A Brief History of Drinking in the Movies


Whether the intention is to trivialize or tragedize, the cinema has always had a fondness for drinkers. Perhaps there’s something appealing about a pastime that’s habit-forming, an activity as readily romanticized as it is made self-destructive, and perhaps the movies are uniquely suited to drawing out the best and worst qualities of those who deign to imbibe.

This weekend sees the release of Ken Loach’s “The Angels’ Share" (our review),  a light-touch drama about a reformed criminal learning to sharpen his palette for whiskey tasting. The film employs alcohol as both an activity to be savoured by sophisticated connoisseurs and, more intriguingly, a somehow noble pursuit through which a troubled young man may be redeemed.

Alcohol has often figured heavily in films both comic and dramatic, traditionally regarded as either central to a night of celebration or catalyst for a descent into addiction and despair. What’s interesting is not only how wildly varied these representations tend to be—the tone of the drinking sometimes changing, as it were, even within the span of a single film—but also how well the cinema supports so many different, and in fact often opposing, approaches to alcohol and the culture that surrounds it. With that in mind, we’ve put together a list of films whose respective portrayals of alcohol offer an assortment of differing intentions and results.

"The Thin Man" (1934)

Nick and Nora Charles remain among the more insouciant of casual drunks, and on a bad day they’re easily the most charming. The “Thin Man” series finds its married detective heroes fighting crime with a touch of both wit and indifference, collecting cocktails as often as clues, trading barbs between rounds on the case or at the bar. Here alcohol functions as a kind of high-class social lubricant, the free-flowing spirits lending every act an atmosphere of perpetual celebration.

"Withnail & I" (1987)

In Bruce Robinson’s darkly comic cult classic “Withnail & I”, getting drunk means drinking not just anything but everything: wine, cider, gin, sherry, whiskey, ale, and, when desperate, a few quick chugs of lighter fluid. “Withnail” presents a bit of an odd case in terms of representation: though it uses excessive drinking as a central comic motif—the lengths these chaps go to for a pint is the never-ending punchline—the film itself is distinctly tinged with sadness, and the melancholic dimension of the material is ultimately its most interesting.

Whether the film goes so far as to therefore critique its own indulgences is harder to say, if only because the drinking itself is played up and relished so thoroughly, but in any case one isn’t likely to walk away from “Withnail” feeling particularly enthusiastic about prospective alcoholism.

"Distant Voices, Still Lives" (1988)

Terence Davies has long been the preeminent chronicler of working class Britain, and a central component of the milieu is the local public house, a place for which Davies betrays an intimate knowledge and fond affection. Much of his masterpiece, his poetic period drama about 1940s Liverpool, takes place in and around the neighborhood pub, and the liberal consumption of ale that happens therein is regarded by the film as both personal crutch and social comfort. Like the songs sung en masse throughout, these largely impoverished Britons indulge in the drink as a matter of tradition, unified as a group through a shared love of a beer’s promise of relief.

"Leaving Las Vegas" (1995)

Clearly not the first or even necessarily the best film about hardcore alcoholism, Mike Figgis’ “Leaving Las Vegas” is nevertheless far and away the most iconic, and it remains an ideal template for sordid downfall narratives. The film’s enduring virtue—more than even Nicolas Cage’s revelatory turn, perhaps—is that it treats alcohol not as a looming vice that must be valiantly resisted but, more audaciously, as an entirely naturalized constant. What’s scary here isn’t that Cage is brazenly drinking himself to death (a goal he announces in the first act), but that he’s so deeply resigned to the trajectory, intent on following through because he believes, maybe correctly, that he has no choice.

"The Hangover" (2009)

The novelty of “The Hangover” is that it’s a drinking movie in which we don’t see anybody drink. Structured like a hazy morning-after, the film is all about piecing together a night of revelry nobody quite remembers, though over the course of 90 minutes the wreckage left in the evening’s wake proves that debauchery was indeed had. In many ways “The Hangover” is the most noxious representation of alcohol in modern cinema: it presents drinking as the source of wacky adventures and grotesque misanthropy, the consequences not overlooked but actually embellished. It’s hardly surprising that a film that openly endorses homophobia, misogyny and ableism would also trivialize heavy drinking, but that it’s expecting doesn’t make it any less idiotic.

"HaHaHa" (2010)

Alcohol is as essential to a Hong Sang-soo film as Christ was to Renaissance painting (or wheat fields are to Terrence Malick), and there’s perhaps no director working today with more to say on the subject of drinking. For Hong, the soju bar is a place for conversation, revelations, and above all reflection; it’s typical in his films for characters to simply sit and talk, or sit and listen, as each drink changes the precise tenor of the situation. Those are changes to which Hong seems uniquely attuned: in one of his best films to date, “HaHaHa”, even memories are affected by the drinks that fuel them, beautifully expressed in a framing device that finds two friends telling the same story in very different ways.