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    Off the Wahl: Sobriety Cinema

    By Jan Wahl–

    This is a tough time to stay sober. But what isn’t? As some truly great movies and documentaries show us, it is a challenging journey, yet one well worth taking. From Yale to jail, young to senior, gay or straight … it’s something that touches us all and reminds us that there is a way out.

    It’s not the beginning of these stories, but it does start at the founding of Alcoholic Anonymous. 1989’s My Name is Bill W gives James Woods the part he was born to play: the intelligent, edgy, desperate man in the middle of his deadly disease of alcoholism.  He meets up with Doctor Bob (James Garner), about to lose his medical practice through his own drinking. Together, they begin the program of recovery for now millions around the world. 

    Clean and Sober gives us Michael Keaton as a real estate agent who thrives on excitement, highs, and cocaine. Always the hustler, he checks into a rehab to run from the law. There he meets up with a counselor (Morgan Freeman), who’s a recovering addict himself, hip to all of our guy’s tricks. This one is perfect to show the river of denial in the addict, and a possible way to freedom.

    One of the scariest and most visually exciting movies ever made is 2000’s Requiem for a Dream. This unforgettable story tells of a woman addicted to diet pills, evoking an inner landscape of what the drugs do to her system as her disease takes over. Ellen Burstyn, Jared Leto, Marlon Wayans, and Jennifer Connelly bring this story alive. It is one that I recently showed to a friend with similar issues. The film changed her; it will change you.

    The same year, Sandra Bullock played a hard-drinking newspaper columnist in 28 Days. She enters rehab as a way of killing time to the next drink, but finds a way to care about others, and herself. Like 2010’s Love is Not Enough: The Lois Wilson Story, 28 Days reminds us of the impact drinking and using have on the family,

    I have been a Russell Brand fan since first viewing him on talk shows. He is smart, witty, outspoken. The drug and alcohol death of his friend Amy Winehouse led to 2012’s Russell Brand: From Addiction to Recovery. We follow the man through his drug fueled years into a program of recovery, saving the life of this unusual performer. In addition to this one, there is a fine documentary, Amy (2015.)  This one not only portrays the connection between the artist and the addiction, but also how codependents can be the enemy.

    Classic Hollywood was just as strong when it came to depicting drugs and alcohol. Frank Sinatra spent time studying heroin addicts for his searing performance in 1955’s The Man with the Golden Arm. Director Billy Wilder had the creative courage to put onscreen one man’s struggle not only with drink, but also with the madness it brings. 1945’s The Last Weekend won Oscars, but it is priceless in its approach to a writer who will go to any length to continue his passion for booze. Like The Man with the Golden Arm and later Requiem for a Dream, there are cinematic visuals of the detox process here one never forgets.          

    Leaving Las Vegas, Smash Up: The Story of a Woman, Dallas Buyers Club, Flight, Panic in Needle Park, the classic brilliance of The Days of Wine and Roses … this is a long list and continues to this day as more folks who make movies are examining their own recoveries. Being clean and sober is one of the great gifts of life, and some terrific movies reflect it.

    Jan Wahl is a Hollywood historian, film critic on various broadcast outlets, and has her own YouTube channel series, “Jan Wahl Showbiz.” She has two Emmys and many awards for her longtime work on behalf of film buffs and the LGBTQ community. Contact her at

    Published on February 11, 2021