Tag Archives: withnail and i

MEMORABLE FILM CHARACTERS #4 – WITHNAIL

MEMORABLE FILM CHARACTERS #4 – WITHNAIL

Written and directed by: Bruce Robinson

Produced by: Paul Heller

Cast: Richard E. Grant, Paul McGann, Ralph Brown, Richard Griffiths


***CONTAINS SPOILERS***



“We want the finest wines available to humanity. And we want them here, and we want them now!” Withnail


I am not one to believe in fate, but there has to be something magical about the random moment, at the age of seventeen, I was perusing my local video shop looking for a film to rent, and the cover of low-budget, British independent character drama, Withnail and I (1987), shone amidst the variety of Hollywood produced fodder. I picked up the box and for some reason the story of two unemployed actors mooching about at the fag end of the 1960s called to me. Perhaps it was the front cover featuring the debauched and worse-for-wear looking character of Withnail which drew me in? Or was it the casting of Paul McGann as the eponymous ‘I’, an actor I recognised from excellent TV drama, The Monocled Mutineer. Whatever the reasons, I rented the film and a special bond was formed forthwith. It lasts to this day.

Firmly in my top-ten-line-for-line-best-dialogue-ever-movies, Withnail and I (1987) simply bursts with memorable spats, insults, one-liners, and speeches. Another major strength of Bruce Robinson’s elegantly profane screenplay is the relationship between permanently inebriated and cowardly ‘thespian’, Withnail (Richard E. Grant) and his buddy, ‘I’ (McGann). It is a strange friendship full of mutual disrespect, petty bickering, and envy, but by the end of the film a kindly form of love is revealed. Withnail may seem an angry man, but ultimately, he’s using that ire to hide pain, sadness, and disappointment.




“I feel like a pig shat in my head.” Withnail


Richard E. Grant is incredible as the paralytic, pathetic and cowardly Withnail, who, along with ‘I’, laments a lack of career opportunities. Such bitterness, jealousy and ranting make him hugely obnoxious. However, Robinson’s exquisite writing and Grant’s subtly empathetic performance actually create an incredibly poignant character. Well, that and he’s absolutely hilarious, Indeed, it’s a hedonistic joy witnessing Withnail drinking every liquid known to humanity as he attempts to obliterate the now and tomorrow. Unbelievably, Richard E. Grant was teetotal, so director Bruce Robinson had to get him very, very drunk in preparation for a role he never bettered in his whole career.

Bruce Robinson, arguably, never reached the heights of Withnail and I (1987) again, although he does have other impressive writing credits. But this screenplay is one of the greatest ever written; conversely making it one of the funniest and tragic films of all time. Lastly, his often quoted but rarely bettered work is one of the greatest I have ever read, brimming with towering poetry, bilious insults, and drunken repartee. I mean there is little plot to the story of two actors getting drunk, going to the country, getting drunk and coming back. However, it remains one of my favourite films of all time, with one of the most memorable characters in Withnail.


ALCOHOLICS ASSEMBLE! SOME “GREAT” ON-SCREEN DRUNKS!

ALCOHOLICS ASSEMBLE!  SOME “GREAT” ON-SCREEN DRUNKS! 

“I was in love with a beautiful blonde once. She drove me to drink. It’s the one thing I’m indebted to her for.”
W.C. Fields, Never Give a Sucker an Even Break

Cinema and booze have always been two of my favourite things to distract me before I stagger off to the great pub in the sky!  So, why not have a look at some of the great drunks, characters and performances I have enjoyed over the years on the box or at the cinema.

AL PACINO – SCARFACE (1983)

While the rise of Pacino’s monstrous Cocaine-Capitalist owes much to narcotics and murder, he also plays a mean and nasty drunk. This is seen most notably in the restaurant scene where he spits and spews insults at his wife and the upper-middle classes surrounding him.  Never has intoxication been so nasty and yet as sociologically adroit.

ARTHUR HOUSMAN – LAUREL AND HARDY (VARIOUS)

Laurel and Hardy are still the funniest people ever committed to celluloid but they had also had a fine “mess” of supporting actors. One of them was Arthur Housman, who was the go-to-guy when you wanted a funny lush.  I reckon acting drunk is far more difficult than it looks but this guy nails it perfectly.

BARNEY GUMBLE – THE SIMPSONS (1989 – )

Barney Gumble’s status as a boozer is so legendary he actually makes Homer’s drinking look normal.  Rarely is Barney sober and even his catchphrase is a supersonic belch from the pits of hell.  Occasionally he will clean up or venture into normality but Barney will always be a hilarious alcoholic we’ve come to love.

BILLY BOB THORNTON – BAD SANTA (2003)

We all love a Christmas piss-up but Billy Bob Thornton’s drunken Santa does it all year round. He basically drinks in order to escape the shittiness of his life and a job he hates.  This film is one of the greatest comedies of all time as Willie Stokes hits rock bottom and the self-destruct button too!

DEAN MARTIN – RIO BRAVO (1959)

Part of the original Rat Pack, Dean Martin, was known for his wild drinking ways off-stage.  So, when he played drunkard, the Dude, in classic Western Rio Bravo (1959) there’s a thick varnishing of truth brought to the role. Martin’s Dude is a ridiculed because of his over-reliance on booze, thus the character attempts to get back some self-respect in a narrative heavy on machismo and redemption.

DENZIL WASHINGTON – FLIGHT (2012)

A jaw-dropping plane crash and landing introduces us to super-pilot Whip Whitaker. He should be celebrated as a hero but the character’s downfall is he performed this death-defying feat while high on drugs and alcohol.  Washington is incredible in this brilliant evocation of a man battling addiction and his struggle is brilliantly orchestrated by Robert “Back to the Future” Zemeckis.

LEE REMICK & JACK LEMMON – DAYS OF WINE AND ROSES (1962)

This heart-breaking film — with brilliant performances from Lee Remick and Jack Lemmon — shows the power alcohol has as it systematically shakes you like a rabid dog until one’s soul is hollowed out. The story shows a couple succumbing to the demon drink after which their relationship is torn apart. It’s also demonstrates the power of AA in aiding treatment for recovery.

MICKEY ROURKE – BARFLY (1987)

Charles Bukowski was one of the great boozers of all time as he actually drank incessantly AND became a celebrated author. He didn’t just write about drinking and women but also his failure to reconcile with the futility of existence.  Thankfully such dark materials made some great books as well as Barfly starring Mickey Rourke and Faye Dunaway. It’s painful to watch but a faithful rendition of Bukowski’s jet-black wit and mordant writing.

MICHAEL ELPHICK – AUF WEIDERSEHEN PET (1983 – 1984)

Elphick was a stalwart of British TV and cinema for years and brought a grizzled but often empathetic quality to his roles. He was comfortable as the lovable rogue and vicious hard man; none more so when he played psychotic drunken Irishmen McGowan in classic 80s comedy-drama Auf Weidersehen Pet. His character was so scary even Jimmy Nail’s Oz was fearful of him. Sadly, Elphick himself would pass away due to alcohol-related illness.

NICOLAS CAGE – LEAVING LAS VEGAS (1995)

The “Town Drunk” and “Tart with A Heart” are staple characters throughout our culture and these archetypes are breathed new life through incredible performances by Nicolas Cage and Elizabeth Shue.  Cage’s writer is determined to drink himself to death while Shue’s hooker is just trying to survive. They are an unlikely romantic couple as this hard-hitting drama plays like a touching prayer to the bottle, the gutter and the emptiness of existence without love.

PETER COOK AND DUDLEY MOORE – DEREK AND CLIVE GET THE HORN (1979)

Derek and Clive were the filthy alter-egos of comedians Peter Cook and Dudley Moore. They released a series of sexually explicit, racist, sexist, homophobic, scatological and scurrilously hilarious albums in the 1970s. Moore and Cook basically got smashed and committed to tape a string of obnoxious sketches unsuitable to man nor beast. Both were alcoholics and the film version of Derek and Clive illustrates that. Dudley Moore would even have a box office hit as millionaire pisshead Arthur (1981) but this film, shot as they were kind of splitting up, is raw, funny and at times painful to watch.

RAY MILLAND – LOST WEEKEND (1949)

This dark noir is another filmic masterpiece from Billy Wilder. Ray Milland’s writer battles the bottle and those closest to him in an attempt to feed his addiction. Milland won an Oscar and not only lost weight but stayed in a mental institution in preparation. It’s an important film as it was one of the first to show alcoholic’s destructive nature rather than present the comedic drunk that had appeared mostly on screen up until that then.

RICHARD E. GRANT – WITHNAIL AND I (1987)

“We want the finest wines available to humanity. And we want them here, and we want them now!”

This often quoted but rarely bettered screenplay is one of the greatest I have ever witnessed and read; brimming with towering poetry, bilious insults and drunken repartee.  Richard E. Grant is incredible as the paralytic, pathetic and cowardly actor who with Paul McGann’s eponymous ‘I’ for company laments a lack of career opportunities at the fag-end of the 1960s. It’s a hedonistic and bitter sweet joy with Withnail drinking every liquid known to humanity attempting to obliterate the now to avoid the tomorrow. Unbelievably, Richard E. Grant was teetotal so director Bruce Robinson had to get him “pissed” in preparation for a role he never bettered in his whole career.

W.C. FIELDS – VARIOUS

W. C. Fields was a comedy genius who began on the stages of Vaudeville as a juggler and became one of the most famous drunks on the silver screen. One may argue he simply transferred his alcoholic persona onto film but there’s some skill in being able to turn a weakness into a towering comedic strength. His one-liners and insults have gone down in history as some of the smartest and sarcastic ever written and when compiling this list his was one of the first name’s on it.

WILLIE ROSS – RITA SUE AND BOB TOO (1987)

Last but not least is the imperious drunk Willie Ross.  His is the best lagging-pisshead acting I have ever seen on screen!  His character in Rita, Sue and Bob Too was a racist, sexist, unemployable, drunken bully who when stood up to would simply cower amidst his own weak character and lack of bravado.  Club comedian Ross also appeared in classic British TV drama Our Friends in The North as Daniel Craig vicious alcoholic father and also on stage in plays by Chekhov and Coward.

SOME FAVOURITE MOVIE DIALOGUE SCENES – #1

SOME FAVOURITE MOVIE DIALOGUE SCENES – #1

Cinema, historically, is seen as a visual medium telling its’ stories via wonderful imagery and sequences spliced together to traverse the collective vision of an omnipotent director.  And there have been some incredible filmmakers who have created fantastic visual landscapes to be marvelled at such as: Stanley Kubrik, David Lean, Ridley Scott, David Fincher, Andrei Tarkovsky and er. . . Michael Bay.  Yet, as much as I love the films of such ‘epic’ filmmakers you just can’t beat a brilliantly written piece of dialogue created by a screenwriter and delivered by an actor committed to the character and performance.

Bad dialogue will be on-the-nose, telling us the story specifically and reveal half-baked emotions from paper-thin characters; while great dialogue will tell us about character, theme, and subtext as well as make the audience laugh, cry and most importantly feel emotion.  I love dialogue which is both funny and dramatic and reveals the nature and dynamics of characters’ relationships; especially scenes where characters verbally abuse each other or have gone into meltdown mode.

So, here’s a random list of some of my favourite dialogue scenes and why I like them so much. But, of course, the dialogue would probably be nothing without some fine performances too.  I’m certain there’s many, many more scenes or monologues I’ve left out but as Osgood says to Jerry in SOME LIKE IT HOT – in one of the greatest final lines of any movie – “Nobody’s Perfect!”

(SPOILER ALERT and assumptions you have seen these films. If not, why not!?)

SOME LIKE IT HOT (1959)

 “Nobody’s Perfect!”

Voted one of, if not the best comedy ever by the American Film Institute this scene is a gimme. It is genuinely the funniest ending to a great comedy.  The dialogue is both hilarious and nails the characters’ personas right to the end. Cool heartthrob Joe (Tony Curtis) gets the ultimate blonde bombshell, Sugar (Marilyn Monroe) while hapless loser Jerry’s (Jack Lemmon) plan to marry for a big settlement backfires splendidly.  Lemmon was one of the greatest screen actors ever as he was able to do comedy, pathos and drama with wonderful timing and he shows that in this highly witty scene.

RESERVOIR DOGS (1992)

 “Why Am I Mr Pink?”

I love Tarantino’s dialogue. For me he’s the closest you’ll get to a 20th Century Shakespeare.  All his films – apart from Death Proof (2007) which I hate – have wonderful characters, casting and set-pieces. Most of his scripts tend to be a tad overlong  e.g. Kill Bill (2004) could and should have been one film. Therefore, because of its’ economy, muscular writing and fast pacing, Reservoir Dogs (1992), remains a major favourite of his ouevre.  I love the temporally jigsawed order, testosteronic cast and above all else, the hard-boiled dialogue. It’s lean, bruised and biting; spat out by unreconstructed men who are destined to die a violent, painful death.

The Mr Pink (Steve Buscemi) ‘I don’t tip’ scene deserves to be on this list but the one where they all get their names from big Joe Cabot (Lawrence Tierney) is a  diamond in a cluster of sparkling rough.  Industrial language crackles from the screen and the hilarious argument that ensues further sums up Mr Pink’s petty-minded character. Interestingly, this scene was not in the original screenplay and was added to the film during shooting.


MILLER’S CROSSING (1990)

“If you can’t trust a fix. What can you trust?”

The opening scene of Miller’s Crossing – like the whole movie – perfectly encapsulates the 1920s/1930s language of America as represented by, not actuality, but the works of noir novelists Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. The Coens’ postmodern vision creates a world of violence, dames, sluggers, double-crosses and prohibition-led organized crime. The scene begins with a speech by Italian gang-leader Johnny Caspar (Jon Polito) who espouses his “ethical” modus operandi on fight-fixing to soon-to-be-rival Leo (Albert Finney). While the dialogue crackles and pops; the scene also foregrounds all the key characters on screen at the time and those to appear later in the movie – notably John Turturro’s slimy bookie Bernie Birnbaum. You could probably do a Top 100 of great dialogue scenes from Coen Brothers’ movies and this is certainly up there with the best of them.

Johnny Caspar:  I’m talkin’ about friendship. I’m talkin’ about character. I’m talkin’ about – hell. Leo, I ain’t embarrassed to use the word – I’m talkin’ about ethics. It’s gettin’ so a businessman can’t expect no return from a fixed fight. Now, if you can’t trust a fix, what can you trust? For a good return, you gotta go bettin’ on chance – and then you’re back with anarchy, right back in the jungle.

MISERY (1990)

“He didn’t get out of the cockadoodie car!!”

Kathy Bates deservedly won an Oscar for her barnstorming performance as Annie Wilkes. Stephen King’s Wilkes’ is a charismatic lunatic who takes the ‘I’m your number one fan’ maxim to the extreme. This scene reveals more, in some ways, than the memorably gruesome ‘hobbling’ scene. It shows Wilkes’ skewed understanding of narrative by revealing her disgust at ‘cheating’ cliffhangers of Saturday morning serials.  While her language is funny, the delivery and anger in Bates’ performance is very unnerving as demonstrated by Caan’s stunned reaction when he realises he is in the company of a very disturbed individual.  Lastly, I actually agree with her!  They always cheated in those TV shows!

WITHNAIL & I (1986)

“What’s your name – Mcfuck?!”

Definitely in my top-ten-line-for-line-best-dialogue-ever-movies, WITHNAIL & I simply bursts with memorable spats, insults, one-liners and speeches.  I recall being incredibly drunk following a birthday party and watching this scene over and over again and almost choking on my own laughter.  It’s still quite early in the film but the relationship between permanently inebriated cowardly ‘thespian’ Withnail (Richard E. Grant) and the eponymous ‘I’ (Paul McGann) is perfectly crystallized in their exchanges with the dangerously lubricated Irish barfly.

Withnail not only reveals his ineptitude in facing physical confrontation but is more than happy to stitch his companion up in a scene which is later mirrored during their run-in with a randy bull. Moreover, the scene slyly sets up the character of Monty (Richard Griffiths) and the disastrous trip to the country, demonstrating great writing in burying such exposition within the comical encounter.  Bruce Robinson, arguably, never reached the heights of Withnail and I again unfortunately. But his screenplay is one of the greatest ever written; conversely making it one of the funniest and tragic films of all time.

ANNIE HALL (1977)

“I have to go Duane – I’m due back on Planet Earth.”

Arguably the most brilliant and prolific screenwriter/directors ever, Woody Allen’s movies – especially his ‘early, funny films’ – are jammed with gags, slapstick and cracking one-liners.  Allen’s cinematic art would mature and his hilarious romantic comedy Annie Hall forms a creative bridge between the joke-driven all-out comedies and the more dramatic works featured in Allen’s oeuvre. Annie Hall is obviously still of full of punchline-led scenes as it tells a classic boy-meets-girl-boy-breaks-up-with-girl-boy-analyses-where-it-all-went-wrong tale, only Allen could pull off.

I could’ve picked any number of great scenes from Annie Hall but one I always remember features the majestically intense – even as a youngster – Christopher Walken. It’s his only scene but he still stands out as Annie’s brother, Duane: a psychotic loner with suicidal tendencies.  His short but very dramatic monologue is perfectly delivered as Duane confesses a desire to kill himself in an automobile accident. Comedy arrives by virtue of Allen’s squirming reactions in the car with Duane and the final pay-off is an absolute treat.

BRIDESMAIDS (2011)

“I feel bad for your face!”

I love this scene because it really sums up Kristen Wiig’s unhappy-go-lucky-loser-status in the film.  Wiig’s Annie suffers a severe case of arrested development throughout and in the squabble with the young girl she should really be mature and know better. Annie’s in negative equity romantically and forever in the shadow of other more successful women and just as things cannot get any worse she enters into a ping-pong argument with this brattish teenager that escalates WAY out of control. It culminates in a wonderfully rude topper of a punchline that left me laughing my head off.  There’s also an element of wish fulfilment in there too as I would love to have let rip in a similar fashion during my time in customer service.

GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS – (1992)

“Fuck you! That’s my name!”

In Glengarry Glen Ross, Alec Baldwin plays the character Blake, almost earning the silver-tongued raconteur an Oscar for the role. He’s in ONE scene. ONE scene, yet because of David Mamet’s mercurial speech he steals the whole film.   This is no mean feat given the cast contains an annual Oscar Best Actor nominee list: Jack Lemmon, Al Pacino, Kevin Spacey, Ed Harris, Alan Arkin and Jonathan Pryce.  Blake’s speech is a rallying call for the sales team to raise their game, full of acronymic inspiration and cursing and flat-track bullying. It quickly turns to a litany of threats, abuse and monetary grandstanding as the sales guys just don’t respond to Blake’s aggressive personality.  I fucking hate sales jobs and they suck because of guys like Blake who do not care about the customer – just the dough!  Although having said that if I’d heard Mamet’s speech delivered by Baldwin I’d be ready to sell snow to the Eskimos.  He’s that good!