, 100 min, 1987
Director: Barbet Schroeder
Writer: Charles Bukowski
Stars: Mickey Rourke, Faye Dunaway, Alice Krige
Anyone can be a non-drunk. It takes a special kind of talent to be a drunk. It takes endurance…
– Henry Chinaski
Barbet Schroeder’s Barfly is a great comic portrait of the poetic life of a schlub living in the fringe on Skid Row. This film finds romanticism in the daily miasma of sloppy, good-time alcoholism, aided and abbetted by two one of a kind and fearless performances, resulting in a work that is original and utterly entertaining.
Mickey Rourke is virtually unrecognizable here as Henry Chinaski, a drunk whose days are spent writing little bits of poems that come into his head, taking the desperate elements around him as inspiration (“Some people never go crazy. What truly horrible lives they must lead.”) and whose nights are spent getting shit-faced at the local watering hole in downtown L.A. and starting back-alley brawls with the tough, popular barkeep Eddie (Frank Stallone; Sylvester’s brother). They spew venom and would-be clever comebacks at one another (“I’d hate to be you if I were me,” grunts Eddie). Henry seems down on his luck (“No money, no job, no rent. Hey, I’m back to normal.”), yet he strides around the bar and the streets like some kind of “weird blue blood.”
One night, after being bounced from his favorite establishment for just such an altercation, Henry goes across the street and meets a “distressed goddess” called Wanda (Faye Dunaway), a fairly well-dressed but somewhat sloppy drunk who you could almost imagine being taken for “classy.” He’s immediately drawn to her despite warnings from the bartender that “she’s crazy.” Henry goes home with Wanda to drink and sleep together, and the two are soon all-but-inseparable, despite Wanda’s warnings that if Henry leaves her alone she’d go home with “anyone who came by with a 5th of bourbon.” All the while in the background, a P.I. (Jack Nance, a veteran of David Lynch’s work) tracks Henry to his apartment, rummages through his things, snoops around for clues…to what end?
Henry’s life takes a turn when he’s approached by Tully (Alice Krige), the off-beat blonde beauty who hired the P.I.: she’s a high-class publisher for a literary magazine who simply wants to pay Henry for one of his stories having been published. She is drawn like a moth to a flame, though somewhat inexplicably, to Henry’s peculiar alcoholic charms; he has no creed, no prospects and no manners, but he is a unique and original voice from the gutter, a shriek from the absolute pits of humanity.
The film has been directed by the Frenchman Barbet Schroeder (Reversal of Fortune), from an original screenplay by Charles Bukowski, the poet of Skid Row whose “fiction” is filled with his doppelganger Henry Chinaski. Schroeder, with cinematographer Robby Muller, gets so many details right, this film seems to live and breath before our eyes; the film doesn’t feel “inspired by” Bukowski’s life so much as it appears to eminate directly from his very soul. There’s not much in the way of a plot, so much as the everyday routine of a drunk occasionally interrupted by unexpected intrusions from the outside world.
This film could be painful, sad, disturbing or cold, but it has this odd, warm, twistedly funny quality; you want to hang around with these people, even if you can’t imagine living with them. The relationship between Henry and Wanda is bittersweet; these two wounded birds with the same affliction find one another in this crazy world and complete one another. It is a major credit for movie stars Rourke and Dunaway that they don’t play these characters, so much as embody them; they take chances and they never once falter. This is one of the year’s best films.