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Big-Screen Time for Bukowski : ‘Love Is a Dog’ and ‘Barfly’ Put Hard-Living Poet in the Limelight

He’s already had his picture taken with Madonna.

Elliott Gould comes over to the house and reads poetry.

Sean Penn and Mickey Rourke campaigned to portray him in Barbet Schroeder’s upcoming film “Barfly” (Rourke won, but don’t worry, no punches were thrown).

But it’s not all this celebrity schmoozing that had Charles Bukowski beaming with delight. The poet laureate of L.A.'s dingy saloons and skid-row flophouses was relishing the news that People magazine was coming by for a photo session.

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“Hey, the magazine is so . . . relaxing,” said Bukowski, pouring himself another glass of Beaujolais. “You just tell them the truth and don’t take it too seriously.”

A surprisingly genial host, he explained that Cannon Films, which is distributing “Barfly,” had received interview requests from “60 Minutes,” “20/20" and People. Bukowski chose one--the celebrity magazine.

He shrugged. “I love the dumb, corny questions. And I can buy it in the supermarket.”

It’s no wonder People wants to stop for a chat at Bukowski’s comfortable San Pedro home, where the literary scene’s most celebrated dirty old man held court on a recent night, smoking skinny Beedi cigarettes and spinning ribald tales till the wee hours of the morning.

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“Love Is a Dog From Hell,” a critically acclaimed new film by young Belgian director Dominique Deruddere, was inspired by a typically unsettling Bukowski short story, “The Copulating Mermaid of Venice, California.” (The film is playing at Beverly Center Cineplex.)

And “Barfly,” which stars Rourke and Faye Dunaway and opens Friday, was written by Bukowski himself--though it took nearly a decade for Schroeder (best known for his striking documentary “General Idi Amin Dada”) to finance the project.

Bukowski gruffly insisted that he “still can’t stand movies.” But when asked about his films, the crusty 67-year-old writer softened his stance.

Raising his glass toward Deruddere, who was at the house that night, Bukowski said, “I think Dominique improved on me with ‘Dog From Hell.’ When I first saw the movie, I gave him a big embrace. I even had tears in my eyes. I told him, ‘You put tires on my wheels, baby!’ ”

Bukowski gave “Barfly” equally good notices. “It’s almost great, but not quite,” he said, lighting up another Beedi. “Maybe when it comes out, it’ll do well enough to help save Cannon so they can go on and make more bad movies.”

He laughed. “I’ve already got my Oscar speech ready.”

That would be a sight--the original barfly in a penguin suit. “Oh, yeah, I’d wear a tux,” Bukowski said. “But my tie would be crooked, I’d have a bottle in my pocket and I’ll bet they’d have to carry me out of there.”

Deruddere, who seemed somewhat in awe of his host (he’d brought several six-packs of beer as a token of friendship), grinned broadly. “Well, what if ‘Dog’ would get the Oscar for best foreign film?”

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Bukowski, realizing the Hollywood seduction process was in full gear, raised his glass of wine and roared: “Well, let’s keep drinking here!”

Nothing ignites a media buzz quicker than having your life celebrated in two new films. Still, it would be impossible to invent a more unlikely Hollywood icon than Bukowski.

Born in Germany but raised here, Bukowski grew up hard--his face scarred by a childhood skin ailment, his psyche by an overbearing father. He once wrote of himself: “I had a reputation as a drinker, gambler, hustler, man of leisure and shack-job specialist.”

The rep was richly deserved. By his own account, Bukowski was a hard-bitten, alcoholic loner who prowled East Hollywood saloons, slept under bridges and worked odd jobs, most notably with the postal service.

Bukowski didn’t publish his first novel (“Post Office”) until he was 50. Since then, at least in America, he’s languished in relative obscurity. However, his fond portrayals of mad dreamers and his faultless ear for filthy speech have won him lavish acclaim in Europe, where he’s been a literary hero since the mid ‘70s (He sheepishly complained: “It’s always a big mob over there, even if you just go to the laundry.”)

Italian critic Sergio Di Cori is a typical admirer, describing Bukowski’s work as “full of incredibly ingenious language . . . a cross between the aggressiveness of Jack London and the eroticism of Henry Miller.”

For anyone fascinated by the seamy underside of city life, Bukowski’s belated notoriety is well earned. His stories offer an edgy, panoramic tour of L.A.'s low-life precincts, conducted by alter ego Henry Chinaski, who drinks port on warm afternoons outside the Roach Hotel, bets $10 to win at Hollywood Park on a pony named Miss Lustytown and brawls in dank bars with rugged loners like Petey the Owl, Indian Mike, Duke and John the Beard.

Bukowski--his friends call him “Hank"--has mellowed in recent years, perhaps due to the steadying influence of his wife of two years and long-time companion, Linda. Loyally promoting his films, he even joked apologetically: “I’ve turned into a paper tiger.”

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Not completely. Asked about a recent adaptation of some of his stories by Italian film maker Marco Ferreri, Bukowski scowled: “Ugh! It was a piece of crap. I was in the audience when they first showed it--drinking and screaming at the screen. Some guy kept yelling back at me, so finally I said, ‘Hey, buddy, I can hate it--I wrote it!’ ”

As if to add insult to injury, Ben Gazzara, the film’s co-star, told an interviewer that he outdrank Bukowski at the premiere party. “Even the interviewer didn’t believe that,” Bukowski growled. “Challenging my drinking ability! That’s like questioning my skill as a horse player!”

His face a ravaged, kabuki-like mask, lined with deep creases and folds of flesh, Bukowski has the air of a wise, good-natured troll, his body anchored by a boiler-sized midsection that almost looked as it had been sculpted to fit perfectly on a bar stool.

Hear him idly reminisce--and listen to the sweet, syncopated rhythms of a poet.

“I’ve been run over, beaten up, jailed--I’ve picked up a lot of baggage along the way, everything from ex-wives to ex-jobs,” he said in a low, soothing voice that ends each sentence on a higher note than it began. “I’ve always been worried about my damn soul--maybe I worry too much. But you carry in one hand a bundle of darkness that accumulates each day. And when death finally comes, you say right away, ‘Hey buddy, glad to see ya!’ ”

Bukowski wrote the script for “Barfly” in 1979, at Schroeder’s behest, and waited patiently, perhaps skeptically, for something to happen. “Barbet tried to palm it off on everyone,” he recalled. “He’d get these notes from producers saying, ‘Sure, it’s good, but who cares about a drunk?’ ”

As it turned out, lots of people did. According to Bukowski, Dennis Hopper showed the script to Sean Penn, who immediately offered his services. “He told me, ‘Hank, I’ll act in it for a dollar. That’ll be my salary.’ Suddenly people started perking up, figuring if Sean Penn wanted to act in it for a dollar--well, there must be something in there for somebody.”

All this activity precipitated a showdown. Penn, loyal to Hopper, wanted him to direct. Bukowski, loyal to his long-suffering patron, insisted that Schroeder direct. To break the impasse, Bukowski invited the warring parties to a powwow at his house.

“It was a great meeting,” he said with a sly grin. “Schroeder and Hopper had been enemies for centuries, ever since Dennis had told Barbet that he couldn’t direct traffic. I got the drinks out, for everyone except Dennis, who’s straight now. But Barbet had already built such a case against Dennis that by the time he walked in the door I was ready to cut his throat. I think he was nervous--he laughed too much, tried too hard.”

By night’s end, Schroeder had the job, with Penn bowing out, replaced eventually by Mickey Rourke. Bukowski remained impressed by the young actor.

“I’ve heard all the stories, but I’ve never met a kinder, more intelligent, genteel guy in my life. Sean’s nice. He tells funny stories. So maybe he’s a little overprotective of his wife. But he’s a true gentleman.”

When Schroeder filmed “Barfly,” he was equally loyal to Bukowski. “Barbet put it in his contract that no one could change a word of the script without my approval,” Bukowski said, with pride. “And I mean anything. Even when I wasn’t at the set--I’d be at the track when the horses were running--they’d wait and phone me at night.”

Bukowski enjoyed his time on the film set, particularly with Rourke. “He’s a little strange, but a really great guy. He invited us into his trailer, which had a periscope so he could see who was coming. We’d come in and drink a little. The first time I was there, he said I could stay as long as I wanted.”

Bukowski tugged on his polka-dot suspenders. “I looked around the place and told him, ‘OK, I’ll stay forever.’ ”

Bukowski doesn’t automatically cozy up to every Hollywood actor-pal. He’s fond of Elliott Gould, who occasionally stops in to read poetry, but the aging master doesn’t buy the act.

“He’s got great eyes--he’s looking for something,” Bukowski said, firing up another Beedi. “But he’s very strange. It’s terrible when he speaks. He starts babbling this terrible, spiritualistic (bunk). You should hear his poems . . . ‘When the bases are loaded and the strikes are against you . . . ' " Bukowski wagged his head. “It’s pretty bad.”

That’s the way Bukowski feels about most movies. “I look at the paper and see these ads for stuff like ‘Klutzy Finds Her Charm Boy in the Seaweed,’ and I say we can’t be this dumb, can we?”

He also loathes Jean-Luc Godard, grumbling: “He’s terrible. I once wrote some dialogue for him, half-heartedly.”

Asked to name a favorite film, Bukowski replied: “ ‘Eraserhead.’ I love the crazy inventiveness of it. You can’t analyze it--you don’t even know what it means. It just gives you the chills.”

Bukowski is equally haunted by the prospect of losing his fervor for writing. “That typewriter is it,” he said, gesturing to a battered old machine in the next room. “If I die, I hope I go with my head on that typewriter. It’s my battlefield.

“Once I woke up and realized I’d fallen asleep on my typewriter. The keys were my pillow. I straightened them out as if they were little babies. If I don’t type for a week, you should see me. I go nuts. I don’t act right.”

Bukowski has come a long way since he lived in a paper shack on Bunker Hill, riding down Angel’s Flight incline railway to get oranges at Grand Central Market. Now he’s a literary lion in winter, with faraway scenes from his hardscrabble youth being magnified on the silver screen.

“I’m not dying for the exposure,” he said. “Most people who’re famous either aren’t very good or are famous for the wrong reasons.”

He offered a thin smile as he poured himself another drink. “As far as I’m concerned, I’d rather have a famous garage mechanic who could fix my car.”


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