Charles Bukowski’s Hollywood: Hank Gets Happy

[This review first published 15 Feb 2013.]

hollywoodHollywood is the last installment of Bukowski’s autobiographical Henry Chinaski series. It’s the thinly-disguised story of the making of the 1987 movie, Barfly, which starred Mickey Rourke and Faye Dunaway. The Chinaski of Hollywood is a radical departure from the Henry Chinaski of the earlier novels. In Hollywood, Hank is prosperous and content, doing what he wants, living in a comfortable house with his wife, whom he calls “my good Sarah,” driving a new BMW. Henry has it made.

If you’ve read all of Bukowski’s earlier Chinaski novels, then this book is like a punchline. Of all people, how did Henry Chinaski end up in Hollywood? In the prior Chinaski books we saw Henry in his disturbing childhood, his humiliating adolescence, his painful young adulthood, his miserable middle ages, his demeaning jobs, drinking himself into a stupor, into blackouts, into physical and verbal confrontations and crazy sad relationships with other crazy sad people.

And then Hollywood wanted to make a movie about his life.  By this time, Henry didn’t need this film. He wasn’t trying to sell himself. He was being pursued by people who want to buy him. He doesn’t take it seriously. The movie industry means nothing to him. Here’s his initial take on Jon-Luc Godard, whom he refers to in the novel as Jon-Luc Modard:

Jon-Luc kept right on talking. He was being dark and playing Genius. Maybe he was a Genius. I didn’t want to get bitter about it. But I had had Genius pushed at me all through school: Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Ibsen, G.B. Shaw, Chekov, all those dullards. And worse, Mark Twain, Hawthorne, the Brontë sisters, Dreiser, Sinclair Lewis, it all just laid on you like a slab of cement …

Hollywood is all about star worship and Bukowski wasn’t moved by it. Among the other Hollywood characters Henry comments on, all with thinly-disguised fictional names, are both Sean Penn (whom Bukowski wanted in the role of Chinaski in the film), and Mickey Rourke (who ultimately played the lead role), Werner Herzog, Francis Ford Coppola, Norman Mailer, Tim Leary, Siskel & Ebert.

Bukowski’s comments on some of the actors’ demands are hilarious. He has Francine Bowers (Faye Dunaway) demanding that a scene be written into the script where she gets to show her legs. He has Mickey Rourke demanding a convertible white Cadillac for his transportation and insisting another scene be written into the script where he can wear palm-tree sunglasses.

But Hank doesn’t care. Hank’s happy. He should have been dead a hundred times; instead, he’d finally made it on his terms. He’d cut down on his drinking because Sarah kept reminding him and he listened to her. He’d stopped getting into fights, stopped blacking out, drank wine instead of whiskey. Henry was mellow and living a mellow life.

He stops and questions himself at a few points about whether he’s selling out when he’s agreeing to rewrite portions of his screenplay according to the whims of the actors, directors, and producers. Had he become what he’d always hated? But he hasn’t because he knows he’s something separate from whatever setting he finds himself in, whether it’s Skid Row or Hollywood.

At one point, Jon Pinchot (Barbet Schroeder, the film’s director) takes him to the room that will represent his residence in an old hotel that will be demolished after the film.

It was painted grey as so many of those places were. The torn shades. The table and the chair. The refrigerator thick with coats of dirt. And the poor sagging bed.

“It’s perfect, Jon. It’s the room.”

I was a little sad that I wasn’t young and doing it all over again, drinking and fighting and playing with words. When you’re young you can really take a battering. Food didn’t matter. What mattered was drinking and sitting at the machine. I must have been crazy but there are many kinds of crazy and some are quite delightful. I starved so that I could have time to write. That just isn’t done much anymore. Looking at that table I saw myself sitting there again. I’d been crazy and I knew it and I didn’t care.

In all of Bukowski’s earlier fiction, he was writing about his own life.  Here, he’s writing about watching Hollywood make a movie about his life. It ends with him going to see the movie they made about his life, then announcing that he’s going to write a novel about that.

In other words, Bukowski continues to be about integrity. Success hasn’t changed him any more than failure and struggle did.

Hollywood is a comedy about the unchanging thing inside you that makes you yourself.  Isn’t that what great novels are always about?

You May Also Be Interested In

Charles Bukowski’s Post Office – Through Rain, Sleet, Snow and Booze is a hundred poems disguised as prose.  Here are my thoughts on a novel that was reverently passed around the San Diego post office where I worked in the early 1970s.

Finding God on LSD (A Story About Schizophrenia) is my own short story about making sense of life in a period of cultural and personal free fall.

And I’m publishing a series of short novels here at Write-aholic called Smut4Nerds. I’m returning to the smut I wrote for Greenleaf Classics (described here) at the start of my writing career, but this time on my own terms.



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