Moments of clarity: 23 scenes of characters reaching rock bottom

Moments of clarity: 23 scenes of characters reaching rock bottom

Warning: As this Inventory deals with some highly dramatic moments, each entry contains spoilers.

1. Weeping in a wrecked greenhouse, Days Of Wine And Roses (1962)
There often isn’t a lot of dignity in addiction stories, which tend to put protagonists through the wringer. But Jack Lemmon takes lack of dignity to new depths in the alcoholism drama Days Of Wine And Roses, where he bottoms out in such a dramatic way, he earned himself a Best Actor nomination. Lemmon plays a boozehound who falls for teetotaler Lee Remick (also Oscar-nominated for the film), then gradually lures and badgers her into drinking with him so he won’t feel so guilty about imbibing. Soon, they’re self-destructive drunks together, to the point where he loses his job and she burns down their apartment. Her father takes them in and keeps them on the straight and narrow for a while, but one night, they sneak some alcohol into their room and get shit-faced. Lemmon goes out to his father-in-law’s greenhouse to find another bottle he’d hid there on the sly, but in his drunken state, he can’t remember where he left it, and he winds up wrecking the entire greenhouse looking for it, while working himself up into a histrionic state of howling and weeping. When he finally finds it, he drinks enough of it in a go to put any lesser man into a coma, then passes out cuddling it. Embarrassing enough to completely lose emotional control over a missing flask, but in the process, Lemmon betrays the father-in-law who was struggling to help and trust him, he reveals that his drinking isn’t about a simple sip here or there to take the edge off, and he selfishly abandons his wife, who was also pretty desperate for another drink, but didn’t even have any greenhouses to destroy to get her fair share.

2. Sandra Bullock needs a cake, 28 Days (2000)
Most movies in which characters find their personal lows save the bottoming out for the climax. Not so in 28 Days, a film that sends Sandra Bullock to rehab for the titular stretch shortly after the credits. The opening sequence makes it seem like the best place for her. Sloshed at her sister’s wedding, Bullock falls onto the cake (in slow motion, no less), then crashes a stolen limo while talking on a cell phone trying to arrange a replacement cake. The film then packs her off to spend some time thinking about what she’s done, sometimes to the accompaniment of songs by Loudon Wainwright III, who plays another patient.

3. The dead friend wake-up call, Drugstore Cowboy (1989)
Gus Van Sant’s first widely seen feature stars Matt Dillon as an unrepentant 26-year-old “drug fiend” in Portland who runs a crew consisting of his wife (Kelly Lynch) and a younger couple (James LeGros and Heather Graham). Their life consists of plotting raids on pharmacies and getting high; Dillon says he needs to stay high to deal with the hassles of life, such as “having to tie your shoes.” He knows he has to change when, during a trip to the country, he and Lynch and LeGros come back to their motel room and find that Graham has ODed and is lying across the bed with her Bambi eyes open, her plush lips puckered, and her face turning a Smurfish color. Dillon promises God that he’ll reform as he’s burying her body in the woods, having spirited it out of the room past a parking lot full of cops who are in town for a convention.

4. The dead wife wake-up call, The People Vs. Larry Flynt (1996)
This biopic about the publisher of Hustler and his various courtroom battles with the forces of oppression turns into a series of trips in and out of rehab and the psych ward after Flynt (Woody Harrelson) is partially paralyzed by a sniper’s bullet and his wife Althea (Courtney Love) contracts AIDS and becomes addicted to prescription painkillers. The title of the movie refers not to any particular legal case but the politically motivated religious hypocrites arrayed against Flynt, notably Jerry Falwell and the anti-smut crusader turned savings and loan swindler Charles Keating. When Harrelson is drugged out and depressed, it looks as if these scoundrels will carry the day. Luckily for the Constitution, he finds Love dead of an overdose in the bathtub, a shocking wake-up call that motivates him to quit his crying and honor her memory the best way he can: by rousing his lawyer (Edward Norton) and informing him that they’re taking their latest challenge against Falwell all the way to the Supreme Court.

5. Oh hey, where did that kid go?, Crazy Heart (2009)
The alcoholism drama in Crazy Heart stays small and personal; when former country-music star Jeff Bridges drunkenly drives off the road and wakes up in the hospital, it isn’t a big, explosive moment so much as a squirm-inducing, wretched one. It also doesn’t have much impact on him, apart from the literal, physical one. But later, while dating divorced mom Maggie Gyllenhaal and getting to know and like her 4-year-old son, Bridges tones down his drinking and starts to get control of his life, to the point where Gyllenhaal trusts him to babysit for a day. Unfortunately, while at a mall with the boy, Bridges spies a tacky bar, where he steps in for just a minute. It’s unclear how long he stays or how drunk he gets, but it doesn’t matter; he’s distracted, the boy wanders off, and Bridges has to bring mall security into play. Sitting in a waiting room with Gyllenhaal pouring invective on him, as they contemplate the worst possible outcomes and all her fragile trust in him goes up in smoke, Bridges faces the possible consequences of his addiction in a way he didn’t when only his own safety was at stake. And while Gyllenhaal leaves him for good—the sort of admirably firm, sensible decision romantic interests in movies rarely make—it prompts him to commit to kicking his alcoholism.

6. James Mason upstages Judy Garland at the Oscars, A Star Is Born (1954)
This epic musical remake of the 1937 original stars Judy Garland as the rising star whose career outpaces that of her famous, hard-drinking movie-star husband (James Mason). Mason hits bottom when his wife is presented with the Academy Award at a time when he himself can’t get a job; he jumps onstage as she’s accepting her prize and makes a drunken speech, sardonically begging the assembled Hollywood power brokers to take a chance on him again. He puts a cherry on it by swinging his arms out in a dramatic gesture and accidentally smacking Garland in the kisser. Mortified by this public humiliation, he agrees to enter a sanitarium and dry out. There’s no easy fix for his career troubles, though, and as anyone who’s familiar with any version of this story knows, he eventually settles on a more permanent solution to his woes.

7. Kris Kristofferson upstages Barbra Streisand at the Grammys, A Star Is Born (1976)
Frank Pierson’s 1976 remake of A Star Is Born traces the same iconic arc as its infinitely superior predecessors, following a young ingénue who rockets to superstardom at the same time her stormy, alcoholic mentor’s previously charmed career starts to crash. In A Star Is Born, Kris Kristofferson’s impeccably shaggy troubadour bottoms out in a bleary alcoholic haze during protégé Barbra Streisand’s acceptance speech at the Grammys. Streisand fears the unreliable and self-destructive Kristofferson will miss her big moment entirely, but he shows up all right, completely sloshed, stumbling erratically, and yelling loudly to Streisand onstage as she tries and fails to hide her obvious mortification. Streisand tries to salvage the moment by thanking Kristofferson for all he’s done for her career, but he wanders onstage and begins sarcastically demanding an award for “worst performance” to bookend Streisand’s award for best performance. “I want it! So where the fuck is it? Let me see the worst thing that you got to offer for the worst I got to offer!” he yells belligerently from the stage, adding, as a nonsensical postscript, “Would you like me to rub salt in your ass?” It’s a hammy, humiliating public nadir that suggests it might behoove Kristofferson to lay off the sauce for a while and maybe take a long nap or two.  

8. Michael Keaton calls home, Clean And Sober (1988)
Michael Keaton gives perhaps his best dramatic performance in this feature-length testimonial to the tough-love virtues of rehab. Keaton plays a real-estate salesman who wakes up one morning next to a dead woman, which for a while looks to be the best his day is going to get. She has overdosed on cocaine he gave her, which he bought with some of the $92,000 he has embezzled from his company to support his habit. With his bosses wising up and the police closing in, he decides to buy time by seeking temporary sanctuary in an anonymous drug rehabilitation program, though it never occurs to him that anyone in need of such a plan might be a legitimate candidate for an intervention. Keaton himself doesn’t begin to realize that he’s in too deep until he storms out of the program, sneaks into his office after closing hours, and makes a late-night phone call to his parents to ask them to take out a second mortgage on their home so they can give him $30,000. (“Do you remember last year when you and Dad went to Fort Wayne and had the will drawn up? Were you gonna leave me anything in that?… Ma, stop crying, would you?”) Then, after his mother hangs up on him, he raises his head and sees how the cleaning woman is looking at him.

9. Richard Jenkins doesn’t run over his son (but could have), Eat Pray Love (2010)
This adaptation of Elizabeth Gilbert’s bestselling memoir stars Julia Roberts as a woman who has to learn to travel unfamiliar roads, explore her spiritual side, and embrace her (non-existent) “muffin top.” At an ashram in India, she meets Richard Jenkins, a middle-aged dropout from Texas who helps guide her toward enlightenment. Jenkins’ big scene is a monologue in which he talks about his former life, and how he “lost everything—my pride, my job, my family,” after he fell into a pattern of “too much alcohol, too many drugs, too much mindless cheating.” The last straw came when he “stopped off at a bar to get shit-faced” after work, got into the car to drive home, and “just roared into that driveway, and I didn’t see my little boy” playing there. After everyone in the theater has thought, “Oh my God!” he says that, thankfully, nothing happened—“He was used to getting out of the way when I was around”—but the next day, his wife took their son and left while he was still asleep. Jenkins does wonders with the speech. It’s probably as memorable a scene of a man talking about how he didn’t accidentally kill his child (and barely noticed at the time) as anyone can imagine.

10. The long stare, Boogie Nights (1997)
The last act of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights almost plays like an attempt to see just how low it can send Dirk Diggler, the porn-star protagonist played by Mark Wahlberg, as his drug addiction introduces him to new avenues of degradation. After resorting to male prostitution and subsequently getting beaten up by some homophobic thugs, Wahlberg sinks lower still by getting involved in an attempt to scam a wealthy, and well-armed, dealer. In one of the film’s most extraordinary moments, Wahlberg sits dead-eyed as hits of the early ’80s play around him on his would-be target’s new tape deck, providing a reminder that the era of his disco glory days has long since past. Is it Rick Springfield’s “Jessie’s Girl” that makes him go dead-eyed as he waits for the deal to go down? His drug habit? Wahlberg plays the moment so perfectly it’s almost as if he’s not thinking at all. But even if his character doesn’t realize he’s fallen as far as he can fall, that look in his eyes clues in viewers. And then, somehow, things get worse.

11. Rent’s due, Kingpin (1996)
The Farrelly brothers’ parody of go-for-it films stars Woody Harrelson as Roy Munson, a once-promising bowling prodigy who has become a broken-down, embittered wreck with a prosthetic hand. (He’s sunk so low that, in the movie’s universe, “Munson” has become a slang term for a choke artist and loser.) Harrelson thinks he’s found the secret to his salvation when he encounters Randy Quaid, an Amish lad he can mentor to bowling greatness. But Harrelson has been mired in apathy for so long that he doesn’t commit to his new project until he’s forced to exchange sex with his grotesque landlady (Farrelly regular Lin Shaye) in exchange for the overdue rent, a transaction that sets even this hardened alcoholic to hugging the toilet.

12. A visit from a dead best friend, Arthur 2: On The Rocks (1988)
While Arthur Bach (Dudley Moore) held onto his fortune in 1981’s Arthur, in spite of choosing Liza Minnelli over Jill Eikenberry, he loses it all in Arthur 2 when Eikenberry’s father (Stephen Elliott) buys a controlling stake in Bach’s company and gives Moore an ultimatum: Return to Eikenberry, or lose all his money. Not only does Moore lose the money, but also Minnelli, and thus winds up on the street. The original Arthur focuses on Moore’s long road to maturity, catalyzed by the death of his butler/keeper/best friend, Hobson (John Gielgud). When the sequel needs Gielgud to set Moore straight again, he reappears as a booze-induced hallucination while Moore drunkenly wanders the streets during the holidays (the season for Personal Epiphanies). “Is this a dream?” Moore asks. “A dream?” Hobson responds. “Perhaps. My money would be on a drunken stupor.” As he did in life, Gielgud quickly cuts Moore down to size. “I’ve had my eye on you, Arthur. You can’t imagine how proud I’ve been, watching you rooting through garbage cans, searching out discarded McNugget boxes. If projectile vomiting ever becomes an Olympic event, you will do your country proud.” Shaken by Gielgud’s words—and maybe the fact that he’s homeless and full-on hallucinating—Moore sobers up and hatches a plan to turn the tables on Elliott.

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13. Paying off a drug tab the hard way, Less Than Zero (1987)
At the height of the Reagan-era War On Drugs, director Marek Kanievska was assigned the job of turning Bret Easton Ellis’ morally neutered slice of lowlife into a shrill, hysterical Just Say No pamphlet. In a piece of casting that didn’t seem excessively on the nose at the time, Robert Downey Jr. plays the super-wasted best friend of the hero (Andrew McCarthy), who serves as a big-time cautionary example. After his rich family cuts him off, Downey runs up a $50,000 tab with drug dealer James Spader, who forces him into homosexual prostitution to work off the debt. This proves too much even for Downey, and after escaping Spader’s clutches, he’s sufficiently humbled to beg his father for forgiveness and help in getting clean. It’s too late, though. Spader pulls him back into his web, and after McCarthy rescues him, Downey dies, presumably from shame.

14. A gay tryst, Shame (2011)
The controversy over Steve McQueen’s NC-17 portrait of sex addiction began with the very idea that sex addiction actually exists—and even those who could accept the premise found many landmines ahead. Throughout Shame, Michael Fassbender’s insatiable sex addict tries to fight his compulsions, tossing out his porn-choked hard drive and video collection and attempting to apply his considerable charm to a normal romantic relationship with a co-worker. His efforts are undermined by the reappearance of his equally self-destructive sister (Carey Mulligan) in his life and a major setback that reveals the extent of his emotional remoteness. When events lead him back into reckless bingeing, Fassbender gets kicked out of a nightclub for brazenly propositioning another man’s girlfriend, which then leads him across the street to a gay bar, where he scratches that persistent itch in the back room with another man. McQueen’s point: Sexual omnivores aren’t inclined to distinguish between one kind of sex or another, just so long as they get off. His detractors: Gay sex shouldn’t be depicted as the ultimate indignity. 

15. You can’t sell a typewriter on Yom Kippur, The Lost Weekend (1945)
The Oscar-winning Best Picture of 1945 stars Ray Milland as a New Yorker from a good family who has become a blackout alcoholic. Over the course of one weekend, he ends up in the “Hangover Plaza” ward at Bellevue, breaks out, and returns home, where he suffers from hallucinations involving mice in the wall and a bat on loan from an Ed Wood-Bela Lugosi movie. It may sound like a worthy drag, but the director, Billy Wilder, and his co-writer and producer, Charles Brackett, were the closest thing to black-comedy specialists on the Hollywood A-list in the ’40s, and there are times when they seem to be openly laughing at their suffering hero. They’re not even above indulging in a little ethnic humor at his expense. The character’s final meltdown is triggered when Milland, who says that he drinks in the hope that it’ll help him become a great writer, staggers all along Third Avenue in Manhattan lugging his typewriter, hoping to pawn it so he can get the money he needs for another bottle. But all the pawnshops are mysteriously closed. He finally asks a passerby what the hell is going on and is told that he’ll never find a pawnshop that’s open today. It’s Yom Kippur.

16. Taking the baby shopping for drugs, Permanent Midnight (1998)
Ben Stiller plays Jerry Stahl in this film version of Stahl’s account of how his success as a TV writer went hand-in-hand with a burgeoning drug habit. As he bounces from job to job and show to show, while going from heroin to methadone to crack to Dilaudid, the stress takes a toll on his relationship with his wife (Elizabeth Hurley), whom he gets pregnant after marrying her so she can obtain a green card. Showing up at the hospital to attend the birth of the child while high proves a poor omen for both the marriage and his prospects as a father, though the desire to be a part of his daughter’s life provides his best motivation to clean up. He isn’t as ready as he thinks he is, though, and having agreed to babysit, he is arrested while driving around bad neighborhoods, high as a kite and looking to get higher, with the baby in the car. That shuts Stahl out for the Father Of The Year award, but it gives him a killer story to use during his post-rehab book tour.

17. Dead ceiling-babies and subsequent disconnect, Trainspotting (1996)
Ewan McGregor has a number of notable low points in Danny Boyle’s stylish heroin-addiction drama Trainspotting, including pawing bare-handed through a nauseating toilet to retrieve lost suppositories, witnessing the death of a friend’s neglected baby, and getting blackmailed by a sexual partner he didn’t realize was only 15. He continues making a series of selfish choices that directly lead to his one morally upright friend, Kevin McKidd, losing his girlfriend, launching his own heroin addiction, contracting HIV, and dying. But McGregor hits rock bottom when he overdoses, gets dumped at a hospital, and winds up locked in his room to suffer heroin withdrawal alone. The withdrawal leaves him hallucinating about his imprisoned friend Ewen Bremner, about McKidd’s fatal disease, and about his friend’s dead baby. But even once the withdrawal is over, the effects linger, as he remains alienated from everyone and everything around him, caught in a surreal state where nothing is meaningful. It’s a long, slow-rolling bottoming-out that only starts to improve when McGregor has to take enough interest in his own life to get HIV tested, and face the fact that he’s glad he isn’t dying.

18. The belt of a champion, Raging Bull (1980)
As depicted in Martin Scorsese’s biopic, middleweight boxing champ Jake LaMotta (Robert De Niro) was always a bit of a debauched animal, but after he hangs up his gloves, losing his sports celebrity and the protection of the mob, the world is less inclined to ignore his transgressions. Jake’s lowest moment comes when he is in danger of losing even his freedom, after he’s arrested for contributing to the delinquency of minors, having unknowingly let underage girls into a club he owns. His only hope of buying his way out of jail time is to raise the payoff money by selling his last reminder of who he once was: his championship belt. Unfortunately, Jake has no special facility for comprehending words spoken to him by other carbon-based life forms, and he destroys the precious totem by ripping the jewels out of it, not understanding that it’s the belt itself, not the jewels, that are worth money.

19. The nosebleed, Bright Lights, Big City (1988)
Michael J. Fox’s hair is mussed, more than usual. Over the course of Bright Lights, Big City, a wan adaptation of Jay McInerney’s semi-autobiographical novel, Fox’s telltale mane goes from the boyish feathering of Family Ties to the bed-head mop of a raging cocaine addict. After leaving Pennsylvania to stake his claim in the Big Apple, nothing has gone right for Fox: His beautiful wife (Phoebe Cates) has left him behind in her pursuit of a modeling career (at one point, he pitifully chats to a storefront mannequin molded from her face); he hasn’t gotten over his mother’s death; he dreams about the clunky metaphor of a “coma baby”; and his hard-partying nights with his unctuous best friend (Kiefer Sutherland) are threatening his day job as a fact-checker at a snooty Manhattan weekly. This being a watered-down Hollywood version of McInerney’s story, Fox can only fall so far, but a confluence of events leads him to get a cocaine nosebleed at precisely the wrong moment, when he runs into his ex at a party. Covered in filmy sweat, he coughs pitifully and out comes a torrent of blood, beginning an arduous 10-second road to recovery that ends as soon as he leaves the bathroom. 

20. Sex with the dealer, Traffic (2000)
Adapted from the British TV series Traffik, Steven Soderbergh’s survey of the drug business—the pushers, the users, the enforcers, the politicians, the toxic interchange across borders—is an artful, cohesive look at the drug war, but it’s not entirely free of crude scaremongering. In one ironic subplot, the daughter (Erika Christensen) of the new drug czar (Michael Douglas) uses his frequent time away to develop a drug habit that morphs into full-blown addiction when her boyfriend (Topher Grace) introduces her to the magic of free-basing. Her inevitable downward spiral lands her in rehab, but she escapes to the mean streets of Cincinnati, where she trades her young body for the next high. That her dealer is black adds a dubious racial component to this white suburban nightmare of innocence befouled, and sounds the one bum note in a film that gets most everything right. 

21. Bottoming out, Requiem For A Dream (2000)
The ravages of addiction have rarely been depicted with the visceral punch of Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem For A Dream, a symphony of misery about three friends from downscale Brighton Beach who get hooked on heroin and an amphetamine-popping mother (Ellen Burstyn) who enters into a scary hallucinatory funk. The film climaxes in a brutal montage where all four bottom out at once: Jared Leto gets carted into a hospital with a festering arm infection the size of a softball, Marlon Wayans gets thrown into hard labor at a prison while suffering from withdrawal symptoms, and Burstyn goes in for electroshock therapy. But none of these indignities can top poor Jennifer Connelly, whose quest for the next fix has her performing “ass to ass” sex shows in front of the screaming throngs at a dank underground locale. She and the others can only dream of impossible salvation. 

22. Morning after the gang-rape, Leaving Las Vegas (1995)
Much of the action of Leaving Las Vegas consists of alcoholic Nicolas Cage and prostitute Elisabeth Shue supporting the other’s questionable lifestyles: He’s decided to drink himself to death, while she doesn’t want to hear his critique of her profession. For a while, they keep each other company and enable each other’s behavior, but they’re both too self-destructive and troubled to avoid judging or demanding anything from the other long-term. When mobsters kill Shue’s abusive pimp, her situation seems slightly improved, but her decision-making remains questionable, and before long, she’s raped and beaten by three seemingly drug-addled college students. The low point, however, isn’t the rape, but rather the judgment and lack of sympathy she gets afterward: First a creepy cab driver openly and repeatedly jokes about the physical damage done to her, and when her landlady sees her battered face, she evicts her. And as if the downturn in her luck is obvious from that point on, she continues to face demeaning come-ons and physical abuse from bouncers. The most painful part of the film, though, is that viewers never really get to see her recover from bottoming out. Cage dies and she doesn’t, which implies there’s still hope for her, but that’s beyond the film’s purview.

23. Epic-sized vomit puddle, Team America: World Police (2004)
Also battling alcoholism, though in a much less low-key, soulful fashion: Gary, the puppet protagonist of Team America: World Police. The creators of South Park have never gone in for tasteful restraint, and Gary’s bottoming-out sequence is a typical bit of Trey Parker/Matt Stone theatrical excessiveness: After blaming himself for various disasters and abandoning his elite, hyper-violent world-policing team, Gary spirals into self-destruction, represented by a scene where he staggers drunkenly through an alley, then pukes. And pukes. And pukes, until he’s soaked in his own effluvia, the camera lens is spattered, and the alley is filling up with yellow fluid. It’s a parody of bottoming-out scenes in general, pushed so far that it becomes utterly ridiculous, but in spite of the open exaggeration and humor (and the fact that it’s just a plastic puppet with a tube running out of its mouth), it’s still stomach-churning to see and hear, and it’s almost a relief when Gary finally passes out in a puddle that’s much, much larger than he is.

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