Given its timelessness as an addiction, alcoholism has long been an important plot device in fictional narratives. It is the perfect character flaw, as nothing engenders pathos and/or contempt quite like excessive drinking. And the operative word here is “excessive.” Whereas a glass of wine looks becoming in anyone’s hands, a bottle of whiskey, especially if it’s not being shared, does not. This simple dichotomy, of course, cannot encapsulate the range of emotions that an immoderate drinker can imbue viewers with. But in any case, pleasure and indulgence are part of the human condition, and seeing a fictional character plunge into the depths of debauchery is a visceral experience for audiences.
In film, alcoholics tend to be iniquitous or, at least, morally dubious characters, who threaten the safety or purity of a given narrative’s protagonist. For example, abusive parents—of course, it’s generally the father—always seem to have the taint of alcoholism, a stigma that hovers like a specter above all their actions. Far from absolving characters of their actions, the alcohol adds to their repugnance and repels the audience.
But alcoholism does not always need to serve as a repellent character trait. Precisely because of its prevalence as an addiction in the real world, audiences could empathize and even identify with alcoholics who have aberrated. In these cases, each drink of alcohol strengthens audiences’ affective link to the character. Abreast of the character, audiences taste the whisky, understand the lightheadedness, and fear the delirium tremens—not to mention the alcohol-induced bad decisions! The character’s fight to overcome alcoholism is thus an ennobling fight, a more harrowing one than any sort of martial battle.
In some narratives, a character’s immoderate drinking positions them in the role of the fool. Since Shakespeare’s Falstaff—perhaps the most notorious alcoholic of all time—the fool and drinking seem part and parcel. With these narratives, audiences are not supposed to think about the very real effects of alcohol, but laugh at the bumbling fool instead. When, for instance, Will Ferrell’s character breaks his wife’s no-drinking injunction in Old School, audiences know something outrageous is going to happen: streaking (anyone?)! Alcohol can thus bring a good deal of levity to narratives, if it’s leveraged in the right way.
This list looks at ten classic on-screen alcoholics. These sundry characters have little in common, except drinking of course. And the following characters are not caricatures; they are well-rounded, illustrating the vicissitudes of drinking—from the joyous, sensorial highs to the bleak, hopeless lows. Let us know who your favourite on-screen alcoholics are!
Played by Paul Giamatti, Miles is the central character in Paul Haggis’ 2004 film, Sideways. A deeply depressed man, Miles struggles with his alcoholism as he treats his former college roommate to a week in California’s wine country and eagerly waits to find out whether or not his novel will be published. As the narrative unfolds, audiences learn more and more about Miles’ life, which is full of regrets and unfulfilled goals. His alcoholism oscillates between endearing and repellant, as he speaks eloquently about wine in one scene and abuses it to the point of stumbling out of the bar in another. His now-famous paroxysm—“I will not drink any f*cking merlot!”—has ruined merlot for a generation of fledgling wine drinkers, but his many hardships make him an unforgettable character for empathetic audiences.
9 Jimmy Dugan—A League of Their Own
Played by Tom Hanks, Jimmy Dugan is one of the funniest alcoholics on this list, as his frequent tirades, induced either by alcohol or withdrawal, make him an indelible character. A former home-run-hitting star, Jimmy takes the job as the manager of an all-women’s baseball team in the 40s, as baseball has been cancelled while pro players fight in Europe. Jimmy is an obdurate man, and it takes him time to warm up to the idea of women playing baseball, a period in which he is constantly soused. In a memorable scene, Jimmy, clearly fighting the attendant effects of delirium tremens, tries desperately to hold himself back from rebuking one of his outfielders for making a bad play; he shakes effusively as he tries not to make her cry. What is uplifting about Jimmy is that, in the end, he seems to overcome his alcoholism.
8 Doughboy—Boyz N the Hood
The indomitable Ice Cube plays Doughboy in John Singleton’s classic film, Boyz N the Hood. In most scenes with Doughboy, he holds a 40 oz. of Olde E, and he spends the majority of his time sitting and drinking, and sitting and drinking. As his family’s wayward son, Doughboy counterpoises his brother, Ricky, who is the star athlete and has the chance of attending college on an athletic scholarship. His drinking helps illuminate one of the film’s central themes—that is, the social vortex that South Central can be and the underlying factors that contribute to making “the hood” a vortex. After the fatal penultimate scene, Doughboy seems to have a moment of clarity, as he points to the difficulty of growing up in the hood and maintaining one’s reputation; he symbolically pours liquor onto the ground, commemorating his dead brother.
7 Da Mayor—Do the Right Thing
Ossie Davis plays Da Mayor in Spike Lee’s magnum opus, Do the Right Thing. The neighbourhood lush, Da Mayor saunters about the streets on the hottest day of summer, soliciting kids to get him beers. The other patrons of his tight-knit Bed-Stuy community shout invectives at him, but he suffers it all and maintains a surprising amount of dignity, despite the constant disparagement. And like Shakespeare’s Falstaff, Da Mayor is full of wisdom; he says to the narrative’s central character, “Mookie, always do the right thing.” As the narrative unfolds, this simple and vague injunction becomes increasingly hard for Mookie to fulfill. That is to say, the “right thing” is not so clear for Mookie.
6 Ben Sanderson—Leaving Las Vegas
Played by Nicolas Cage, Ben Sanderson is the central character from Mike Figgis’ film, Leaving Las Vegas. Having parted ways with his wife, Ben comes to Las Vegas to drink himself to an early death. Unexpectedly for Ben, however, a prostitute saves him from his Kerouackian demise, and they form a sort of pact. Sera, the prostitute, allows Ben to move in with her, and she tries to get Ben clean. Conversely, Ben cannot overcome his wretched drinking problem, obdurately continuing to binge. His drinking imbues the audience with a good deal of pathos, as happiness always seems to lurk just over the proverbial horizon. In the end, Ben succumbs to drinking but he dies with Sera, a fitting, if tragic, end.
5 John Blutarsky—Animal House
Played by John Belushi, who, incidentally, was not merely acting for this role, John Blutarsky is the central character in John Landis’ Animal House, a film about obstreperous undergraduates who spend more time cavorting and carousing than studying. This film abounds in alcohol-induced mayhem, with Blutarsky in the midst of it all. A rowdy toga party and an ill-conceived road trip are the highlights from the film, and Blutarsky’s antics imbue viewers with both disgust and nostalgia for their lost undergraduate days. In any case, can Otis Day’s “Shout” be listened to in any other state than drunk?
4 Joe Clay—Days of Wine and Roses
Joe Clay, played by Jack Lemmon, and his wife are the central characters in Days of Wine and Roses, a narrative in which these characters’ drinking destroys their lives. Joe Clay starts out as a self-assured and deft PR guy, who can ostensibly arrange anything for anyone. One of the attendant duties of his job, however, is drinking, as he must drink in order to ingratiate himself with various people. Clay influences his wife to take up drinking with the same assiduity, and, as the narrative unfolds, their collective and untrammeled alcoholism does them in. The narrative, of course, illustrates the dangers of alcoholism and, as such, it is a visceral and cringe-inducing experience for viewers.
3 Doc Holliday—Tombstone
One of the most famous alcoholics from America’s Wild West, Doc Holliday is played by Val Kilmer in the severely underrated and underappreciated classic, Tombstone. With an ardent penchant for drinking, Doc constantly carouses in bars, but despite his drinking, he is still one of the best shots. Doc’s alcoholism is both funny and heart-wrenching, as he is sometimes whimsical and flighty and other times sick and sallow. One of his famous quotes—“I have not yet begun to defile myself”—illustrates viewers’ ambivalence, as he flippantly and tragically suggests he has more drinking to do. But despite his immoderate drinking, Doc is always true to Wyatt Earp.
2 Hank Chinaski—Factotum
Brent Hamerdir’s 2005 film, Factotum, is based on a Charles Bukowski novel, in which Bukowski sheds light on his own problems with drinking through his character and alter-ego, Hank Chinaski. Matt Dillon plays Chinaski, and he does a superb job of conveying the various facets of a man who struggles with alcoholism. Like Days of Wine and Roses, this film portrays the brutal truths of drinking. Indeed, if anyone wants a film that depicts such a struggle, this one is a good start.
1 The Dude—The Big Lebowski
Some readers might scratch their heads at this one, but, let’s be honest, anyone who starts each and every day with a White Russian is an alcoholic. Played by Jeff Bridges, the Dude—or, to be exact, the other Mr. Lebowski—is the central character in the Coen brothers’ classic, The Big Lebowski. His insouciant attitude endears him to audiences, especially with his friend Walter’s high-strung persona counterpoising him throughout. The film is lighthearted, so drinking in this film only serves to amplify the playfulness. Careful, though—those nihilists pack a heavy punch…and a ferret!