Days of Wine and Roses conjures many unique feelings in audiences and there are even more for true movie lovers. Here is what happens when you watch this film; you expect to see a drama but the movie starts with a pure comedy (like almost every time that you see a movie staring Jack Lemmon), then JP Miller (the writer) starts pouring some elements of romance into your cup and before you can be satisfied with any of them you realize that the story is more serious than you thought. And finally you will end up with a rare resolution; probably the one that you hoped would never happen.
Directed by Blake Edwards (The Pink Panther, Blind Date, Skin Deep) who had shown a special interest in the theme of alcohol abuse in his films, Days of Wine and Roses tells the story of a middle class Public Relations executive Joe Clay (Jack Lemmon) who meets a beautiful, proud and teetotaler secretary Kirsten (Lee Remick) and introduces her to social drinking, starting with a crème de cacao-based cocktail; Brandy Alexander.
Joe marries Kirsten quickly, before even letting the viewer invest in their romantic relationship. But the real story begins as Joe introduces Kirsten to their third partner in the threesome, booze. They quickly go from two moderate drinkers to full-blown alcoholism while their daughter Debbie is growing up. Life becomes even tougher when Joe sent to out of town business (due his poor performance) and Kirsten sets their apartment on fire while drunk, almost killing herself and Debbie.
One day, Joe looks at his reflection in the Union Square Bar’s window while going in for a drink. He goes back home and says to Kirsten; “…I saw myself, my reflection in the window, and I thought, ‘I wonder who that bum is.’ And then I saw it was me.”
As one watches Days of Wine and Roses, the story becomes more tense every minute, the characters change drastically over the time and the pace of the movie in general, accelerates. The brilliant and selfless acting of the two leads and the truthfulness of their characters undesirably draws you into a situation that you feel sympathy for them, concerned about their problem and worried about their love.
Towards the end of the film, Joe decides to try to beat his addiction with the help of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and especially a dedicated volunteer Jim Hungerford (Jack Klugman) who warns him that he should stay sober even if means to stay away from his wife. Here’s an extremely tough decision for Joe to make, who is directly responsible for his wife’s becoming a drinker and eventual alcoholism.
“Now look at me. I’m a bum. Look at me! Look at you. You’re a bum. Look at you. And look at us. Look at us. C’mon, look at us! See? A couple of bums.”
In an interview many years later, Lemmon recounts the first time he heard the song “The Days of Wine and Roses”. During the filming of a complicated scene, Edwards called for lunch, then motioned to Lemmon and Remick to follow. “ (It was) one of my all time favorite moments in my entire career” as Lemmon remembers during an interview. They walked into another empty stage along with the composer Henry Mancini and the poet Johnny Mercer. “… and Hank (Mancini) hit the first chord and Johnny started to sing, The Days…” Lemmon breaks down in tears all these years later, suggesting the emotional experience he had more than forty years before the interview still has a deep impact. This song brought Mancini and Mercer the Best Original Song Oscar at 35th Academy Awards in 1963.
To protect the quality and coherence of the story, Edwards decided to shoot the scenes in the same order as they appear in the script which was (and still is) an insane way of producing a film due to the increased expenses and production time. Lemmon also traveled to Europe after completion of filming to prevent any changes in storyline that might be requested and forced by the studios. But personalizing the project for actors and filmmakers and their very intimate artistic vision about the film didn’t stop there. In fact, Days of Wine and Roses had such an impact on the artists’ lives that it took a year after completing the film for the director and even longer for the actors to become non-drinkers and gradually come back to their normal life. I will never forget Jack Lemmon’s face when he appears on the film’s trailer to invite audiences to watch the film (and it was the only time that he did it in his over 50 year career) and I never forget the man that I saw was not Lemmon but Joe Clay; a heavy drinker, concerned husband and a selfish lover.
Days of Wine and Roses is not an easy movie to watch but definitely is an essential drama of our time. It’s worth it to take time, sit back and let the storytellers surprise you with their generosity in sacrificing themselves to live up their characters.
By Ramin Fateh