Barfly (1987)

“Some people never go crazy. What truly horrible lives they must lead.” The legendary “Poet Laureate of Skid Row” himself, Charles Bukowski (1920-94) wrote the screenplay for this immensely entertaining cult classic based loosely on the author’s extended 10-year drinking binge in Los Angeles during his pre-writing years. Directed by Barbet Schroeder, the film stars Mickey Rourke as down-and-out boozer and aspiring writer “Henry Chinaski,” who hangs out in dive bars all day, gets his ass kicked by sadistic bartender “Eddie” (Frank Stallone) and befriends kindred spirit “Wanda” (Faye Dunaway). All hell breaks loose when book publisher “Tully Sorenson” (Alice Krige) arrives on the scene looking to publish some of Henry’s work. Also look for J. C. Quinn (“Elmo” from Vision Quest) as the philosophical bartender “Jim,” Gloria LeRoy as “Grandma Moses” and Fritz Feld as “Bum.” In addition, the private detective who tracks Chinaski down is none other than Jack Nance, best known as “Henry Spencer” from David Lynch’s Eraserhead (1977). Bukowski appears briefly in a cameo as one of the drunks in the bar scene at the Kenmore when Henry first meets Wanda, who was actually based on the great love of Bukowski’s life, Jane Cooney Baker, a widowed alcoholic 11 years his senior with an immense beer belly. Baker spent the last days of her life working as a maid in a cheap hotel before dying of a massive hemorrhage in 1962. The screenplay for Barfly was originally called The Rats of Thirst. In his 1989 novel Hollywood, Bukowski refers to the movie as The Dance of Jim Beam. Sean Penn offered to play the role of Henry Chinaski for one dollar. However, Penn wanted Dennis Hopper to direct the film. Bukowski remained loyal to Schroeder, who according to legend, even threatened to cut off his own finger if Cannon Films refused to finance Barfly. Penn later dedicated his 1995 film, The Crossing Guard, which starred Jack Nicholson, to Bukowski. In the 2009 move Precious, the secretary at the alternative school remarks, “I went to see that movie Barfly last night … piece of shit.” Chinaski quotes a portion of the Bukowski poem “2 p.m. beer” in the bathroom of Wanda’s apartment: “nothing but the dripping sink/the empty bottle/euphoria …” Rourke on Bukowski: “I’m not a Bukowski devotee, though there’s a lot of people that live and die by what the guy says. I respect him enough to hang his picture in my office, but it isn’t like somebody mentions Bukowski and I flip out.” Bukowski on Rourke: “Mickey Rourke is a real human guy, on and off the set. And in Barfly he really came through with the acting. I felt is enjoyment and inventiveness. Faye Dunaway just can’t match his talent or his humanness but she filled her role.” In a 1987 Film Threat interview, Bukowski listed his own favorite movies as One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, The Elephant Man, Eraserhead and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? In a December 10, 1987, letter to Gerald Locklin, Bukowski remarked, “Barfly is not a great film but it kicks along. I’ve seen it 2 or 3 times and it always makes me thirsty.” Schroeder first read Bukowski while directing the documentary Koko: A Talking Gorilla (1978).

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