Sunday, March 7, 2010

Review of Barfly, Bukowski's best-known film

Barfly, 1987, Color, 100 minutes, Cannon. Directed by Barbet Schroeder. Screenplay by Charles Bukowski. Starring Mickey Rourke as Henry Chinaski, Faye Dunaway as Wanda Wilcox, Alice Krige as Tully Sorenson, Jack Nance as Detective, and Frank Stallone as Eddie. Bukowski appears as an extra in a bar scene. Rating: Seven and one-half stars out of 10.

Perhaps almost as interesting as the film Barfly is the story of how it was OKd as a film project. Director Barbet Schroeder, who had spent years trying to Charles Bukowski's semi-autobiographical script made into a film, barged into the head of Cannon's film division and threatened to cut off his finger with a chainsaw if the film was not financed. The suits backtracked, and Barfly was made into a pretty decent film, bolstered by very strong performances from stars Rourke and Dunaway.

As mentioned, Barfly was written by the late Bukowski, a prolific writer who abused his body terribly with bravado but produced great novels, short stories and poems, that chronicled the life of the poor and drunken. Los Angeles was the setting for most of his work. Most of Bukowski's work was autobiographical, and he frequently used the name Henry Chinaski. In Barfly, drunken, acclaimed writer Chinaski meets an older, once pretty woman named Wanda Wilcox, played by Dunaway. Wilcox is based on the great love of Bukowski's life, Jane Cooney Baker, who died of drink in 1961. Dunaway captures Bukowski's seediness so well that the author later claimed he was never that scruffy. Rourke later commented ironically that it was probably tough for the screenwriter to see himself as he really was. Dunaway may have been too attractive to play Chinaski's aging faithless, alcoholic lover, but despite's Bukowski's dislike for her performance, she captures the part perfectly. She's a mixture of anger, passion, bitterness, love, defeat, vulnerability and violence. The scene where she beats up a rich young admirer/lover of Chinaski (Krige) while Rourke smiles with whimsy is a highlight of the film. Stallone as a bullying bartender who fights Chinaski is above average. Real barflies from downtown Los Angeles were used as extras to add flavor to Barfly.

The film did mixed business in the U.S., but was a big hit in Europe, where Bukowski is arguably more famous. He later wrote a very funny novel, Hollywood, based on the making on the film. Bukowski's other novels include Post Office (his best), Factotum (a homage to Down and Out in Paris and London), Women, Ham on Rye and Pulp. He was a prolific poet, so much that his publisher, Black Sparrow Press, continued to publish new work years after his death in 1994. Other films from Bukowski's work include Tales of Ordinary Madness, Factotum and Love is a Dog From Hell.

-- Doug Gibson

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