Thursday, October 6, 2011

#426. Barfly (1987)

Directed By: Barbet Schroeder

Starring: Mickey Rourke, Faye Dunaway, Alice Krige

Tag line: "Some people never go crazy. What truly horrible lives they must lead"

Trivia:  Charles Bukowski wanted Sean Penn to star as protagonist Henry Chinaski, but Penn insisted that Dennis Hopper direct the film

I’ve been a huge fan of Mickey Rourke’s ever since I saw him in Barry Levinson’s Diner. Towards the beginning of his career, he never shied away from a challenge, yet in each part, he managed to maintain his good looks, as well as a certain degree of charm. In movies like 9 ½ Weeks and Angel Heart, Rourke also relied on an intense sexual energy to mold his characterizations, and it usually worked out for him.

Barfly sticks out like a sore thumb in the actor's early filmography. His character in this Barbet Schroeder film is the exact opposite of most he played in the 80's. Here, Rourke is a drunk, and not a depressed middle-American drunk like Nicholas Cage’s Ben Sanderson in Leaving Las Vegas. I’m talking a dirty drunk; a filthy, unshaven disaster of a man. But the alcohol supplies this fascinating individual with more than a buzz, or a means to escape his problems. This guy drinks for inspiration, and it serves him very well. 

Based on the writings of Charles Bukowski, Barfly is the story of Henry Chinaski (Rourke), an alcoholic poet who drifts in and out of a local bar, annoying the bartender, Eddie (Frank Stallone), to the point of rage. One day, Henry meets fellow drunk Wanda Wilcox (Faye Dunaway), who he hears is also a bit touched in the head. Yet in her, Henry believes he’s found a soul mate, and before long, moves into her apartment. The two enjoy the life of the inebriated, but when Henry receives an offer from publisher Tully Sorensen (Alice Krige) for his writings, he finds he must make a decision. Will he stay mired in the life of a starving artist, or surrender all he holds dear and enter the mainstream? 

The persona Rourke builds up in Barfly is so complete that it even impressed his real-life inspiration. “Mickey doesn’t just imitate me”, Charles Bukowski said in an interview, “he’s improved upon me”. High praise indeed, seeing that Rourke’s Henry is such a complete mess. He staggers when he walks, wears clothes that look like last year’s Goodwill rejects, and has long, unkempt hair hanging in front of his face. “He looks like a wet rat”, a fellow bar patron observes, and people normally sidestep him on the street. To make matters worse, his temperament matches his appearance. He gets into fights constantly, and usually ends up losing them. After one particularly brutal beating delivered by Eddie, which left Henry lying in the street, an onlooker felt sorry for him. “He hates help”, another man warns the potential do-gooder, “and he’d piss on you if he could”. But Henry is happy, and has accepted his place in the world. In the early days of his romance with Wanda, she warns Henry she has no desire to fall in love with him. “Don’t worry”, Henry replies, “nobody’s fallen in love with me yet”. 

Charles Bukowski once wrote, “The majority of Americans are inspired when they’re intoxicated. I am one of these Americans”. This is exactly how Rourke plays Henry; a man who drinks not to escape reality, but to experience it, to explore the world in a way he never could while sober. In his bottle, there’s more than booze; there’s a connection to life, and no amount of clean living is worth giving that up.

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