From Russian YouTube to spinning on the spot: Hollywood’s tricks to playing drunk

<span>Photograph: Alamy</span>
Photograph: Alamy

Were there an Oscar for best on-screen drunk (which there really should be), it would be a close-run thing this year. My money would be on Aubrey Plaza, who provides a magnificent display of wastedness in her new movie, Black Bear. Playing a neurotic indie actor at the end of her tether, she spends half the movie stumbling, lurching, wailing and losing her dignity. She wasn’t actually drunk, of course. This is the great challenge: acting drunk when you’re sober is no easier than acting sober when you’re drunk. To get into the right frame of unsteadiness, Plaza would spin round until almost throwing up just before the scene. That’s commitment.

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Giving her a run for her money this year would be Gary Oldman’s Mank (extra points for vomiting) or the ensemble cast of Another Round: four middle-aged Danish teachers who conduct a live experiment in alcoholic microdosing. You can guess how that goes. Again, there was no actual drinking on set. In order to precisely calibrate their drunkenness – “slightly merry” all the way to “bed-wettingly paralytic” – star Mads Mikkelsen and the rest of the cast went on a drinking “boot camp”. All-out drunkenness is the hardest, said Mikkelsen. For that, they watched a lot of Russian YouTube videos.

Another Round tackles humanity’s messy relationship with alcohol head-on. Mikkelsen reminds his class that great leaders such as Winston Churchill and Franklin D Roosevelt were high-functioning drunks while Hitler was teetotal. It’s similar with the movies. Old-school hellraisers such as Oliver Reed and Christopher Plummer needed no research on acting drunk, having spent much of their free time “rehearsing”. A few years ago, Plummer recalled how film-making in 1960s Britain usually meant downing tools after lunch – a long, boozy affair that left cast and crew too “pie-eyed” to do anything till the next morning.

There is always the “do it for real” approach to onscreen drunkenness, but it rarely ends well. Look at John Cassavetes’s Husbands, for example, in which he, Peter Falk and Ben Gazzara “play” three buddies on an extended drinking binge, which includes bullying women, vomiting and interminable rambling. And while the list of classic drunk films is long and illustrious, some of them look less charming in retrospect: the frat boys of Animal House, for example, or the entitled antics of Dudley Moore’s Arthur.

Raising the game this year, in both cautionary drinking tales and the drunk-acting category, is Carey Mulligan, star of Promising Young Woman. Her character’s strategy is to pretend she’s drunk, in order to expose predatory men all too ready to take advantage of her vulnerable state. So Mulligan isn’t simply acting drunk; she’s acting acting drunk. There ought to be a special Oscar for that.