In Barfly, Mickey Rourke, as Henry, gives one of his best performances. It stands alone. It is a symphony of movement and gesture, of humor and pathos … and I remember at the time his performance being criticized as “over-the-top”. (Insert Sheila’s – and Michael’s – eyeroll here). I have a problem, in general, with people thinking “over-the-top” is a valid criticism, in the first place. It’s kind of like the stupidest criticism of all: “He just plays himself!” Oh, is that all? And you think that’s easy? Really? Have you ever actually tried it? While the cameras are rolling? Yeah, I didn’t think so.
Judy Davis is 100% “over-the-top” in Husbands and Wives, and I think that’s one of the best performances I’ve ever seen. Most of my favorite performances are, to some degree, “over-the-top” – if by “over-the-top” you mean: fully realized, balls to the wall, unafraid, committed. Gena Rowlands in Opening Night, wearing giant sunglasses, smashing her face against the door jamb, and then saying in a cold cold voice in the diner the next day, with cuts all over her face, “I’m in trouble.” Over-the-top. Jeff Bridges as “The Dude”, with drops of White Russian be-dew-ing his messy mustache, galumphing across a parking lot, jellies slapping on the pavement. What? Over-the-top. This is fearless stuff. This is not an actor only waiting for his closeup to do his best and most personal work, these are not actors waiting for THEIR moment to “act”. They have created a character from the DNA up, and so the walk, the talk, the gestures, the emotional complexity – all come from someplace deep and real (as Humphrey Bogart said, “Good acting should be six feet back in the eyes.”) . The quietest performance in the world could be “over-the-top”. It doesn’t mean loud and bold. It means (to me) committed, free, unafraid, unselfconscious.
So. Going in, I am already annoyed by that criticism of Mickey Rourke’s performance.
Second of all, if you’ve ever seen live footage of Charles Bukowski, or if you’ve ever heard his voice, then you know that Mickey Rourke was actually doing some astonishingly subtle and accurate mimicry … He NAILS the cadences of Bukowski, how things sort of go up at the end of the sentence, left hanging there in the air … a sort of acceptance of the uncertainty of life that is IN the man’s speech patterns – and completely unlike anything Mickey Rourke had ever done before. Mickey Rourke always has a gentleness to him, it is what makes him such a disarming performer, along the lines of Sylvester Stallone’s best work, or Jimmy Cagney … such a tough guy, such a barrel-chested guy, being so gentle … but here in Barfly he can bring that to the forefront. It is not hidden behind a tough-guy exterior of cool and reserve.
Henry is a mess. Henry has no coping skills for life. He is a raw and open wound. That’s obviously why he drinks so much. His drinking, though, is not so much a coping mechanism, although we could psychoanalyze him to death, if we wanted to waste our time. His drinking is an active choice. He is opting OUT of the world of competition and ambition, consciously. He does not understand the American obsession with career, and why the first thing you ever ask of a new person is “what do you DO?” Not “what do you care about” or “what poets do you like” but “what do you DO?” Henry is baffled by this. He chooses to not participate. Yes, he is killing himself, yes, the audience wants to detox after seeing the film – even if they haven’t ever had a drink in their lives – but in the topsy-turvy underworld that Barfly shows, his anti-choice is seen as almost heroic. It is truth, in a way, a much stronger truth than those of us who blindly accept the values of the society at large, who take on handed-down assumptions without questioning them.
“What do you do?” we ask each other upon meeting, never wondering if there might be a more important (and definitely more interesting) question to ask.
The film centers around the boozy chaotic relationship Henry gets into with another professional drunk named Wanda (played with gorgeous insane aplomb by Faye Dunaway – I love her here – she is having so much fun). Wanda is even more pathetic than Henry is, because she doesn’t have art to keep her going. At least Henry, in his moments of clarity in his horrendous room in the SRO Hotel, has a pencil and paper, and the drive to write. She has nothing. She is way worse off, even though she still has her looks (kind of), slammin’ legs, and can still get by on fucking men for booze money (although that time will soon be over for her). But for a brief period (very brief), they connect. They are not a good match. Of course. Who would be a good match with either of these wackjobs? Henry spends his evenings at the same bar every night, fighting one of the bartenders intermittently out in the alley, taking beatings that would kill someone else. There’s an odd masochistic pleasure in it for him. He is “that guy” in the bar. They’re all losers, but he’s MORE of a loser. There’s a hierarchy at work.
But let me get down to brass tacks.
Unfortunately, Barfly is not available on DVD at the moment (it’s out of print), which is a shame. Michael sent me his copy. I think it’s due for a re-issue, with some great special features, and a commentary track, the whole shebang. These are two major performances by two major stars. Let’s get this thing back into circulation.
Mickey Rourke walks down the street in the blinding light of day, and his head is hunched forward, jutting away from his body, which is obviously in a lot of pain. Not just from the beating he took the night before, but from the crushing hangover. His arms hang down, but they’re arched out a little, in gentle curves. He holds them this way. He appears unaware of this, and why he would hold his arms that way, because, of course, when we are hurting, physically, our body just does what it needs to do to survive. Rourke is in charge of this physicality. It is his genius. Whether or not he worked in front of a mirror, like other actors do, to get the right “look”, I don’t know, but I imagine (just speculating here) that his process is more organic, and less intellectual. His smarts about the human condition, his knowledge of what it is that people go through, is impeccable. That is his talent. It seems to me that his imagination is so potent, so real, and his own experiences are so at his fingertips (he’s a highly emotional person, highly available) that all he needs to do (mentally) is just send out a “suggestion” to his body (ie: I’m totally hungover. Or: I’m wasted. Or: I’m insecure) – and his body kicks into gear, morphing itself into the shape he needs. When you’re hungover, your head hurts. So it makes sense that it would jut itself away from the neck, trying to separate itself. When you’ve been punched in the stomach repeatedly the night before, your whole midsection hurts, so of course your body would hunch over the hurt area, protectively, and your arms would gently circle out to the sides, creating a small clear space for you to maneuver. Mickey Rourke creates the shape of this man, and it is unlike any other shape he has ever created as an actor, before or since. I have not yet mentioned the underbite.
Mickey Rourke’s mouth is naturally very sensitive and soft. It’s one of his defining characteristics. (Or, it was.) It’s very kissable, and it makes the mouth look like it was meant to whisper sweet hot nothings, or to whisper a gentle yet deadly serious threat of violence. But here, in Barfly, the lower lip juts out, making him look defiant, kind of stupid, almost like he’s asking to be punched. He’s belligerent, like a little kid sulking in the corner. “No. I don’t WANNA go home. I am going to stay RIGHT HERE.” It’s a kid’s mouth in Barfly, pre-sexual. Now Mickey Rourke was one of the most sexual of male movie stars – he had no shyness in that regard, no hesitation to “go there” – so to see him here subvert that totally obvious masculine sexual energy, drown it in alcohol and physical aches and pains – is quite startling, because it is not what we are used to from him. In that physical process of transformation, out comes that lower lip, letting the canny women audience members know, just by that lower lip, “No. I’m not going to be doing THAT in this performance … I’m doing something ELSE here …”
Mickey Rourke’s sex drive is a force to be reckoned with. It’s WHERE he operated from for the most part as an actor (which, I think, is why, even with all the macho stuff, he can come off as quite feminine – there’s an openness there), so it’s really something to see him not utilize that part of himself at ALL as Henry. It shows that he was not a one-trick pony, not by a long shot. This is a character. From his emotional expression to the way his voice sounds to the underbite – this is a character. Any sexual impulses Henry may have are so submerged beneath his primary need: alcohol … that they can never come in first. They will always be secondary. If you think about Mickey Rourke’s other roles around this time, and what he brought to the table – this jujitsu move with something that is so essential to who he is – his sexuality – is startling. That’s acting. A lesser actor would not have known how to get rid of the thing – THE thing – that set him apart from other actors. “But … if I don’t use THIS … then how will I play this part?” Rourke never asks himself these questions. And when his star fell, in the 90s, and you saw him start to repeat himself, in a hollow manner, trying to re-capture the “Rourke thing” – with the whispering and the touching-of-the-face and the smouldering look – it was painful for those of us who love him. Because he was manufacturing something that had once been completely organic – his entire ESSENCE.
But again: to go back to the time of Barfly, and to place it in the context of the other roles Rourke had been playing … no wonder the performance was either misunderstood or disliked. It did (of course) have its champions, and its stature has just grown in time, which is good. A movie like Barfly would never be a giant hit, and neither should it try to be. There are places for summer blockbusters – but God, there’s a big wide world of artists out there who have no interest in that stuff, and who want to do good work in smaller movies … In the atmosphere now, it is the mid-level movies that suffer the most. Not the low-budget indies, those will always be fine. And of course there will always be giant special-effects driven summer movies. But the middle ground – the ground that used to be occupied by films like Ordinary People, Barfly, Bull Durham – is shrinking. It’s harder to get THOSE films made now than anything else. That’s a shame.
There are so many great scenes in Barfly (Dunaway and Rourke in the mini cornfield, Dunaway shoving green ears of corn into her jacket), and the script is beyond awesome. Almost every line is memorable. You just want to chew on that language. Scenes don’t feel a huge need to “go” anywhere, because the characters themselves aren’t going anywhere. None of them have anywhere to be, there are no deadlines, or clocks … so scenes can play out, behavior can be captured without feeling the need to explain it or make a point of it (the old guy chewing the sandwich in the bar, the grumpy drunk woman at the end of the bar scowling at Rourke, the huge-titted whore coming out of the bathroom wiping her mouth, all of the spectators in the alley fights – who are those people? Pruitt Taylor Vince is one of them, but the rest of them just don’t look like actors.) There are small moments of kindness and clarity (the grizzled bartender who seems to have a protective feeling towards Henry, but at the same time isn’t afraid to get firm with him) … and even tenderness.
The section with the long-haired British chick who shows up looking for Henry – she wants to publish his stories – is the only part of the film that rings false for me, and I blame her. I just didn’t like her acting. She was way out of her league. When she finally gets wasted with him, like she wants to live on the wild side, and then is devastated when he doesn’t want to stay with her, I rolled my eyes. Who on this good green earth is that naive? Rourke is great with her. He’s great with anyone. He is great with non-actors and actors alike, and he is terrific in his scenes with her. I just didn’t like her acting. It needed to be underplayed, because suddenly – in those scenes – we get a very literal and almost plot-driven film: The Snooty Literary Chick Who Is Turned On Sexually By the Bad Boy – (yawn) … and she plays everything directly on the nose. But that’s a minor flaw. It is not the main driving force of the film. Thank goodness. She is an interruption in the flow that is the Dunaway-Rourke pas de deux. She is an important character if only because it shows that Henry is not just some anonymous loser wanna-be scribbler. He has actually gotten his shit together enough to submit things to magazines, and it has generated some attention. The times he spends huddled over a paper after a long bender is starting to pay off.
There are a couple of other evocative gestures I want to mention, and they’re a bit hard to talk about, for many reasons. I think with someone like Rourke you obviously are in the realm of instinct. To discuss these choices as though they are fully conscious, in the same way that you make “choices” like “Do I want tuna or chicken salad for lunch” – would not be right. We’re on the level of something subconscious. By gesture, I don’t quite mean Michael Chekohv’s psychological gesture, although there is some overlap. If you have a good eye for human behavior, then almost everything another person does becomes a “psychological gesture”. The way they smoke, the way they listen, the body posture, the hand motions … all of these things reveal a person’s psychology and personality – far better than a minute-long monologue in words about “where I am coming from” could ever do. Psychological gesture is more about tapping into the emotional depth of the character, something you can draw upon later if you ever feel lost about “who you are” – it’s almost like the THEME of a play and how every scene must somehow illuminate SOME aspect of the theme. If it doesn’t, then it needs to be cut. I have been dealing with that a lot in putting together my book and it has not been easy. Precious things have had to be cut (perhaps to be used later – yes – but not in THIS book), and I have had to do some rigorous soul-searching about all of it. But the theme of the book is clear as day to me, and always has been – it is WHY I wrote the book, which led to HOW I wrote the book. A “psychological gesture” can help an actor stay on track with the deepest wishes, desires, hopes (ie: objective) of the character his portraying. When I speak of gesture here, I am speaking on a more prosaic level – how someone stands, sits, walks, smokes – but as I mentioned, these things can be extremely revealing. It is NOT just in closeup that an actor really “acts”, although I have worked with such people before. They don’t know how to work with the whole body. Without the camera 2 inches away from their nose, they are not sure how to “show” the character. None of this stuff is easy, by the way, if you don’t have talent, and much of this cannot be taught. But when you start looking for those defining characteristics in the performances you love (or, more accurately, the performances you find unusually effective), it is amazing how much detail you can find. It is a mysterious process: how much was the actor aware of what he was doing?
In a way, picking such moments apart ruins them, but that’s what I’m all about.
Ruining the things I love by overanalysis.
There are two moments in particular which I think say, in no uncertain terms, THIS IS WHO THIS CHARACTER IS.
And both of them have, as their main strength, the fact that they seem unconscious, unselfconscious, spontaneous.
The first one is after one of the bloody brawl Henry finds himself in (or, uhm, no, that he chooses actively) in the alley of the dive bar. In this one, he does NOT get beaten so badly that he lies on the ground in the trash bags. In this one, he gets the better of his opponent (played, speak of the devil, by Frank Stallone, Sly’s brother). The crowd, who always roots for the bartender, placing bets on him, can’t believe it. They’re almost pissed. What happened to their entertainment? Henry is supposed to get beaten and battered, they’re all supposed to win ten bucks, and then they get to go back inside, full of a sense of superiority that they had been right yet again, and also with a couple more drinks they now can buy with the bet money. But this time, Henry goes crazy. Frank Stallone doesn’t know what hit him. All hell breaks loose.
Everyone’s night is now effed up. No one knows how to react. The world of drunks is surprisingly conservative. They like routine. They abhor surprise.
Henry almost doesn’t know what to do with himself. He was victorious? Who IS he now?
All the spectators (save one) shuffle back into the bar, grumpy, disgruntled, leaving Henry alone in the alley, as always, only this time he is still standing. Rourke starts to stagger back towards the bar, and there’s an old grinning toothless drunk standing there (this guy can’t be an actor, can he??). This old guy seems to be the only one delighted by the unexpected turn of events. He stands there, beaming meaninglessly at Rourke. Who knows why … perhaps it’s his advanced stage of alcoholism that just makes him unnaturally happy and positive … or maybe somewhere, in his drowned soul, he recognizes that some important ground was just claimed by the GOOD in this world. As Rourke walks by him, he is struck by the gentleman. They have a moment of looking at each other. Again, Rourke is kind of hunched over his midsection protectively. (I just want to interject one thing: Rourke is also a boxer, as we all know. He knows how to take a punch. He knows how to “save face” when he is hurt. But Henry doesn’t. Henry isn’t a professional, he doesn’t “spar”, he doesn’t dance around, dodging punches. Rourke beautifully embodies something that is essentially unfamiliar to him: a man who doesn’t know how to fight. Again, many other actors – some of them quite good – would protect himself in this role by somehow suggesting to the audience, “If I really tried, I could KNOCK THIS GUY OUT. I am CHOOSING not to knock this guy out.” Rourke does not protect himself.)
He glances uncertainly at the grinning drunk. He can barely stand himself. His arms are hunched out at his sides, again in a little curve. It may not be the classic definition of a “psychological gesture”, but it tells me all I need to know. About this man’s protectiveness of himself, and also his halting openness.
The drunk smiles at him. It is unclear why he is smiling – to us, and to Henry. But Henry, unlike many other drunks, is not a cynic at heart. He is actually a poet. He gives people the benefit of the doubt. He assumes the best of everyone, which is why he gets hurt, every day, all day.
In response, to the drunk’s unending smile, Rourke suddenly shrugs and holds his arms out at him. It is a big gesture. Fearless. It is, essentially, unexplainable.
I could talk about that big shrug for hours. What I love so much about it is how childlike it is. It’s embarrassing to see in a grown man, but it’s embarrassing in a heartrending way. You are not embarrassed FOR him, you are more embarrassed for yourself, that you do not allow yourself such openness. He offers himself up to the smiling drunk, like: “See what I just did? Wasn’t that great?” and he’s like a shame-faced little kid, after doing a somersault through the adult’s cocktail hour. “I know I’m only a kid … but did you see what I just did? I need your approval, and I don’t know why … but will you please give it to me?”
The entirety of Henry’s whole life is in that shrug.
The other moment I love is from the first time Henry takes Wanda into “his” bar. Everyone is in a hubbub about Henry actually having a woman. Henry walks like a strutting peacock (“Look at who I got!”) and Wanda glimmers and glows at his side, getting a kick out of it, as though she is at a red carpet event on the arm of a movie star. The two settle in at the bar. It’s morning, by the way. Henry decides he wants to go try to get a job at some construction joint that’s hiring. Wanda panics about him leaving her. She told him what would happen … she loses her “direction” when booze is offered to her. They go back and forth about this. They just met the night before, but already they are talking about boundaries and commitment. Everything in their world is messed up. Intimacy must happen immediately or it cannot happen at all. Nobody has any TIME to court, or “vet” each other. It’s now or never.
Henry is busy talking at her, in his strange cadences, his voice going up at the end of every sentence, reassuring her – but he’s not really connected to her. How could he be? In the middle of one of his monologues, she reaches out and touches his face tenderly.
And all I want to say is, watch how Rourke responds. It can’t be captured in a screengrab. It’s an infinitesimal moment, nearly invisible to the naked eye. But his face relaxes when she touches him like that. How long has it been since he has been touched tenderly? How long has it been since he – HE – has been touched? Sure, he got sucked off by the old whore in the bathroom, but to her he’s a dime a dozen, just another man. In that moment with Wanda, SHE is touching HIM. His face relaxes, and while it’s wonderful to see him relax (I can relax, too), it’s tragic, too, because already in the film the world has been set up, and we know that such tenderness is just a tiny moment, here and now gone. Nothing is meant to last.
Mickey Rourke, in his wonderfully malleable sensitive face, using all of his powers of imagination and talent to step into the shoes of another man, allows himself to
1. enjoy her tender touch … his whole face goes slack with the pleasure of her touch.
2. experience the loss and grief at the same time that this moment will not last.
And that is fine fine acting. All without a word being said.
“He refuses to join the rat race. He drinks and he waits.”
“Some guys know how to get all the women.”
“You don’t know how?”
“I can get one for ten minutes. That’s my limit.”
“I can’t stand people. I hate them. Do you hate them?”
“No. But I seem to feel better when they’re not around.”
“I’m gonna ask you the same damn thing people are always asking me.”
“Like, what do you do?”
“Just one thing. I don’t want to fall in love. I can’t go through that again.”
“Hey. Don’t worry. Noone’s ever loved me yet.”
“You’re the damndest barfly I’ve ever seen. You act like some weird blueblood, like royalty.”
“Do you trust me?”
“Why not? It’s easier that way.”
“What are you doing with a woman, Henry?”
“Lily, sometimes … I think you could use one, too.”
“Excuse me. Who are you?”
“Oh, the eternal question. The eternal answer … I don’t know.”
“This is a world where everybody’s gotta do something. Somebody laid down this rule that everybody’s gotta do something. They gotta be something. A dentist, a glider pilot, a Narc, a janitor, a preacher, all that. Sometimes I just get tired of thinking of all the things I don’t want to do, all the things I don’t want to be, all the places I don’t want to go, like India, get my teeth cleaned, save the whale, I don’t understand that.”
“Why’d it have to be Eddie? He symbolizes everything that disgusts me.”
“Obviousness. Unoriginal macho energy. Ladies man.”
“Nothing but a dripping sink and an empty bottle. Euphoria. Youth fenced in. Stabbed and shaven.”
“I know something about you. You’ve been jailed 12 times. You like Mahler and Mozart. You can’t dance. You hate movies. You like avocados and Schopenhauer.”
“What do you want me to do, write a book about the suffering of the upper classes?”
“This may come as a surprise to you, but they suffer too.”
“Heyyy, baby … nobody suffers like the poor.”
“What do you want to be when you grow up?”
“Hey, I’m not pretending to be anything. What’s your point?”
“Some people never go crazy. What truly horrible lives they must lead.”
“Now look. Twenty bucks for that kind of head is outrageous.”
“I did ya good, old fart. I did ya good. I oughta bit your champagne cork off.”
“I’m givin’ ya fifteen bucks.”
“Twenty bucks. Nobody in this neighborhood can swallow paste like I can.”
“Why don’t you stop drinking? Anybody can be a drunk.”
“Anybody can be a non-drunk. It takes a special talent to be a drunk. It takes endurance. Endurance is more important than truth.”
“So you hired a dick to find an asshole?”
“I take it you don’t care for my world.”
“Well, baby, look around. It’s a, it’s a cage with golden bars.”
“You know, in the guest house, you could write in peace.”
“Hey, Tully baby, nobody who could write worth a damn could ever write in peace, Jesus.”
“Baby, what we had was just green corn.”
“Don’t be sorry, just put on some new underwear.”
“I hate the police, don’t you?”
“I don’t know, but I seem to feel better when they’re not around.”
“Drinks for all my friends!”
“And as my hands drop the last desperate pen, in some cheap room, they will find me there and never know my name, my meaning, nor the treasure of my escape.”