5 Pop Culture Portrayals of Addicts That Scared the Crap out of Us
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5 Pop Culture Portrayals of Addicts That Scared the Crap out of Us


addicts in moviesThis post was originally published on May 7, 2014.

Before you became an addict yourself, you probably watched addicts—a lot of them—in a wide variety of TV and movies. If you’re anything like us, that means you probably devised a seriously messed-up view of addicts and their  scary, crazy ways. Here are five of pop culture’s most intense addict/alkie character portrayals…ones that admittedly freaked the hell out of us (but, uh, not enough to help us avoid following suit and becoming addicts ourselves, obvs).

1) Meg Ryan in When a Man Loves a Woman

Meg Ryan’s surprisingly stellar, believable performance as a mainly-functioning, upscale lady-drunk/wife/mom named Alice Green was insidious because when she was sober, she looked and seemed and sounded so normal. When wasted, Ryan effortlessly transformed into a ragey, incoherent, negligent mom who couldn’t be trusted to sufficiently take care of her young kids, much less herself. This one introduced me to the idea that anyone can become a drunk; that alcohol isn’t picky when it comes to money, class, or social status.

2) Elizabeth Taylor in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Oh God, I shudder just thinking about this one. This 1966 black comedy (I use that term loosely)/drama is powerful in its portrayal of the excruciating lows drunks can hit in their relationships—the petty meanness, mind games, exercises in cruelty and ill-advised manipulations that seem to compound and invisibly infuse themselves in every thread of the fabric of a couple’s life together. Both Elizabeth Taylor and her real-life love Richard Burton were devastating in this classic film.

3) Nicolas Cage in Leaving Las Vegas

Oof. Remember this one? Good old Nicolas Cage playing a suicidal drunk who’s decided to drink himself to death in Las Vegas? While he’s there, he meets and falls in love with a prostitute (Elisabeth Shue). Cage got an Oscar for his performance, and it’s deserved—he really captures the misery of feeling like you’re at the exact end of your rope. Lots of gross, sloppy, depressing drunk scenes, too.

4) Jon Hamm in Mad Men

Don Draper, the lead character in AMC’s beloved 1960s advertising-world drama, has a whole host of issues going on. He has so many issues, in fact, that it’s tempting to diagnose him with, well, almost everything—addiction, narcissism, sex addiction, depression…But one of the only things that’s indisputable about Don? That he can’t drink alcohol like a normal person. Jon Hamm’s performance is perfect in its subtlety; he pulls off Don’s reserved, inscrutable-but-miserable thing so cleanly, it’s both painful and inspiring to watch.

5) Ellen Burstyn in Requiem for a Dream

Ellen Burstyn’s portrayal of Sara Goldfarb, a pill-addicted aging widow in Coney Island, NYC, is brimming with such pain and pathos that it’s nearly impossible not to look at her with both profound empathy and disgust. After learning she will be invited to appear on a game show, our Sara decides to lose a bunch of weight courtesy of amphetamine diet pills. It doesn’t turn out well, as you can imagine, and her son’s life is an addicted free-fall mess as well. This film is so dark, you’ll be haunted for years.

Photo courtesy of JGH Rosewater via Flickr (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/) (resized and cropped)

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About Author

Laura Barcella is a documentary researcher, author, freelance writer and ghostwriter from Washington, DC. Her writing has also appeared in TIME, Marie Claire, Salon, Esquire, Elle, Refinery29, AlterNet, The Village Voice, Cosmopolitan, The Chicago Sun-Times, Time Out New York, BUST, ELLE Girl, NYLON and CNN.com. Her book credits include Know Your Rights: A Modern Kid's Guide to the American Constitution, Fight Like a Girl: 50 Feminists Who Changed the World, Popular: The Ups and Downs of Online Dating from the Most Popular Girl in New York City, Madonna & Me: Women Writers on the Queen of Pop and The End: 50 Apocalyptic Visions From Pop Culture That You Should Know About…Before It’s Too Late.