In what has become an annual tradition, I have decided to embark in a third round of the 50 Movies Project. The premise is simple — I have put together a list of 50 movies that I feel I absolutely must see in order to continue my progression as a film lover. With so many films to see, it’s easy to get off track and forget about some of the essentials. This is my way of making sure I watch those that have been on my “must see” list for too long.
Leaving Las Vegas 
Director: Mike Figgis
Screenplay: Mike Figgis
Starring: Nicolas Cage, Elisabeth Shue, Julian Sands
Running Time: 111 minutes
Reason for inclusion: I heard this is one of the greatest films about alcoholism, a subject I have always found fascinating. I have also heard many great things about Nicolas Cage’s performance.
Accolades: Four Oscar nominations (one win for Best Actor), four Golden Globe nominations (one win for Best Actor), total of 29 wins and 19 nominations from multiple awards outlets
“I don’t know if my wife left me because of my drinking or I started drinking ’cause my wife left me.”
That one line perfectly encapsulates the life of Ben Sanderson (Nicolas Cage), an alcoholic screenwriter who lost control of himself long ago. After getting fired from his job, Ben decides to travel to Las Vegas to “drink himself to death.” A rather generous severance check allows him to do as he pleases in Vegas, and he continues to consume seemingly endless amounts of booze. Beer, vodka, tequila, whiskey… you name it, Ben will drink it.
It is in Vegas where Ben meets another sad soul, a prostitute named Sera (Elizabeth Shue). The two of them immediately bond over their shortcomings, and both seem willing to overlook the other’s major faults. It isn’t entirely clear what draws the two of them together, other than both are incredibly lonely and desperate to find someone to care for them. Truth be told, there really isn’t a whole lot that they can do for each other. At one point, after Ben tells Sera that he cares about her, he makes a point to say, “You can never, ever, ask me to stop drinking.”
Sarah’s reply? “I know.”
And so goes this tragic tale. There is a strange affection between these two characters, even though their relationship seems doomed from the start. After all, can a hooker really help a drunk, or vice versa? Yet even though this is a bizarre couple, their relationship is completely believable.
This credit completely and undeniably goes to Nicolas Cage and Elizabeth Shue, both of whom have delivered arguably the best performances of their careers. Their chemistry is perfected to the point of absurdity, with each expertly portraying someone who has essentially hit rock bottom. There are others in the cast — such as Julian Sands as Sera’s brute of a pimp, or Ben’s old colleagues played by Richard Lewis and Steven Weber — but this is very much a two-person show. Cage won an Oscar for his performance, and I’m willing to forgive his last decade of shoddy work based simply on this alone. It’s that good.
Leaving Las Vegas was filmed on a very small budget, which paved the way for Mike Figgis to direct, write the screenplay and compose its music. He filmed most of the scenes on location with Super 16 cameras, and as a result the film has a very personal, authentic feel to it. His overtly jazzy soundtrack may be a bit too much at times, but it does fit in with the overall bleak, downtrodden nature of the movie.
As far as films about alcoholism go, this is one of the better ones I have seen. Leaving Las Vegas is painstakingly depressing, but its authentic nature hits all the right notes.