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

November 03, 1987|PATRICK GOLDSTEIN

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.

"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.

"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?"

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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