Nineteen: The Scarlet Letter, Alcoholism, and “Being True”

The Scarlet Letter (1995) is a weird, corny movie that suffers from its attempt to modernize the themes of the text on which it is based. It’s one of the worst adaptations of a novel I have ever seen, and diverges so much from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s original work that even the opening credits admit that the film is “freely adapted” from the book. Very, very freely, indeed. In its defense, the film is for the most part watchable, the cinematography and the sets are nice, and some of its departures from the novel are to be expected for the 90’s, like the heightened romance between its leads as explained in a long preamble to the main plot. Even though Demi Moore is miscast as Hester (and her hair sure won’t hold those signature puritan curls), she and Gary Oldman have decent chemistry, but the movie’s obsession with shallow, post-feminist lip-service, awkward-as-hell eroticism, and an offensive subplot involving Native Americans is painful. Eventually, even for viewers who haven’t read Hawthorne’s novel, it falls apart.

Widely panned by critics, Scarlet Letter was also a flop with audiences, earning a bunch of Razzie nominations and, years later, a punchline in 09’s teen movie Easy A, in which Emma Stone mutters “To say that this movie was ‘freely adapted’ is a bit of an understatement, Guvnor.”

When you want to be intimate but your girl used way too much hairspray

It’s funny then that Oldman, when asked by critic Peter Travers to select a handful of his own film appearances that he was pleased with, listed Scarlet Letter alongside his universally praised work in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and True Romance. In the 2011 interview, Travers is puzzled by this inclusion, and reminds Oldman that the movie was hammered with bad reviews at the time. “Yeah,” concedes Gary, “but there’s some good work in there.”

That’s an awful nice book you got there. Be a shame if someone were to… completely rewrite it.

I think he’s right, actually. Scarlet Letter is one of the actor’s worst big budget movies, and it’s not one of my personal favorites, but Oldman really works as the tortured minister Arthur Dimmesdale.

As Dimmesdale, Oldman is mired in the movie’s schmaltz, but he still manages to anchor himself in the articulate pain of the original text; we are sympathetic to Dimmesdale’s dilemma and want to see him step up and break free of the legalism and soul-crushing lies. It would have been nice to see Oldman have a shot at the character in a better production, but I wonder if that’s what Gary meant when he shared his affection for the “good work” that he still sees in the film.

Note: This post is part of an ongoing project, the goal of which is to watch and contemplate every movie in which actor Gary Oldman has appeared (there are many, the man likes to work). Posts tend to contain reviews but are not excluded to that sort of framework– much like Gary’s career, I’m wildly unpredictable!

As with all MYWG entries, the following will probably contain spoilers!

  • Scarlet Letter’s ranking on the Oldometer: 3/10
  • Gary Oldman character quality: The Reverend Dimmesdale is a complex literary figure, and even though this movie does its best to destroy everything good about its source material, Oldman somehow preserves at least a good portion of what makes this character so compelling. I don’t love his facial hair, though.
  • Does Gary die in this one? Sigh… no, but this time he actually should have. Dimmesdale’s death is a hugely affecting moment in the book. The climax of this movie is just bonkers, I can’t even explain it.

Also bonkers is this sex scene in a rice barn. Snap crackle NOPE.

Oldman has been forthcoming on several occasions about his struggles with alcohol abuse and his commitment to sobriety, a process that began around the time Scarlet Letter was released. Oldman’s father was an alcoholic (he died of liver failure in ’86), and Gary began to follow suit early in his career; his alcoholism was allegedly the cause for the dissolution of his marriages to both Lesley Manville and Uma Thurman. It definitely earned him a DUI in ’91, after which, he says, he had to make a choice about his behavior for safety’s sake– he decided to quit driving. He went on “70-day benders,” his tongue “turned black.” In a poignant retelling of this dark period, Gary recounted for GQ that he would regularly check himself into Hollywood hotels for long weekends and drink himself into oblivion, going through the minibar fridge “three, four, five, six times” making expensive drunk dials, and quoting Hamlet to himself for hours. This portion of the interview, related by the GQ journalist, is killer:

The detail that really brings home the strange desolation of what he was doing is that of the ritual he would engage in when someone came to bring more drinks and refill the minibar. In his hotel room, Oldman would carefully stage the scene so that it seemed as though—to him, at least—there were other people there drinking with him. He’d leave several glasses around the room with remnants of drink in them, and he’d place the cushions so they looked as though they had been sat on, and put on the TV in the other room to give the impression there were people in there.

… These benders would end in one final moment of humiliation, down at the reception desk, when the bill would start printing out and not stop for a very long time. He acts this out to me as a comic scene: “The ticker tape coming out_….dssssk…­dssssk…­dssssk…­dssssk…­dssssk…­dssssk…­dssssk…­dssssk…­dssssk…­dssssk…­dssssk…­dssssk…­dssssk…­dssssk…­dssssk…­dssssk…­dssssk…­_” He mimes the endless bill surrounding him. “I looked like the Mummy,” he says. “And they go, ’Very nice to see you again, Mr. Oldman.’ ” 

When he wasn’t doing this, he “averaged two bottles of vodka a day, easy.” Oldman claims that his vice never interfered with his work– until Scarlet Letter.

He crossed some more oceans of time to keep that Dracula wig, too bad he couldn’t find any actual oceans to wash it in…

Despite his apparent affection for his work as Dimmesdale, Oldman doesn’t remember much of the production because he spent the majority of the shoot wasted AF. What few anecdotes he can recollect are embarrassing, such as when the makeup team applied spray-on abs to his body which he had stopped bothering to maintain (because alcohol). While shooting the film’s dramatic climax, for the first time in his career he failed to remember his lines. After a whole afternoon of flubs (because drunk), the crew resorted to feeding his dialog to him through an earpiece. Demi Moore (a sober gal herself) finally confronted her co-star, telling him “you’re very ill — you have to go away. I am very worried about you.”

And then things took a strange turn. This week on Intervention: Worst Case Scenario

Following this confrontation (and one last epic, months-long bender in London) Oldman did “go away” to receive treatment and began attending Alcoholics Anonymous. I don’t know what his work towards sobriety looked like, or whether or not there were relapses along the way, but here’s what Gary’s said on the subject: “Getting sober was one of the three pivotal events in my life, along with becoming an actor and having a child. Of the three, finding sobriety was the hardest thing.” He later adds: “And the most important thing, because without it all the other things don’t happen.” Also: “I knew that I was going to die. There were things I wanted to accomplish. But for the grace of God, I’m here today and people like River Phoenix aren’t.”

“In hindsight, I really regret naming her Svedka.”

Before writing this, I poked around the sober hubs on Reddit and spent more time than I had planned reading posts celebrating 3 days, a week, 20 years of recovery (or confessions of relapse), and the following onslaught of supportive comments from the community. I even noticed that members had shared and identified with the aforementioned GQ article in which Oldman unloaded his hotel story, along with quotes and anecdotes from a variety of sober folks, from personal friends to celebrities, all apparently a balm to those who are battling addiction. One reddit user wrote (in r/stopdrinking) “I think it makes it easier for celebrities, politicians, and other public figures to publicly disclose past substance and addiction issues as we develop a society that embraces recovery. It definitely also helps persons like myself to read about persons like Oldman’s comments on their own personal struggles and recovery from alcoholism and other addictions… Some people still struggling but wanting to quit may find more ease in doing so when they learn other persons struggles and eventual path through recovery.”

Demi tries to show Gary what a blast sobriety is.

It is not unusual for those in recovery to share quotes from the poetic author Charles Bukowksi, while others prefer the bluntness of comedians (and recovering addicts) Craig Ferguson, Dax Shepherd, and Russell Brand. Others favor Carrie Fisher (may she rest), who wrote “I used to refer to my drug use as putting the monster in the box. I wanted to be less, so I took more – simple as that.” Another popular figure on this area of the internet is Robert Downey Jr, who infamously once said of his addiction: “I have a shotgun in my mouth, and I’ve got my finger on the trigger, and I like the taste of the metal.” Later, a recovering Downey also said “just because you hit bottom doesn’t mean you have to stay there.” I can understand the appeal of these words even if I can’t wrap my mind around the experience. They are honest words.

Well, that’s… dare I say… sobering.

I’ve known several people who have struggled and (thank goodness) overcome. My best friend’s father has been sober since my friend’s birth, and growing up around him as my part-time dad (as it is with your close friends’ parents) made me respect his commitment. He was always very forthcoming about his past life as a “drunk” (his words) and how putting that behind him had made him a better, stronger person. I’ve known meth addicts (one of them stole my record player, well how d’ya like that), prescription pill abusers, and several alcoholics. Regardless of how I feel for any of these people, IE whether or not I love them or no longer speak to them [because they stole my record player], when they cross my mind there is always a pang of sympathy and a sense of admiration. I do not personally struggle with alcohol, but I do have an addictive, depressive personality which has always made me wary about approaching potential vices healthily (and while I do imbibe, I would rather keep away from all the other stuff). Oldman’s anecdotes about lost weekends spent masquerading for hotel staff ring true to me.

I don’t mean to play tourist in someone else’s pain (though maybe I am), but it’s just… heartening to hear people share how they came to terms with themselves. Far more importantly, from what I’ve seen, this level of openness is vital for those owning up to the truth of their addiction (sharing is a cornerstone of AA, after all).

You’re not gonna find relief in the glass, I don’t care how much you breathe on it.

Again, not being an addict myself, I have zero authority on any of this, I’m just going by empathy and I don’t want to mythologize sobriety, which I know can be an ugly journey of ups and downs (nor am I trying to make the recovering addict into a hero in the purest sense; I know we’re all just people doing our best, alcoholics included). Still, from my completely inexperienced (but hopefully supportive) perspective, a recovering addict is by necessity very strong, what they have to override in themselves is beyond a bad habit. Many call it a disease. In order to get clean, addicts must accomplish what I think is the most staggeringly difficult task of self-examination by admitting to a weakness that has taken over their lives and probably damaged others. To get there, they must be in possession of– or learn– the remarkable trait of honesty. In like, a hardcore way.

People who read People are the luckiest people in the New Woorrllld

Maybe that’s what Oldman’s referring to when he mentions the “good work” that he sees in Scarlet Letter. I can only speculate, but maybe he’s thinking about facing rock bottom and the burgeoning self-assessment that he encountered while playing Dimmesdale. As the story goes, the Reverend secretly fathers an illegitimate baby birthed by Hester Prynn, a woman who is literally marked by the titular scarlet letter for her sin of adultery and shamed within her early American Puritan community. She refuses to divulge the identity of her baby daddy, which protects Dimmesdale from disdain, but the guilt that he feels for his sins turns out to be internally ruinous. He suffers for effectively abandoning Hester and leading a life of hypocrisy– dishonesty is his undoing.

Quoth the reverend in the grips of his pain: “I’m a pollution! I am a lie!” He’s guy who projects the facade of righteousness while struggling with a destructive erosion of sin and deceit on his spiritual, emotional, and physical health. Of this time, Gary said “I was just worn out. It’s like a three-headed dragon, it attacks you spiritually, emotionally and physically… I knew that I was going to die.” Unlike, perhaps, your average addict, Oldman had moneys for rehab and could probably negotiate time off from movie-work, but first it was honesty that saved his life.

In the film’s climactic scene (the one that Oldman required an earpiece for), Dimmesdale is finally released from his burden via a public admission to his dalliance with Hester (though his love for her is more of the point). Unfortunately, his moment is somewhat undermined by an attack on the village by some angry Native Americans (?) and a whole action sequence ensues. There’s more to it– I’m still befuddled by the whole thing– but this event prevents the hanging that the Puritans had in mind for Hester and Dimmesdale, and the lovers escape with their baby to start a new life. It’s an odd, very Hollywood choice (and the biggest issue I have with the movie), but I suppose it’s a renewal and reward for confession.

Frankly, Scarlet

In Hawthorne’s novel, though, Dimmesdale dies. Just before he fades away, he embraces the truth and makes a clean breast of things, but it’s too late– his deceit has poisoned him. I read the book years ago, but I am still haunted by what the author suggests we are to glean from Dimmesdale’s tragic end. It seems an appropriate note to end on:

Among many morals which press upon us from the poor minister’s miserable experience, we put only this into a sentence:—“Be true! Be true! Be true! Show freely to the world, if not your worst, yet some trait whereby the worst may be inferred!”

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