“The best research for playing a drunk is being a British actor for 20 years,” says Michael Caine. That hasn’t stopped plenty of American actors from giving it a shot. This week, Johnny Depp appears in The Rum Diary, based on a typically boozy (not to mention druggy) book by Hunter Thompson. Even if you try to ignore the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, Depp has had years of experience to hone his on-screen stagger. But he’s not the first – and definitely not the craziest – actor to bring the party to work. Below, we revisit some of the best drunken performances committed to film.
Johnny Depp – The Rum Diary
Hunter Thompson wrote this novel at 22, when he worked as journalist on Puerto Rico, just as the main character does. While the story probably is mostly fictional, you have to suspect there’s a grain of truth to the level of drinking involved. Depp and director Bruce Robinson honored that legacy on set, where a bottle of Chivas Regal and pack of Dunhills were set out in honor of the late author. Says Robinson: “Johnny and I would stick our fingers in (the Chivas Regal) and put the perfume of the whiskey behind our ears to celebrate Hunter.”
Mickey Rourke – Barfly
“Anybody can be a non-drunk,” says Mickey Rourke’s character in Barfly, Charles Bukowski’s semi-autobiographical film. “It takes a special talent to be a drunk.” That’s… not exactly true. However, very few people can play a drunk as charismatically as Rourke. Just watch Matt Dillon try his hand at Bukowski’s hard-drinking archetype in Factotum if you need convincing.
Martin Sheen – Apocalypse Now
While his character may not have been inebriated as much as imbalanced, Martin Sheen was so drunk during the filming of this scene that he punched a mirror, bloodying his hand. Of course, considering the film’s tortured history his alcohol-inspired performance was a drop in the bucket: actor Sam Bottoms reportedly ingested LSD and other drugs during his scenes.
Peter O’Toole – My Favorite Year
As described in Hellraisers,* this film was based in part on experiences Mel Brooks had early in his career, when he was charged with keeping actor Errol Flynn sober during shoots. (Apparently one of Flynn’s techniques for hiding alcohol was to inject vodka into oranges that he would then consume on the set.) My Favorite Year also drew from the deep well of stories about actor John Barrymore’s escapades, including this scene in which he accidentally ends up in the ladies’ room, “watering” a plant.
*Full disclosure: I worked on the US publication of Hellraisers.
Jeff Bridges – Crazy Heart
He won an Oscar for playing an alcoholic country singer in Crazy Heart, but Bridges’ career has included numerous cases of liquored-up characters. How many of us would be drinking White Russians if it weren’t for The Big Lebowski? Though he doesn’t drink while on set these days, he admitted in an interview with Piers Morgan that he did try out this particular brand of method acting. “I made the mistake early in my career of, you know, saying, ‘Oh, I’ve got a drunk scene, well, I’ll just get drunk.’ You know, that seems to be the easiest way to approach that, you know. … And I – so I made myself screwdrivers early in the morning, you know, six in the morning for my scene at nine. And I danced my ass off. It was insane. But then there was the next scene and the next scene and the morning after, you know. So I never made that mistake ever again. I learned my lesson.”
W.C. Fields – International House
W.C. Fields is probably one of the most well-known drinkers from the early days of Hollywood. He played one in pretty much every film he did. Though it’s not his most famous film, you can’t beat International House for his misadventures, including an episode of not driving drunk, but flying drunk. As if that weren’t enough, this movie also features Cab Calloway’s rendition of “Reefer Man.”
John Belushi – Animal House
The inspiration for thousands of college kids who never finished reading his Wikipedia page to realize he died young. And yet, his casual, almost deadpan approach to all-consuming Bacchanalia made feats like chugging a bottle of Jack look easy.
Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor – Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
The twice-married actors were notorious for their boozing and fights, making their performances in the film adaptation of Edward Albee’s play about as eerie as Joan and Melissa Rivers’ TV movie that dealt with husband and father Edgar Rosenberg’s real-life suicide. In Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, the “battling Burtons” gave amazing, though not exactly likable, performances that may have hit too close to home. “That role was more or less her, really,” said a director who later worked with the couple.
Dudley Moore – Arthur
The straight-and-sober Russell Brand could never have lived up to Dudley Moore as the addled, original Arthur. Moore even received an Oscar nomination for the role. Commentators explain the role’s evolution from “charming boozer” to “spoiled brat” as due to our heightened awareness of alcoholism. Still, I think we’ll always wonder if Andy Dick could have pulled off a more successful remake. Click here to watch the non-embeddable clip.
Ari Graynor – Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist
While not exactly the most famous scene of drunkenness in a film, it’s definitely the most disgusting by far. It’s also a lesson in why you should never take gum from strangers.