Days of Wine and Roses: When the Party’s Over

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  • Post last modified:September 13, 2020
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When making this film, director Blake Edwards and actors Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick were still drinking. Edwards has described himself and Lemmon as ”heavy drinkers” during the shoot. In 1963, the director gave up alcohol and was eventually followed by Lemmon and Remick who both sought help from Alcoholics Anonymous. That’s ironic, you might say. Alongside The Lost Weekend (1945), Days of Wine and Roses has had a unique impact when it comes to this particular illness on screen.

Seduced by a Brandy Alexander
When we meet Joe Clay (Lemmon) the first time, he’s working as a public relations executive in San Francisco. The first time he runs into Kirsten Arnesen (Remick), a secretary, he makes a clumsy mistake but their relationship improves. Joe is used to having alcohol as a social lubricant and is stunned to learn that Kirsten doesn’t drink. She does however love chocolate. After buying her a Brandy Alexander, which she loves, Kirsten is hooked. The couple starts dating and after getting approval (reluctantly) from her stern father (Charles Bickford), they marry and have a daughter.

This is when things begin to go south for the Clays. Joe isn’t performing like he used to at work and is demoted, sent off to Houston to work on a less important account; that only makes him perform even worse. Kirsten is staying at home with their child, but her drinking has become much more frequent. The day she accidentally sets the apartment on fire is the day when it all comes apart.

Originally a teleplay
The script by J.P. Miller was originally a teleplay written for the anthology series Playhouse 90 (1956-1960); the episode aired in 1958, directed by John Frankenheimer, starring Cliff Robertson and Piper Laurie. The only actor to join the cinematic adaptation was Bickford as Kirsten’s Norwegian father. When the time came to make the movie, Lemmon was hired as star and he made sure that Edwards was brought on board.

The choices were initially criticized; the TV production was lauded, but the hiring of Edwards and Lemmon obviously meant that some degree of humor would be added. As far as I’m concerned, this is not something that hurts the film. There’s a bittersweet touch to it, especially in Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer’s beautiful, glamorous title tune, a theme that finds its way into the film at the right poignant moments, reminding us of the Ernest Dowson poem that inspired it, telling us that the days of wine and roses are not long and sooner than we wish we step out of a misty dream into the dark reality. Now there’s a hangover for you. Lemmon hits the right note in the beginning of the film as the charming and funny PR executive who knows how to party. The audience needs to understand the initial allure of alcohol and his way of life before everything goes wrong.

Lemmon gives a tour-de-force performance throughout the film, but Remick soon catches up with him. As Joe reaches a point when he’s susceptible to AA, but Kirsten really isn’t (she can quit at any time, she reckons, and besides, the world is too ugly without booze), Remick is the one who catches our attention. There are unremittingly dark scenes in the film, including the finale, which the studio unsurprisingly fought to change; fortunately, that attempt failed and the scene is haunting.

Phil Lathrop’s cinematography plays an important part in that, lending a somber touch to Joe and Kirsten’s world. Reflected by not only the actors but also the dialogue, their love affair is touching and feels grounded. Edwards and Lemmon knew that a sense of humor wouldn’t take the sting out of it. 

Days of Wine and Roses 1962-U.S. 117 min. B/W. Produced by Martin Manulis. Directed by Blake Edwards. Screenplay: J.P. Miller. Cinemtography: Philip Lathrop. Music: Henry Mancini. Song: ”Days of Wine and Roses” (Henry Mancini, Johnny Mercer). Cast: Jack Lemmon (Joe Clay), Lee Remick (Kirsten Arnesen), Charles Bickford (Ellis Arnesen), Jack Klugman, Alan Hewitt, Tom Palmer… Jack Albertson.

Trivia: Later a stage play.

Oscar: Best Original Song. 

Quote: “You remember how it really was? You and me and booze – a threesome. You and I were a couple of drunks on the sea of booze, and the boat sank. I got hold of something that kept me from going under, and I’m not going to let go of it. Not for you. Not for anyone. If you want to grab on, grab on. But there’s just room for you and me – no threesome.” (Lemmon to Remick)

Last word: “I felt a curious sense of relief and I couldn’t figure out why for about a week or two… Then I realized it was because I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to get enough of that part, to play it well enough, to satisfy myself, let alone audiences. It was a great lesson, because from then on, whenever I have turned down a script I’ve made sure the reason was not just a conflict, or this and that, but rather that I wasn’t afraid to play the part.” (Lemmon on the fact that at one point it looked like the movie wasn’t going to get made, Archive of American Television)



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