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My Name Is Bill W. (1989) - Overview, Synopsis, Critique

james alcoholism alcoholics film

Principal social theme: addiction (alcohol)

Warner Brothers. No MPAA rating. Featuring: James Woods, James Garner, JoBeth Williams, Gary Sinese, George Coe, Fritz Weaver, Norman Max, Rick Warner, Ray Reinhardt, Robert Harper, Jack Garner, Meredith Strange Boston. Written by William Borchert. Cinematography by Neil Roach. Edited by Paul Rubell and John Wright. Music by Laurence Rosenthal. Produced by Paul Rubell and James Garner. Directed by Daniel Petrie. Color. 99 minutes.


My Name Is Bill W . is based on the true-life story of Bill Wilson and how he came to form Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) in the 1930s, one of the most effective organizations in helping people cope with their alcoholism. The film is a balanced, impressive treatment of the issue, which by example is also useful in dealing with other addictive problems such as drug abuse, eating disorders, or gambling (including companion groups such as Gamblers Anonymous).


My Name Is Bill W . opens in the early 1950s, as Bill Wilson (James Woods) and his wife, Lois, visit their friend Dr. Bob Smith (James Garner) on his deathbed. As they talk, a flashback displays the story of Bill Wilson, starting in 1919 when he returns from World War I as a hero. Bill turns down a job with Thomas Edison and attempts to launch his own operation as a stockbroker and investigator of developing companies. Bill is very successful in his endeavors, but his wife Lois becomes concerned with his increased drinking. After the stock market crash in 1929, Bill’s alcoholism goes out of control. Lois moves in with her father, Dr. Burnham, and asks him to care for Bill. His drinking continues nevertheless, and she considers placing him in a sanitarium. Bill is hospitalized after stumbling into traffic. After reforming, he feels a need to reach out and try to help other drunks, but he finds he is unable to get their attention by preaching at them. In 1935, he gets an assignment to investigate a stock proxy fight in Akron Ohio. Bill finds himself with much time on his hands, and he is tempted to begin drinking again. He calls a local minister and asks if he could be introduced to another alcoholic with whom he could discuss his problems. He is introduced to Dr. Bob Smith, a chronic alcoholic who is suffering from a hangover. Bob is cool at first because he thinks Bill intends to lecture him. Instead, Bill says he actually needs Bob’s support. They strike up a friendship, share stories, and form a pact that they will help each other avoid drinking. After several weeks, they decide that the concept of mutual support may be the most effective means of dealing with alcoholism. They try reaching out to other alcoholics, who begin to respond to their honest approach. When Bill returns home to New York, Lois is upset that he spent four months in Akron, but supports his plans to form a new organization to be called Alcoholics Anonymous. Bill writes a book to set out the basic principles, and soon national magazines start to publicize the group. The flashback ends as Bob tells Bill to remember to “keep it simple” when reaching out to help other alcoholics. Bill and Lois tour the country, visiting AA groups wherever they go. Bill does not inform the groups that he is the AA founder, but individually he helps others whenever possible. The end title informs the audience that Bill Wilson continued with his work until his death in 1971.


My Name Is Bill W . is an exceptional film that explores the different approaches to dealing with alcoholism. Different characters in the film regard the condition in various ways, such as a moral failing, a crutch, or a refuge from disappointments. Dr. Silkworth, who specializes in treating alcoholism, proclaims that it needs to be regarded and treated as a disease. The scene in the Elmswood Sanitarium is remarkable, not overdramatized yet tremendously effective. Wisely, the film spends little time focusing on the guidelines of Alcoholics Anonymous. Instead, it shows the effect of the organization by illustration. The film avoids any outright preaching on the issue, implying that this approach is rarely successful. One character, Ebby (Gary Sinese) is Bill’s best friend. He overcomes his alcoholism because of his religious faith, but he later relapses, because he feels jealous that Bill struck up a closer relationship with Dr. Smith instead of himself. All the principal actors, James Woods, James Garner, JoBeth Williams, Fritz Weaver, and Gary Sinese are excellent and convincing, never overplaying their roles.

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