There is popular lore that novel Leaving Las Vegas was author John O’Brien’s “suicide note,” and that he killed himself upon learning that his book would be made into a movie. The idea of Leaving Las Vegas being a suicide note unintentionally originated with a letter O’Brien’s sister Erin wrote to Nicolas Cage after John O’Brien’s death, and with a New York Times article that claims his father also called the book his suicide note. It’s an poetic idea, but it seems to oversimplify the life and literary ambitions of John O’Brien.
John O’Brien did kill himself, and the book was informed by his own devastating alcoholism. His sister Erin O’Brien, who is a writer in her own right, has shared openly about her brother’s life in multiple interviews, and in some very personal and touching posts on her blog. She’s explained that while John’s life and death had many parallels with his character Ben Sanderson, “that story was the fantasy version of John’s exit. The man who goes to Vegas and fades away in his sleep with a beautiful woman at his side? John’s death was nothing like that.”
The story is instead a fantasy, because even with the harsh descriptions of Ben’s physical decline, it is still a romanticized version of how an alcoholic might commit suicide solely with booze. It wouldn’t be as simple as having a three-week plan, though it seems most likely that Ben eventually passed away from malnutrition (I’m not a doctor, so this is just pure speculation.) Sometimes an alcoholic’s death can some suddenly from alcohol poisoning, a heart attack, or even from withdrawals, but usually alcohol abuse takes years to lead to death.
To further the fantasy element, there are some theories that Sera from Leaving Las Vegas was an angel, or an angelic hallucination. Her name means “angel,” and Ben calls her an angel several times. Ben’s lost his wife, and he finds in Sera a dream of a female companion who will not ask him to being anything but the drunken wreck he is.
In reality John turned his own angel away. He was married for 13 years to his high school sweetheart, Lisa Kirkwood. After they married in 1979, the couple moved from Ohio to L.A. together in pursuit of their dreams, and Lisa was there during John’s first huge descent into alcoholism. When he was around 26, his then 21-year-old sister Erin went to visit them and saw for the first time how deep into alcohol addiction her brother really was. Since their father was a heavy drinker, she was used to seeing immoderate alcohol consumption, but her brother was taking it much farther. In several interviews she’s recounted awakening in the middle of the night during that visit to see her brother take a long drink of liquor, a sight that was disturbing but was difficult to process giving their family’s relationship with alcohol.
Although O’Brien was a severe alcoholic for most his adult life, he wrote Leaving Las Vegas during a sober period and at the time he was devoted to living the life of a productive writer. In 1992, when he found out that the book was being made into a movie he sent one of his editors, Gaylord Dold a handwritten message (he loved writing letters on nice stationary) that said “Looks like our troubles are over!!” But that was far from true. O’Brien returned to drinking, and initiated a divorce after he felt powerless to stop. Dold says he heard O’Brien’s habit had skyrocketed to a gallon of vodka a day, and that after he had disappeared for a while, his L.A. agent found him in a seedy hotel room surrounded by vodka bottles.
In 2008, for the Free Times, Erin detailed a trip their father took to L.A. after John had been hospitalized for DTs just a few weeks before he died. John had a difficult relationship with his father William, who was a functional alcoholic, and his work is consumed with trying to come to terms with his dad and his own genetic destiny. The last novel he worked on, The Assault on Tony’s, was a rumination on his problems with his father. Better, the novel he wrote after Leaving Las Vegas, is an allegory about being confined by an alcoholic’s DNA.
But still, despite all the tension, it was his father who stayed with his still shaky son during his last days alive, and desperately tried to figure out how to get him to stay sober. He called the police and asked them to take John in on some trumped-up charges, he tried to get him a job on an oil rig, and he tried to get him to go to rehab. During his father’s visit, the movie contract arrived. Signing the contract just a few weeks before he died seems to link the two things together, but with the state John was in with his alcohol-ravaged body, it’s doesn’t quite fit that the movie rights are what sent him over the edge. There was just too much else going on with him. It certainly is a shame that he never got to see the film, which is one of the best novel adaptations ever made. Mike Figgis wrote the script, the personal and jazzy musical score, and directed the move with an inspired, clear vision.
On April 10, 1994, a few weeks before the film started pre-production, and a few months before the film began shooting, John O’Brien shot himself in the head in his apartment. “He was going down this river and didn’t bother grabbing for branches or rocks to stay afloat,” Nicolas Cage said of O’Brien during an interview with Entertainment Weekly. The film’s director Mike Figgis added, “I don’t think that money and the rest of it mattered. He was too far gone.”
I recently read Leaving Las Vegas for the first time and then rewatched the 1995 movie starring Nicolas Cage and Elizabeth Shue, which I had not seen since I was a melancholy young teen. For my teenage self the film was hideously depressing, but it was beautiful. It burrowed into me, but I was always a bit terrified of it. We can watch movies riddled with violence, with bodies stacking up and blood gushing and villains with cold hearts and iron wills, but it’s art like Leaving Las Vegas that reminds us of the true tragedy of being human: the individual is the greatest threat to itself. The wills of others can destroy our lives, unknown random events can kill or cripple us at any moment, but the damage that we are capable of doing to ourselves is the scariest reality of all. Leaving Las Vegas, both the book and the film, tackle this difficult truth with heartbreaking humanity.
Viewing Leaving Las Vegas again was not as difficult as the first time, but it made me wonder why most of us humans seek out pain in art. It usually the art that hurts the most that we can find the most beautiful. Part of the allure, I think is the eloquent echo of what’s going on inside us, a stimulus to feel and let go of things we’re going through; other times it’s scratching a broad existential itch, a curiosity that seeks to understand a bit more about the experience of others. Life is a surly mix of horror and joy, and sometimes it feels better to confront it, to sit there with it instead of ignoring it.