it's hard down there at the bottom
I don't like that Gregory Solman, writing for Film Comment in November 1993, calls O'Reilly a "wino." But, even more I don't like that Solman labels the old man pejoratively yet suggests that his death is undignified... as if a "wino" would have any other kind. Even worse, though, he says Phil "is doomed to witness daily" O'Reilly's death. The first two things were somewhat subjective, but that last one is not. Phil does not witness O'Reilly's death until the day he takes him to the hospital. On screen, that is only two nights before the end, which means Phil witnesses O'Reilly's death twice. Even if we assume (appropriately) that many days are not shown on screen, putting the old man's death this late in the presentation implies that it became a part of Phil's experience late in the loop. So, no, Phil is not "doomed to witness daily" the old man's death. He's not doomed to witness it at all, in fact, because he doesn't have to be there in that alley at that time. He could be with everyone else at the party instead. Or, in Rubin's original script, he could be throwing his own drugged-up party back at his room.
The wino thing bugs me, though. I can't remember if back in '93 it was common to call every homeless guy a wino... Hell, I just realized something. The film not only presents no evidence O'Reilly is a wino, it presents no real evidence that he's homeless. He's dirty, he's disheveled, and he takes money from people on the corner. While that is shorthand for homeless in filmic terms, it is not definitive. But, I wonder why Solman (or any of us, for that matter) see an old homeless guy and assume he's got an alcohol problem to boot. I try to keep my politics out of this blog--I've got another one for that--but I imagine it's an American thing; we choose to assume homelessness doesn't come from systematic structures in our social order but rather from personal failings, like drinking too much.
White and Crawford (2008)* tell us that "advances in past research" give us "a greater understanding of the pathways into homelessness. The evidence points to structural factors such as the lack of affordable housing, loss of high quality jobs, and reduced public aid" (p. 190).
* White, D. & Crawford, C. (2008). African American Males and Homelessness: Voices from the Shelter. Printed in McNamara, R.H. (editor) Homeless in America. Westport: Greenwood. p 189-204; and referencing Rossi, P.H. (1989). Down and Out in America: The Origins of Homelessness. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
The National Coalition for the Homeless, in 2009, listed causes of homelessness, putting addiction among "Other Factors" listed after foreclosure, poverty, eroding work opportunities, decline in public assistance, and housing (listed separately from foreclosure because of the particular year in question). In the "Other Factors" list before addiction disorders: lack of affordable health care, domestic violence--
(One of the apparent two shelters in Punxsutawney in the present day is a domestic violence shelter run by Community Action, Inc. The other is Holmes House, a 30 day emergency shelter for men.)
--and mental illness. The conclusion being: "Homelessness results from a complex set of circumstances that require people to choose between food, shelter, and other basic needs. Only a concerted effort to ensure jobs that pay a living wage, adequate support for those who cannot work, affordable housing, and access to health care will bring an end to homelessness."
Now, I'll get off my soapbox (or is it their soapbox that I'm borrowing?). The point is that I don't think it's fair to call O'Reilly a wino. He may actually have an alcohol problem, but that doesn't make him any less human than Phil or Rita or Doris or Debbie or Larry or Nancy or Buster... or you or I.
(For the record, yes, I realize I'm blurring the line there between fictional characters and you the reader and me the writer in reality. I would contend that, if that line weren't easy to blur this film (or any film, for that matter) wouldn't be as relatable or enjoyable.)
My question, for the world within the film, is not how did this old man become homeless, necessarily, but why did it take self-centered Phil Connors to try to help him when locals see him every day?
O'Reilly's death is effective again. But, as sad as his death may be, to quote the Nat King Cole song over the end credits: "there's a smile on my face for the whole human race."
Today's reason to repeat a day forever: to help the homeless, to save the dying, to change tires but not light cigarettes... like the Doctor in "The Doctor Dances", my motto for the day would be "this time everybody lives."