The intriguingly bizarre premise of Colossal – to be released on May 19 in the UK – follows a young alcoholic played by Anne Hathaway and her seeming control over a Kaiju destroying Seoul. If reviews of its US release are anything to go by, Colossal deals in both comedy and drama through its fantastical, alcohol-driven monster premise. To prepare for this exciting release, an exploration of outstanding performances of drunkenness throughout cinematic history is merited – from the hilariously tipsy to the staggeringly dramatic, all offering a unique take on one of the blurrier human experiences.
Ronald Colman in A Tale of Two Cities (1935)
Many aspects of this film – such as the title cards’ sloppy exposition, the hammy villains, and the audio quality – have not aged very well. Colman’s performance as alcoholic lawyer Sydney Carton is a notable exception. Carton is a loquacious, cynical drunk prone to philosophical ramblings and harmless to all but himself; in less skilful hands, he could become a parody of a lost romantic. Colman’s mastery, honesty, and lack of period drama affectations keeps this Dickensian character from weak sentimentality – instead, he becomes wholly recognisable, compelling, and tragic as a man with no self-pity yet a clear sense of what his life has lost.
Paul Newman in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958)
As Brick Pollitt, Newman barely speaks during his first scene on camera. The silence is filled by his wife Maggie (Elizabeth Taylor) chatting, cajoling, and never capitulating to his demands for peace and quiet. Brick is one of the most functional alcoholics on the list, brooding as he drinks away his days and not engaging in the all-out binges or chaos seen below. While censorship keeps Brick’s motivation for drink a bit more mysterious than in Tennessee Williams’ original play, Newman’s stoicism and discomfort around the mention of “Skipper” are perfectly measured to hint at unresolved conflict and emotion. Disregarding subtext, however, Brick’s paralysis and then domestic explosion fit the tone of the claustrophobic family drama exceptionally well.
Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)
As in Hollywood lore, it is impossible to separate the occasional real-life couple in their performances as husband and wife George and Martha in this monumental adaptation. The two cinema legends are given little chance for subtlety, but the histrionics fed by their chemistry and ability to get under the other’s skin are terrifying gut-wrenching in their fervour. As the second alcoholic (screen) husband Taylor has fought with in this article alone, Burton is the more subdued of the pair, trying to calculate the damage he inflicts but catastrophically failing due to his inebriation. Taylor mesmerises in her own drunk performance, angrily blasting her way through the ill-fated dinner party with an intoxicated (and intoxicating) lack of self-awareness. This is arguably the peak of Burton’s and Taylor’s respective careers.
Nicolas Cage, Leaving Las Vegas (1995)
One of the darker films on this list, Mike Figgis’ film – adapted from John O’Brien’s semi-autobiographical novel of the same name – follows a man intent to die by drink after his addiction loses him family, friends, and career. Cage may be the butt of many internet jokes now, but before such nonsense caught up to him he proved himself a force to be reckoned with. The world of Leaving Las Vegas is a remarkably cruel one; Cage masterfully makes the isolation, despair, and craving for release palpable but never overstated; were his performance in a less brutal setting, it would most likely still seem completely realistic – quite a feat of acting.
Billy Bob Thornton in Bad Santa (2003)
While the film’s vulgarity and darkness may not be for every viewer, Bad Santa is a rollicking holiday treat for the less saintly among us. Thornton excels at intense and unusual characters, and an addict thief masquerading as a mall Santa fits perfectly. Willie is a hilariously hateable antihero who captures the audience’s attentions and affections before he takes the lonely, naive Thurman under his wing. The ensuing hijinks – while crazy – are grounded by Thornton’s injection of self-loathing, bitter honesty, and other all-too-familiar states of being, whether alcohol-driven or not. Additionally, this quasi-parental relationship adds another human dimension to Willie; in this light, he becomes a cinematic precursor to beloved TV alcoholics like BoJack Horseman, and Rick and Morty’s Rick.
Jeff Bridges in True Grit (2010)
As Rooster Cogburn, Bridges communicates largely in mumbles, grunts, and silent stares throughout the Coen brothers’ revisionist Western. This, however, is sufficient to convey both inebriation and the steely, detached, often cruel man behind the haze. His emotionless underplaying of intoxication – notably in his opening appearances – set the tone for character and story, as the audience holds its breath for the man underneath to surface. In direct contrast to Bad Santa’s Willie, Cogburn’s drink keeps him emotionally distant and detached from the other characters, upending the assumption that he should become a “father figure” to Mattie (Hailee Steinfeld) and developing a complex, mutually distrustful yet respectful relationship.
True Grit is one of many outstanding inebriated performances Bridges has given throughout his career; see also The Big Lebowski (White Russian, anyone?) or his soulful, Oscar-winning, turn in Crazy Heart. Additionally, for more drunken fun in the Old West, check out John Wayne in the 1969 True Grit – his only Oscar-winning performance. While stylistically much different than Bridges to fit a much lighter adaptation, it is equally convincing.
Denzel Washington in Flight (2012)
For all its promise – the Oscar-winning director of Forrest Gump and Back to the Future uniting with the Oscar-winning star of Glory and Training Day to tell a harrowing true story – Flight fails to soar due to clunky pacing in the second and third acts. Washington’s performance, however, is not to fault here. He balances pilot Whip Whitaker’s stoic heroism with some tremendous, disastrous drunken outbursts in a performance which compels and repels in equal measure. Placed in a better film, the unflinching honesty with which Washington imbues his character and actions would possibly have created one of this century’s best cinematic antiheroes.
Mary Elizabeth Winstead in Smashed (2012)
A film exploring two alcoholics’ relationship is not going to be a joyride, but the strange honesty of James Ponsoldt’s film brings a sparkle to its characters and their journeys. Winstead never overplays any of the almost-unbelievable things protagonist Kate does to keep her addiction fed and hidden; neither does she shy from the reluctance, confusion, and embarrassment Kate experiences on her bumpy road to recovery. Her emotionally generous and intelligent performance shines through from the film’s opening scenes – vomit-filled as they are – and even in her interactions with less well-rounded characters and moderately contrived scenarios.
Emily Blunt in The Girl on the Train (2016)
Along with Flight, the recent Paula Hawkins adaptation is one of the weaker films on this list due to its bad script and lack of dramatic tension. Blunt is a happy exception, showing alcoholism’s effect on protagonist Rachel’s jobs, relationships, and self-esteem in a completely unglamorous way. While the plot’s third act reveals that many memories of ill behaviour have been fibs told to her after her blackouts, the fear, isolation, and anxiety brought about by her addiction is clearly delineated in Blunt’s masterful performance. Her drunk acting is subdued, fitting Rachel’s long-held habits, and the submission with which she acknowledges other characters’ discomfort around her is genuinely moving.