is difficult, not least because it can be anything to anyone: loving, tragic, funny, destructive, deadly, painful, uplifting, sad. This is also why it’s powerful. One of the world’s most addictive drugs is also one of its most popular, so it’s no surprise to find it at the center of the drama we create for ourselves. For writers, actors and filmmakers, putting drink in a story offers a whole labyrinth of ways to get under our skins and figure out exactly who we are. It blows emotions up, and sends characters spiralling off into new directions without all that complicating sobriety in their way. It raises stakes, diminishes prospects, pushes pain and pleasure to extremes, and lets characters amplify their love or hate of one another. In short, it contains all the mess of life.