Top 10 film performances: Ray Milland

Black and white photograph of Ray Milland with Ellen Drew on BBC programme Picture Page in 1939

Last updated: 05 March 2010

Ray Milland in The Lost Weekend (1945)

James Mason's performance as Judy Garland's alcoholic wreck of a husband Norman Maine teased out the audience's pity in the 1954 re-make of The Star is Born, as they realised the character's despair sprang from the damage done to his self-respect and confidence by his wife eclipsing him as star and family breadwinner.

Ray Milland's sodden writer, Don Birnam, sucked into the gutter by his insatiable drinking habits in Billy Wilder's The Lost Weekend (1945) makes fewer claims on our sympathy, as he wrestles with the problem of writer's block and succumbs too easily to addiction. Even the camera seems pitiless as it records Birnam's slide almost to the brink of extinction.

We share his horror as he sees mice emerging from the walls during a severe attack of DTs. Even when he runs out of liquor and stumbles interminably down New York's Bowery trying to hock his typewriter on Yom Kippur day (The Jewish Holy Day of fast), the camera follows him relentlessly.

It's the film's unforgettable setpiece and director Wilder and photographer John Seitz used lenses concealed in trucks in the interests of authenticity. Neath-born Milland indulged in extra slugs of whisky to add to the reality (according to Wilder). The subjective, point-of-view shots add to the overall impact as we're forced to share Birnam's view of the world, rendered increasingly frightening and out of kilter.

Milland, who repeated Mason's feat in landing the Oscar, had made his reputation as a handsome leading man or second lead in frothy romances or fairly lightweight dramas. He'd never faced such a challenge and lacked confidence in his own ability; Wilder's first choice for the role was José Ferrer.

Yet Milland captures perfectly the bewilderment of a sometimes-legless toper, who, when sober, becomes irascible and demanding.

Charles Brackett's script brings out Birnam's bitchy qualities, and his deviousness as he hides liquor bottles denied him by his conscientious fiancée (Jane Wyman). Milland's Birnam wasn't a likeable fellow and the clipped voice, the slightly aloof manner so characteristic of many Milland performances, alienate us enough to ensure we don't give too easily of our compassion.

Wilder forced the actor to delve deeper than ever before and Milland triumphed - in a decade, which also brought him critical accolades for Wilder's The Major and the Minor (1942) and Fritz Lang's Ministry of Fear (1944).


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