Tim Cowlishaw

Drunk on Sports goes to the movies “Flight”, “Smashed” and more

In Drunk On Sports: The Book on November 23, 2012 at 12:07 pm

For those interested in an update on the book, there is essentially none. A bunch of publishers that had expressed either mild interest in or appreciation for what I was trying to do were contacted and told things like more than 5,000 people read a chapter in a single day after one post on twitter. And they all (apparently) said some variation of  “Hey, that’s great, good luck with the book.”

I don’t know enough about publishing a book — or anything about it really — to say that these people are all idiots. So I’ll never say that. They are apprehensive about the ability of a sportswriter’s memoir to sell in large numbers at a time when people aren’t reading newspapers. I get that. There’s some logic to those concerns. And if that’s all this book amounts to, a collection of chapters about how I became a “big-time” sportswriter and talking dog on TV, then they won’t miss out on much. I’d like to think it’s going to mean a little more than that, not just to those with drinking problems or those who know someone with drinking problems (that’s pretty much everyone, right?) but to others who just want to have some laughs at my expense.

Anyway, the bottom line is it will probably be an e-book early next year, and that’s fine with me. In the meantime, I’m going to post some thoughts on the films “Flight” and “Smashed” which deal with alcoholics in very different ways along with a chapter that won’t make the book that I wrote two years ago. It might sneak in as a few paragraphs but I’ll just run it in full here after I say a few things about the two recent films.


This movie is 2 hours, 18 minutes long, and if I could hack it down to about an hour, 40, it would be excellent. There’s too much crap in it and whenever the director Robert Zemeckis (who has masted the art of very scary plane crashes, see “Castaway” as well) senses the audience might get bored, he puts John Goodman on the screen who’s playing in an entirely different film from what Don Cheadle and others have in mind.

The main point for our purposes here is that Denzel Washington does a great job playing a high-functioning alcoholic. I think I know what these people should look like up there on the screen, I was one down here on the ground for most of a couple of decades. I like the smaller touches in this film that they get right. At one point, Denzel is throwing away all the liquor in a farmhouse before he realizes it’s pointless because he has already been drug-tested. After throwing away all the good stuff in the house, he’s in the garage where he pulls out a small bottle of Gordon’s (it might be gin instead of vodka, I’m not sure). Gordon’s is cheap-ass stuff that you stash for a rainy day. I had a bottle of Gordon’s vodka in the top of the pantry for years. Not the same bottle, mind you. You tell people that you drink Grey Goose or Ciroc, but at home, alone, you’re just as comfortable grabbing the old Gordon’s and working your way towards oblivion.

Denzel is a great liar in this film. We all are when we drink. We become very, very good at it, so good that in time the lies you know you can get away with feel no different from the truth itself. You become just as indignant when a friend or colleague challenges you on a lie that you know they can’t prove as you do on the most obvious facts.

And (spoiler alert) I would also agree with Denzel’s character, Whip, that his drinking prior to the plane crash had nothing to do with the crash. The jet was falling apart much faster than Denzel was. And a person on a limited but familiar number of drinks can continue to function in many situations the same way they would if they were sober. Mind you, I did not just come out in favor of drunk driving or, in this case, drunk piloting. As the film goes along, it becomes harder and harder to feel any sympathy or empahty for Denzel’s character. He destroys those around him in search of alcohol. It’s not a pretty pattern of behavior but it’s a familiar one to some of us.


I like this much smaller film far more. I’m not familiar with the actress who carries the film, Mary Elizabeth Winstead. She looks a little like Alison Brie of Community (Annie) or Mad Men (Pete Campbell’s wife), and she plays the wife of Emmy winner Aaron Paul (Jesse in “Breaking Bad”). I also need to tell you Nick Offerman plays a very un-Ron Swanson character (Parks and Rec) in this movie.

But the young couple at the center of the movie are people we’ve all known, people maybe we still know, people we may have been. Kate and Charlie are young, they don’t have kids or a lot of responsibilities and they like to get hammered.  One night Kate comes home — or actually she comes home the next morning after smoking crack with a stranger and spending the night in a park — and realizes she may, in fact, have a problem. Charlie tries to impress upon her that the crack smoking was the problem.

“But the drinking leads to everything stupid that I do,” Kate tells him.

That, of course, leads us to the central argument around drinking, around the legalization of marijuana, around addictive behavior in general and that is — what leads to what?

In my case, drinking never led to smoking crack like Kate or doing cocaine like Denzel’s character, Whip. Beer led to vodka and that did enough damage on its own without taking subsequent steps into alternative substances.

Kate reluctantly goes to an AA meeting. She doesn’t really buy into what they’re selling but eventually comes around through the support of another woman in the group. The story Kate tells the group is a familiar one. “It seems like every time I drink something awful happens. All the shit I used to laugh off isn’t really funny anymore. The dumb drunk stuff has gone from embarrassing to scary.”

Some of us are in our 50s by the time we make this connection. Kate does it in her 20s. That, of course, is not the end of the story which is what makes “Smashed” such an effective and honest film. It’s hard enough — really really hard in many cases — for a person with a drinking problem to admit it, confront it and deal with it, whether that means going to rehab, attending AA meetings or just dealing with it on a personal level as I have done. But, as Kate learns, that’s just the beginning. It’s only solving (or attempting to solve) one problem while creating unforeseen new ones.

Charlie wants to be supportive of his wife. But he sure doesn’t want to quit partying with his buddies. Drinking is such an integral part of our lives and our relationships that when it changes drastically for one person, the entire dynamic is altered. I suppose a relationship can work if one person is sober and the other’s a heavy drinker if it starts out that way and is understood in those terms from the beginning. Maybe.

But when one person blows the whistle before the other is ready to call off the party, that relationship is going to have a difficult time surviving. As Kate says, “Suddenly I have all these other problems now that drinking isn’t the problem.”’

Ultimately, although we may see a ray of hope for their relationship at the end — maybe — Kate’s conclusion is not that different from my own.

“My life is really different than it was. I live alone. I’m bored a lot more,” she says. “I’m really grateful for this boring new life of mine.”

And I’m grateful for honest, heartfelt films about alcholism like “Smashed.”



Drunk on Sports:   Interlude:

A one-year anniversary, a conclusion, a brief look at the worst Oscar award ever


 I remember the awkwardness of my stepmother handing my dad a glass of champagne when my son, Ben, was born at Baylor Hospital on Jan. 9, 1995. Willis was a little more than a year into sobriety and regular AA meetings that he still attends.

 So what exactly is the proper celebration for sobriety?

 We celebrate everything else with shots, with champagne, with forgettable and (often regrettable) toasts. But how best to celebrate a life newly devoted to…the avoidance of nightly celebrations?

 On May 9, 2010 – one year since my last drink — Megan said she wanted to take me out to eat. Anywhere I wanted to go. We were barely going out at that point as she was ready to get on with her life. Our 24-year age difference was never the factor people assume such a gap has to produce. Steely Dan’s lyrics to “Hey Nineteen‘’ (“That’s Aretha Franklin, she don’t remember Queen of Soul’) never applied. As a matter of fact, Steely Dan was her favorite band when we met. How many 27-year-olds can you say that about?

 But she was pushing 31 now – ancient by her standards – and ready to get married, start a family and do all the other things I could not accommodate. She was about to move on, and I cannot fault her for that (although I’m pretty sure I tried). Even if we weren’t really going out on a regular basis, the first year of sobriety was made easier by her occasional presence in my life. And I thank her for that.   

She took me to Cyclon Anaya’s, a kind of upscale Tex-Mex place on Oak Lawn. A couple of years before, going there for a couple of margaritas at the bar, then some sangria (to slow the pace a bit) during dinner on the patio would have been the perfect start to a great evening.

 Or a perfect start to an evening about to go terribly wrong. One never knows about these things.

 Instead, I was fine drinking iced tea and, I believe, one non-alcoholic beer. It was a good evening, not great. Hey, in this life “good” is good enough. It’s one of the most difficult things to learn, but once you accept that those great highs can only be accompanied by an equal number of miserable and sometimes disastrous, even deadly lows, a “good” time is more than just ok.

 For a more extensive celebration of the one-year anniversary of being free of alcohol’s grip, I decided to watch some drunks on film. I wanted to see what if anything I was missing. No, that’s not quite right.

 I wanted to see a portrayal of miserable drunks in movies. That was the intent. What I got was one of the most miserable portrayals of a drunk, one that was unfathomably rewarded with a Best Actor Oscar in 1995. More on that in a moment.

 I rented three movies – “Sideways,’’ “Barfly’’ and “Leaving Las Vegas.’’

The only one I hadn’t seen was “Sideways’’ and I was a bit misinformed as to what it was. Yes, Paul Giamatti and his buddy, Thomas Haden Church, drink a lot of wine and occasionally make poor decisions on an inebriated tour of the wine country.

 But these aren’t the drunks I know. I spent those two years covering the Giants and enjoyed the three or four visits to the wine country that my young wife, Lori, and I made there, but I have lived in Texas the past 23 years and for most of my life. This is the land of beer drinkers and shot takers.

This is not wine-sipping country.

 Anyway, I think Alexander Payne’s films (Election, About Schmidt, Sideways, The Descendants) are all more beloved by critics than by film-goers although I thought “The Descendants” was probably the best of the films nominated for best picture in 2011 (though not as good as “Drive,’’ “Girl With the Dragon Tattoo’’ and “Take Shelter’’). I’ll save all that for my next book, “Why Sportswriters Get Awards Voting Right Compared to the Idiots in Hollywood.”

Next I watched “Barfly’ which I remembered as being good but wasn’t sure how good. Who knows? There’s a pretty good chance I was drinking the first time I watched it at home, don’t you think?

It’s impressive that an actor such as Mickey Rourke, who’s not exactly afraid to overdo it or steal a scene, can get a drunk so accurately at the same time. I think drunks are difficult to play on TV or in film. Most actors get it wrong, slurring words or wobbling across the screen.

(If you want to see two people who get it right time after time, watch Amy Poehler and especially Rashida Jones on one of my favorite shows, “Parks and Recreation.” They do it a lot, and they nail it every time.)

Now you might be cynical and suggest Rourke was just playing himself. How much credit does a man who’s led such a wheels-off life get for playing a wheels-off character? Regardless, there are many great moments, and much of it is a tribute to the screenplay, not just Rourke’s performance.

Henry (Rourke) spends most of the movie getting beat up by Eddie (Frank Stallone of all people) and hanging out with fellow barfly Wanda (Faye Dunaway). I’ve seen people that maintain the perpetual half-drunkenness of Henry, able to function enough to get to the bar, to occasionally pay for their drinks but not quite capable of functioning in society.

“I can’t stand people,’’ Wanda tells him when they first meet at the bar. “I hate them. Do you hate them?”

Henry: “No….but I seem to feel better when they’re not around.’’

Henry delivers all of his little speeches in the film in the same sing-song style.

On why he doesn’t stop drinking: “Anybody can do that. Anybody can be a non-drinker. It  takes a special talent to be a drunk. It takes ENDURANCE. Endurance is more important than truth.’’

On not having a job: “You know somebody laid down this rule where everybody’s got to DO something, everybody’s got to BE somebody….a dentist, a glider pilot, a narc, a janitor, a preacher. Sometimes I just get tired of thinking all the things I don’t wanna DO, all the things I don’t wanna BE, all the places I don’t wanna GO, like India. Like getting my teeth cleaned.’’

Near the end, the woman who’s trying to encourage Henry’s work as a writer says that being a drunk “seems like a limited world, is there anything else to it?’’

Henry responds, “No. Just self-sufficient illusion.’’

Although the fights look like Hollywood fights, there’s never a single moment in the bar, The Golden Horn (“A Friendly Place”), that comes across as unreal. There’s never a shot where I think Rourke is anything but a genuine drunk.

Maybe I haven’t known people quite as destitute as Henry and Wanda. But I’ve certainly met a few just this side of desperate, folks whose local bar was their home away from home and for them, sadly, it was a happier place than their home. At least that’s how they envisioned the bar at the start of each day.  

On the other hand, there’s not a single minute in “Leaving Las Vegas” where Nicolas Cage is remotely believable. The manner in which he takes huge gulps from liquor bottles, the things he says as he moves inexorably towards drinking himself to death don’t contain an ounce of truth.

I remembered thinking the movie was overrated when I saw it in a theater and wondering how he and this film possibly could have been so honored at the time. You can argue the idiocy of “Dances With Wolves’’ over “GoodFellas’’ for best picture or “Shakespeare in Love” over “Saving Private Ryan’’ for the same thing, but I’ll take Cage over the field as the biggest joke of all.

As he slowly drinks himself to death, you feel nothing. As for Elisabeth Shue, you just feel sorry that this was the best role she could get. Given her recent work in “Piranha,’’ maybe it’s just not going to happen for her. 

It was painful to watch, not because Cage reminded me of myself or anyone I’d ever known. I just felt bad for all the other actors in 1995 who watched him collect a Golden Globe and an Oscar for this portrayal.

Nobody who’s ever had a drinking problem has willfully chosen to be like Rourke’s character. But there’s an understanding of how a life can descend to that level and how, once having reached the bottom, the escape route doesn’t seem worth searching for. Rourke captures it. Cage swings for the fences and misses by a mile.

“Self-sufficient illusion.”

That’s a nice little phrase to repeat to yourself and ponder about a lot of things.

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