Alcoholism in the western genre: the portrayal of alcohol and alcoholism in the western genre.Abstract
This paper examines the way alcohol use and alcoholism have been portrayed in twentieth century films with particular emphasis on the western genre. Saloons, bar fights, whiskey bottles, drunken gunfighters, and town drunks are all the staple features of the genre, and it is a genre that has contributed significantly to the prevailing image of masculinity. The paper argues that these images influence and shape contemporary attitudes about alcohol use and the acceptability of inebriation inebriation /in·e·bri·a·tion/ (in-e?bre-a´shun) drunkenness; intoxication with, or as if with, alcohol.
The condition of being intoxicated, as with alcohol. .
The Portrayal of Alcohol and Alcoholism in the Western Genre
Alcohol is ubiquitous in American movies. Almost any fan can recall movies with ionic scenes involving alcohol, such as Humphrey Bogart pouring a drink for Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca, the memorable tavern scene in Stars Wars, or a drunken Dudley Moore Noun 1. Dudley Moore - English actor and comedian who appeared on television and in films (born in 1935)
Dudley Stuart John Moore, Moore singing and waving a bottle of champagne as he drives his Rolls Royce Rolls Royce
the millionaire’s vehicle. [Trademarks: Brewer Dictionary, 928]
See : Luxury down a busy highway in Arthur. Writing about Arthur, Vincent Canby (1981) noted
Not since Nick and Nora Charles virtually made the dry martini into the national drink ... has there been quite so much boozing in movie without hidden consequences. Arthur drinks scotch the way people now drink Perrier.... When he goes giggling about town, sloshed to the eyeballs, he's not seen as a case history but as eccentric. (p. 10).
These cinematic representations of alcohol use and abuse serve as "cultural texts" (Dezin, 1989) with profoundly important societal consequences insofar in·so·far
To such an extent.
Adv. 1. insofar - to the degree or extent that; "insofar as it can be ascertained, the horse lung is comparable to that of man"; "so far as it is reasonably practical he should practice as films both reflect and shape individual and societal values, attitudes, and behavior. Bahk (1997) has demonstrated experimentally that college students are influenced in the expected direction by the presentation or removal of movie scenes involving alcohol use and its negative consequences.
Denzin (1991) reviewed and cataloged almost all "alcoholic films" released prior to 1990. While some films dramatically but accurately portray the deleterious effects of alcoholism (e.g. Lost Weekend, Days of Wine and Roses, Barfly bar·fly
n. pl. bar·flies Slang
One who frequents drinking establishments. , Leaving Las Vegas Las Vegas (läs vā`gəs), city (1990 pop. 258,295), seat of Clark co., S Nev.; inc. 1911. It is the largest city in Nevada and the center of one of the fastest-growing urban areas in the United States. ), many more trivialize, celebrate or glamorize glam·or·ize also glam·our·ize
tr.v. glam·or·ized, glam·or·iz·ing, glam·or·iz·es
1. To make glamorous: tried to glamorize the bathroom with expensive fixtures.
2. misuse alcohol (e.g., Animal House, Arthur, Stagecoach stagecoach, heavy, closed vehicle on wheels, usually drawn by horses, formerly used to transport passengers and goods overland. Throughout the Middle Ages and until about the end of the 18th cent. , M*A*S*H), and, in general, the portrayal of alcohol use in films appears to be positive more often that it is negative (Wedding & Boyd, 1999). Stephanie Demetrakopoulos (1991) has referred to this practice as "the canonization canonization (kăn'ənĭzā`shən), in the Roman Catholic Church, process by which a person is classified as a saint. It is now performed at Rome alone, although in the Middle Ages and earlier bishops elsewhere used to canonize. of drinking in American films." It is a practice with important implications for those individuals concerned with public education about alcohol, insofar as social attitudes about both substance use and substance abuse are significantly shaped by the depiction of alcohol in various entertainment media (Filloy, 1986).
There is a growing body of research examining the ways in which alcohol, alcohol abuse, and alcoholism are portrayed in movies. For example, McIntosh, Smith, Bazzini and Mills (1999) examined depictions of alcohol use in 100 popular films released between 1940 and 1989. Their study indicated that drinkers were characteristically "depicted as more attractive, more romantically/sexually active, more aggressive and having a higher socioeconomic status socioeconomic status,
n the position of an individual on a socio-economic scale that measures such factors as education, income, type of occupation, place of residence, and in some populations, ethnicity and religion. than nondrinkers" (p. 1191).
Everett, Schnuth and Tribble (1998) surveyed tobacco and alcohol use in 100 top-grossing American films during the period 1985 through 1995 and found that at least one lead character used alcohol in 79% of these movies. This study documented that positive references to alcohol outnumbered negative references by a ten to one margin. These authors note that the potential risks of alcohol abuse and alcoholism are seldom portrayed in movies, and that the film character are often potent role models for children and adolescents.
Roberts, Henriksen and Chirstenson (1999) report similar findings. These researchers reviewed the 200 most popular movie rentals in 1996 and 1997 and found that 93% included depictions of alcohol use. There were no consequences associated with alcohol consumption in 57% of these films, and the number of movies that presented "pro-use" messages outnumbered the "ani-use" messages by two to one (Roberts & Christenson, 2000). Social learning theory explains the importance of these findings:
[M]edia messages influence young people by providing explicit, concrete "models" for behaviors (e.g., smoking marijuana), attitudes (e.g., taking an anti-drug point of view), and feelings (e.g., fearing the effects of drug use). Whenever, a child or adolescent encounters a media depiction or portrayal as an a movie or song, the potential exists for the behavior to be imitated. Research on social learning theory also demonstrates that the likelihood of limitation depends on the context surrounding the portrayal, particularly consequences attached to the behavior. Generally, perceived negative consequences (e.g., someone dying of an overdose) decrease the probability of a modeling effect, and perceived positive consequences (e.g., gaining social acceptance by drinking at a party) increase the probability. (Roberts, Henriksen & Christenson, 1999).
The tendency to portray alcohol and tobacco use in films in a positive or at least neutral context extends to childrens films. Goldstein, Sobel, and Newman (1999), for example, examined all G-rated, animated feature films released between 1937 and 1997 that were produced by the five major studios (Walt Disney Noun 1. Walt Disney - United States film maker who pioneered animated cartoons and created such characters as Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck; founded Disneyland (1901-1966)
Disney, Walter Elias Disney , MGM/United Artists, Warner Brothers Warner Brothers (b. Eichelbaums) movie executives; Harry (Morris) (1881–1958), born in Krasnashiltz, Poland; Albert (1884–1967), born in Baltimore, Md.; Samuel (1887–1927), born in Baltimore, Md. , Universal Studios, and 20th Century Fox) and available on videotape. Fifty percent of these films portray alcohol use in story plots without clear verbal messages about any potential long-term health effects associated with alcohol consumption. This is an important finding insofar as children may be especially vulnerable to the effects of modeling by high status figures, and binge drinking binge drinking An early phase of chronic alcoholism, characterized by episodic 'flirtation' with the bottle by binges of drinking to the point of stupor, followed by periods of abstinence; BD is accompanied by alcoholic ketoacidosis–accelerated lipolysis and is a serious health problem among U.S. youth (Johnston, O'Malley & Bachman, 2001).
Norman Denzin, in his book Hollywood Shot by Shot (1991), proposed that the number of popular films that have been made about alcoholism qualifies "the alcoholic film" as an independent genre--i.e., films "in which the inebriety in·e·bri·e·ty
See also: Alcohol
Noun 1. , alcoholism, and excessive drinking of one or more of the characters is presented as a problem which the character, his or her friends, family, and employers, and other members of society self-consciously struggle to resolve" (p. 3). Denzin offers a "semiotic semiotic /se·mi·ot·ic/ (se?me-ot´ik)
1. pertaining to signs or symptoms.
2. pathognomonic. , psychonanlytically oriented and frequently feminist perspective to film interpretation" in which the hard drinking protagonist of often as heroic (Clough, 1993). However, there are myriad examples of alcohol abuse in almost every genre. Examples include a bourbon drinking Robot in Forbidden Planet, the gulped drinks necessary for a physician to calm himself in Invasion of the Body Snatchers, an extraterrestrial getting drunk and watching Ben and Jerry cartoons in E.T., a drunken Santa Claus in Miracle on 34th Street Miracle on 34th Street
film featuring benevolent old gentleman named Kris Kringle. [Am. Cinema: Halliwell, 493]
See : Christmas
Miracle on 34th Street
Santa Claus comes to New York. [Am. , the alcoholic husband/father in Dolores Dolores (or Delores) was a common given name (until the 1960s in the USA); it is cognate with the English word "dolorous" (meaning sorrowful) and equivalent in meaning. Claiborne; Paul Newman playing an alcoholic attorney in the Verdict, Jeff Bridges as an alcoholic broadcaster in The Fisher King, Edward G. Robinson's alcoholic girlfriend in Key Largo, Robert Duval as a recovering alcoholic in Tender Mercies, and the drunken wedding party in The Deer Hunter. Film noire detectives are inevitably heavy drinkers; this is illustrated by films like Double Indemnity A term of an insurance policy by which the insurance company promises to pay the insured or the beneficiary twice the amount of coverage if loss occurs due to a particular cause or set of circumstances.
Double indemnity clauses are found most often in life insurance policies. , The Big Sleep, The Maltese Falcon and the Thin Man (Filloy, 1986). This paper examines the cinematic portrayal of alcohol use and drunkenness in one particular genre, the Western.
Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism in Westerns
Films in the Western genre are replete with scenes of saloons, whiskey bottles, alcoholic gunfighters and "town drunks." For example, in the classic Western, High Noon, Billy Newell is sympathetically portrayed as a town drunk-one of the only people in Hadleyville willing to help Sheriff Will Kane (Gary Cooper) confront Frank Miller and his murderous friends. Kane is also shown releasing Charlie (Jack Elam), a man jailed for public drunkenness, before the Sheriff confronts the Miller gang. The film clearly suggests that Charlie's inebriation is a harmless indulgence with no serious consequences for the individual or the town. Jack Elam went to build his career on similar roles (e.g., Support Your Local Sheriff).
Saloons--or the dirt streets immediately outside the saloons--are the most frequent venue for gun fights in Western films. Men go to saloons to validate their masculinity and to bond with other men, and whiskey and guns are among the most salient symbols of what it means to be a man in the West. Men who reject these symbols do so at their peril. For example, in Shane an altercation begins when Shane (Alan Ladd) is ridiculed as a "pig farmer and sod buster" after he visits a saloon and asks a bartender for a "soda pop"; the growing conflict between the farmers and the ranchers ends with a shootout Shootout
Venture capital jargon. Refers to two or more venture capital firms fighting for the startup. in the same bar. Director Robert Zemeckis worked with Michael J. Fox to ridicule this recurring Western motif in Back to the Future Part III in the following scene:
Bartender: to Marty. What'll it be, stranger?
Marty: Uh ... I'll have ... uh ... ice water.
Old Timer #1: Ice water? Laughs.
Bartender: Water? You want water, you better go dunk you head in the horse trawl trawl - To sift through large volumes of data (e.g. Usenet postings, FTP archives, or the Jargon File) looking for something of interest. back there. Old Timer laugh. In here ... we pour whiskey. He takes out a bottle of whiskey and pours a small glass. Marty stares at it
There is steam coming from the glass.
The good-natured drunk is another common but insidiously pernicious role model in the Western genre. For example, in John Ford's epic film Stagecoach, Dr. Josiah Boone (Thomas Mitchell) is a loveable love·a·ble
Variant of lovable.
Adj. 1. loveable - having characteristics that attract love or affection; "a mischievous but lovable child"
lovable but drunken physician who spends almost all of his time at the local saloon, helplessly inebriated inebriated (i·nēˑ·brē·āˈ·td),
adj intoxicated. . The film opens with a drunken Boone being paired with another victim of societal prejudice (Dallas, the proverbial whore with a heart of gold); both are being driven out of town by the town's all-woman "Law and Order League." However, although Boone is inebriated most of the time he is on the stagecoach, he does sober up enough to deliver a baby (after being served copious amounts of coffee, perpetuating the myth that caffeine promotes sobriety). "This is the obligatory operation that redeems the manhood of Ford's drunk doctors" (Demetrakopoulos, 1991). During the stagecoach ride, Boone delights in sitting next to whiskey salesman; after the salesman is killed, and facing likely death himself, Boone opens the valise containing Peacock's whiskey and remarks "If I only have an hour to live, I'm going to have fun." This scene vividly illustrates and underscores the anesthetic courage often associated with intoxication intoxication, condition of body tissue affected by a poisonous substance. Poisonous materials, or toxins, are to be found in heavy metals such as lead and mercury, in drugs, in chemicals such as alcohol and carbon tetrachloride, in gases such as carbon monoxide, and . The film ends happily with Sheriff Curly merrily offering to buy the alcoholic doctor yet another drink.
The drunken professional is a recurring motif in director John Ford's films that symbolizes the highly educated man (often quoting Shakespeare) disgusted by the decadence and hypocrisy of civilization. Other examples from Ford's films include an alcoholic Doc Holliday (who kills his Mexican mistress by operating on her while drunk) in My Darling Clementine Clementine
forty-niner’s drowned daughter; “lost and gone forever.” [Am. Music: Leach, 236]
See : Grief and the drunken reporter in The Man who Shot Liberty Valance. Alcohol and inebriate male bonding male bonding Psychology The formation of a close nonsexual relationship between 2 or more men; guy stuff. Cf Bonding. offer that only solace for these characters, who cope with an inhospitable world by inducing anesthesia. Ford's films "canonize can·on·ize
tr.v. can·on·ized, can·on·iz·ing, can·on·iz·es
1. To declare (a deceased person) to be a saint and entitled to be fully honored as such.
2. To include in the biblical canon.
3. and conflate con·flate
tr.v. con·flat·ed, con·flat·ing, con·flates
1. To bring together; meld or fuse: "The problems [with the biopic] include . . masculine values with drinking, and ... [are] an insidious and ubiquitous influence on American men, especially young men looking for Looking for
In the context of general equities, this describing a buy interest in which a dealer is asked to offer stock, often involving a capital commitment. Antithesis of in touch with. a quick fix on gender identify." (Demetrakopoulos, 1991, p. 225).
The apparent celebration of alcoholism is found in the work of many other directors--e.g., Sam Peckinpah has a marriage ceremony performed in a brothel by an alcoholic judge in Ride the High Country. The power of this ubiquitous motif in Western films is demonstrated by its universal inclusion in parodies of the Western (for example, Lee Marvin earned an Academy Award in 1965 for his comedic performance as a drunken, over-the-hill gunfighter in Cat Bailou, and Dustin Hoffman goes through an almost obligatory "town drunk" period in Little Big Man).
A more serious examination of alcohol abuse is found in Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven, in which a sober pig farmer cum ex-gunfighter is compelled to return to drinking before he can find the courage to kill a man. Eastwood's fall from sobriety to drinking parallels his descent from decent citizen to killer; however, the circumstances of the film invite to viewer to accept and even applaud this descent.
Western gunslingers are almost always portrayed as heavy drinker (this is why we are so surprised when Shane orders a soda pop and amused when Michael J. Fox bellies up to the bar and asks for ice water), and inevitably, the drink of choice for real gunfighters is whiskey. When Jimmy Ringo (Gregory Peck) first kills a man in The Gunfighter, he does so while standing at a bar holding a drink in his right hand. He draws with his left hand, fires, and puts away his gun without ever spilling a drop of whiskey.
If alcoholism or alcohol abuse is portrayed in a negative way, it is often in conjunction with misuse by Native Americans. For example, when Wyatt Earp (Henry Fonda) first visits Tombstone Tombstone, city (1990 pop. 1,220), Cochise co., SE Ariz.; inc. 1881. With its pleasant climate and legendary past, Tombstone is a well-known tourist attraction. The city became a national historic landmark in 1962. in John Ford's My Darling Clementine, he confronts a drunken "Indian Charlie" who is randomly firing shots from a saloon. Fonda overcomes the drunken Indian, drags him to the town Mayor, and demands "What kind of town is this, serving liquor to Indians?" Later, in the 1961 Western The Comancheros, John Wayne plays a Texas Ranger tasked with stopping the sale of firearms and liquor to the Comanches.
A common motif in the Western genre is the drunken ex-gunfighter. This individual can often perform remarkable physical feats (usually in fistfights, showdowns, or protracted pro·tract
tr.v. pro·tract·ed, pro·tract·ing, pro·tracts
1. To draw out or lengthen in time; prolong: disputants who needlessly protracted the negotiations.
2. gun battles) after regaining his sobriety and his self-esteem. The drunken gunfighter motif perhaps is most memorably represented in a 1959 Howard Hack's film, Rio Bravo. In this film, John T. Chance (John Wayne) offers a broken down, disgraced, and pathetic "Dude" (Dean Martin) redemption and a "second chance" by once again deputizing him.
Dude' s downfall occurred after he repudiated the masculine values of the West by falling hopelessly in love with a woman who would later betray his love. The fact that she was simply "a girl who came through on the stage" underscored the role of chance and happenstance hap·pen·stance
A chance circumstance: "Marriage loomed only as an outgrowth of happenstance; you met a person" Bruce Weber. in the life of the hapless Dude.
Dude's degradation is so complete that he is ridiculed by Indians, a group occupying the very lowest strata in the social hierarchy of the old west. The full extent of his drunken pathos is highlighted in the films opening scene by his willingness to dig through spittle spit·tle
Spit; saliva. to retrieve a silver dollar from a spittoon (an act of degradation that is only prevented when "Chance" kicks the spittoon away); in a later scene, Dude is able to redeem his lost masculinity by shooting and killing a man hiding in the second story of a saloon. This act of bravery empowers Dude to be as sadistic sa·dism
1. The deriving of sexual gratification or the tendency to derive sexual gratification from inflicting pain or emotional abuse on others.
2. The deriving of pleasure, or the tendency to derive pleasure, from cruelty. as his tormentors, and he insists that the man who tossed the coin retrieve it.
Dude copes with his withdrawal symptoms Withdrawal symptoms
A group of physical or mental symptoms that may occur when a person suddenly stops using a drug to which he or she has become dependent. throughout the film by drinking beer, a beverage clearly portrayed as an ersatz er·satz
Being an imitation or a substitute, usually an inferior one; artificial: ersatz coffee made mostly of chicory. See Synonyms at artificial. and harmless substitute for the real drink of the west, whiskey. For example, Dude's continuing sobriety is highlighted by the mise-en-scene in a scene in which Dude stands at a bar drinking beer while Chance and his friend Pat Wheeler drink whiskey.
Chance repeatedly encourages Dude to drink beer to cope with his withdrawal symptoms, but Dude reports "it doesn't do any good." The harmlessness of beer and the futility of using it to in place of real alcohol is understood and underscored by the incarcerated incarcerated /in·car·cer·at·ed/ (in-kahr´ser-at?ed) imprisoned; constricted; subjected to incarceration.
Confined or trapped, as a hernia. Burdett who ridicules Dude's beer, stating "that beer won't do you any good ... you're going to need something a lot stronger than that."
Rio Bravo leaves the naive viewer thinking that beer is a harmless indulgence, and that sobriety can be achieved fairly quickly and with minimal pain. The film ignores the likehood of delirium tremens delirium tremens (trē`mənz, trĕm`ənz), hallucinatory episodes that may occur during withdrawal from chronic alcoholism, popularly known as the DTs. in a longtime alcoholic, and suggests that premorbid premorbid /pre·mor·bid/ (-mor´bid) occurring before development of disease.
Preceding the occurrence of disease. reaction time, hand-eye coordination hand-eye coordination Eye-hand coordination Surgery Oculomanual synchronization, required by surgeons, especially for laparoscopic surgery. See Laparoscopic surgery, Paradoxical movement. , and manual dexterity will be unaffected by the character's long history of alcohol abuse. (At one point in the film, Dude reports "I've got the shakes real bad," and he is unable to roll his own cigarettes; however, there is no evidence of any permanent or even lingering physical impairment as a result of his alcoholism, and it is clear that his reaction time--as measured by his ability to kill other men quickly and efficiently--is as fast as it was before his alcoholism). This potential reversal of the consequences of drinking by a single act of moral courage is presented symbolically in a scene in which Dude pours a shot of whiskey back into the bottle, thereby reversing both his addiction to alcohol and its untoward consequences.
The confluence of drinking with masculinity is highlighted in Rio Bravo when Feathers (Angie Dickinson) copes with her frustration over nearly loosing Chance in a three to one shootout by having shots of whiskey ("Give me another, Colorado"). However, drinking is clearly a male privilege in the West, and the inappropriateness of Dickinson's unfeminine behavior is apparent as she staggers staggers /stag·gers/ (stag´erz) a form of vertigo occurring in decompression sickness.
incoordination of any kind, including a tendency to fall, and recumbency if harassed. off to bed, finding it difficult to even climb the hotel stairs. In the west, drinking whiskey is clearly a prerogative of men, and one that is earned by the courage it takes to kill other men.
Rio Bravo is many ways the quintessential Western movie. The film illustrates the pervasive presence of alcohol in the Western genre and its conventional association with masculinity. Dude's drunkenness is presented not as a disease but rather as a natural reaction of a weak man to love gone bad. He achieves redemption--and stops shaking--only when he realizes that he is finally able to laugh about the ill-fated love affair.
It is possibly unfair, naive and unrealistic to insist on realism and the accurate portrayal of the deleterious effects of heavy drinking in films--a medium we expect to offer escape from the frequently drab realities of everyday life. Most viewers do not deliberately copy the behaviors of character they view in films, and they understand that genre films "offer a collection of convenient conventions which allows the director to escape from the trammels of contemporary surface reality and the demand for verisimilitude ..."(Wood, 1968, p. 35). However, a detailed examination of the ways in which alcohol use and abuse is portrayed in films may offer some insight into the ways in which societal values and beliefs about alcohol are influenced and maintained. At the very least, we can use the western genre to better understand some of the factors that helped shape and define what it meant to be a man in the second half of the 20th century.
Danny Wedding, Missouri Institute of Mental Health, University of Missouri-Columbia, 5400 Arsenal Street, Saint Louis, Missouri 63139. Correspondence should be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.
I appreciate the helpful comments of Frank Grady on earlier drafts of this manuscript.
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University of Missouri--Columbia