A semi-autobiographical version of Charles Bukowski’s life during the time he spent drinking like his life depended on it — as seen through the author’s alter ego Henry Chinaski — with a script by the author that was commissioned by director Barbet Schroeder. And somehow, it’s one of those Cannon movies that aspire to art.
Bukowski wanted Sean Penn to play him, but Penn insisted that Dennis Hopper direct. That was a problem as Bukowski had written the screenplay for Schroeder and he saw Hopper as a gold-chain-wearing Hollywood phony. Despite that issue, Bukowski and Penn remained friends.
Henry Chinaski (Mickey Rourke) may write stories and poetry for small change, but his real job is drinking at the Green Horn and fighting with Eddie the bartender (Frank Stallone). After one brawl, he heads to another bar, the Kenmore, where he meets and falls for fellow drinker Wanda Wilcox (Faye Dunaway).
Their relationship is one of drinking and fighting, while book publisher Tully Sorenson (Alice Krige) also chases after him. But while a life with her would give him access to limitless money — and booze — as well as an opportunity to finally live for his art, he realizes that she lives “trapped in a cage with golden bars.”
The bar is filled with various lowlifes to fall in love with, including Bukowski as Oldtimer, Fritz Feld (who turned a popping sound into a career that saw him act in 140 movies in 72 years), Pruitt Taylor Vince (who is in Cannon’s Shy People), Joe Unger (Sgt. Garcia in A Nightmare on Elm Street and Tinker in Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III), Gloria LeRoy as Grandma Moses, Sandy Martin (Grandma in Napoleon Dynamite) and a detective played by Jack Nance who follows Henry.
Barfly is also the first movie to use a Kino Flo light. It was specially created by director of photography Robby Müller’s electrical crew for the movie as so much of the film was difficult to light because so many of the locations were quite cramped. The film’s gaffer Frieder Hocheim and best boy Gary H. Swink designed the high-output fluorescent light with a remote ballast, creating a lamp unit light enough to be taped to a wall. Hochheim and Swink went into business as Kino Flo Incorporated and now the light is a part of the standard motion picture lighting package.
I always say that crazy stories about Hollywood are usually kayfabe tales done to drum up publicity, but when it comes to Cannon, they have to be true. So here’s the one story on Barfly. Cannon was going through major financial problems and had to limit how many movies it could make. They decided to not make Barfly as there were other movies that could make more money. However, Schroeder allegedly appeared at the Cannon offices with a battery-powered portable saw, telling everyone that Cannon was cutting off a piece of him by abandoning the film.