The Kino Flo light, now a ubiquitous tool in the film industry, was specially created by Robby Müller's electrical crew for a scene in this film, which would have been difficult to light using the conventional lampheads available at the time.
The film was "presented by" Francis Ford Coppola, and features a silent cameo appearance by Bukowski himself. It was entered into the 1987 Cannes Film Festival.
Henry Chinaski (Mickey Rourke) is a destitute alcoholic who lives in a rundown apartment and works menial jobs when he can find them. An intelligent man and keenly aware of his circumstance, he finds solace in expressing his feelings and perceptions of the world through writing poetry and short stories which he submits to magazines and papers for a few extra dollars.
At night, he frequents a local establishment where he drinks, hangs out with other down and out alcoholics, and eventually gets into altercations with other patrons along with the tough guy bartender he hates, named Eddie (Frank Stallone). One night, Henry comes into the bar very drunk; he begins to drink uncontrollably out of other customers' glasses and Eddie promptly throws him out into the street telling him to never come back. Humiliated, the next day Henry wakes up determined to focus on beating Eddie.
During routine evening stops at the local bar, Henry constantly challenges Eddie, in a quest to prove to himself and others that he could beat the sober and tough talking bartender, who represents everything Henry despises, including shallowness and self-promotion. His regular fights with Eddie in the back alley behind the bar attract other bar goers who cheer for their favorite and place wagers on the fight. The bar owner, who has a soft spot for Henry and has faith in him, puts a wager on him to beat Eddie. This time Henry wins the fight, the Bar owner wins his bet which he then gives to Henry so that he can buy a couple drinks for the night. He then tells Henry that although he likes him, he is no longer welcome at the bar because of his disruptive activities, the fights with Eddie, and the harassment of the other bar-goers.
Henry then staggers on to another establishment down the street, where he continues his imbibement. There, he meets Wanda (Faye Dunaway), a fellow alcoholic and a kept woman, who, lonely in her own right, invites Henry to drink with her, with booze she buys on her lover's account at the liquor store. She invites Henry to her shabby apartment to drink whiskey, and he quickly takes up residence with her. They share a bed and drink to excess, on the tab of Wanda's older lover. The next day they set out to get jobs to finance the booze soaked life together. Henry then takes Wanda back to his usual establishment to show the owner and everyone there that he has changed, is settling down, and only there for celebratory drinks before he departs for a job interview.
However, things become very acrimonious between Henry and Eddie when Henry discovers that Wanda not only knows Eddie, has slept with him previously. Nevertheless, Henry stays with Wanda and continues to drink his nights away with her by his side, writing his poems and stories during the day, and submitting his work to magazines and book publishers.
In the meantime, Henry is tracked down by a wealthy female book publisher, Tully Sorenson, who has been impressed with his writing and is interested in publishing some of his work. She finds him through a private investigator she has hired, who breaks into Henry's apartment one afternoon and takes pictures of some of Henry's writing to verify to Tully the promise of Henry's work. Knowing Henry is destitute, Tully pays him an "advance" of five hundred dollars and takes him back to her home where, after pouring some drinks for the two of them, the two sleep together.
At first, Henry is impressed with the promise of wealth and security, including an endless supply of booze that working for Tully could provide. However, he begins to realize that he is uncomfortable being involved with Tully, romantically or professionally, because of class differences, telling her that she is "trapped in a cage with golden bars". Henry determines he must leave, that returning to his life of destitution and alcoholism is the only truth he knows.
After leaving Tully's house, Henry returns to his usual bar and to Wanda. Tully heads out to see if she can change his mind, and finds him at the bar where a drunken, jealous Wanda proceeds to beat her up. When Henry doesn't intercede, Tully realizes that Henry does not care about her and doesn't want her help. So she leaves the bar and gives up on publishing his work, realizing that her pursuit of him was futile.
The film ends with Henry buying drinks for all of his "friends" at the bar. Eddie suspects Henry has no money and is itching for a fight, so he tells Henry that he owes him forty dollars for the drinks. To Eddie's surprise, Henry pays with some of the advance he received from Tully and sarcastically leaves a tip for Eddie, saying, "Buy a drink on me." Eddie calls Henry out and they go out behind the bar for another fight. As Henry and the other barflies follow Eddie out the door, the camera pans out to the front of the bar to the sound of punches and the crowd cheering the two men on.Mickey Rourke as Henry Chinaski
Faye Dunaway as Wanda Wilcox
Alice Krige as Tully Sorenson
Jack Nance as Detective
J.C. Quinn as Jim
Frank Stallone as Eddie
Sandy Martin as Janice
Roberta Bassin as Lilly
Gloria LeRoy as Grandma Moses
Joe Unger as Ben
Harry Cohn as Rick
Pruitt Taylor Vince as Joe
Fritz Feld as Bum
Charles Bukowski as Oldtimer
Albert Henderson as Louie
Charles Bukowski wanted Sean Penn to star as protagonist Henry Chinaski, but Penn insisted that Dennis Hopper direct the film. Bukowski had written the screenplay for Barbet Schroeder, who had filmed him for French TV years before, but would not surrender the script to Hopper, whom he despised as a gold-chain-wearing Hollywood phony; Bukowski and Penn remained friends for the rest of Bukowski's life.
There is a scene where the camera tilts up over Faye Dunaway's legs. This glamour shot was done at her insistence and was not in the original screenplay.
The apartment building where Wanda's apartment is located was an actual building where Charles Bukowski and his lover Jane Baker Cooley, the real-life counterparts to Henry and Wanda, had lived. No one knew this until Bukowski, who was watching the filming, remembered.
The opening and closing song for the film is the 1967 instrumental rock classic ""Hip Hug-Her", by Southern soul band Booker T. & the M.G.'s, released in their 1967 homonymous album.
Charles Bukowski had mixed reactions about the lead performance by Mickey Rourke. In an interview in the documentary film Born Into This, Bukowski says, "[Rourke] didn't get it right... He had it all kind of exaggerated, untrue. A little bit show-off about him. So, no, it was kind of mis-done". Although in a letter written apropos the film, titled "A Letter from a Fan", the writer states "[...]Part of my luck was the actor who played Henry Chinaski. Mickey Rourke stayed with the dialogue to the word and the sound intended. What surprised me was that he added another dimension to the character, in spirit. Mickey appeared to really love his role, and yet without exaggeration he added his own flavor, his zest, his madness, his gamble to Henry Chinaski without destroying the intent or the meaning of the character. To add spirit to spirit can be dangerous but not in the hands of a damned good actor. Without distorting, he added, and I was very pleased with the love and understanding he lent to the role of the BARFLY".
Bukowski later novelized his experiences surrounding the film in the book Hollywood.
Barfly received positive reviews from critics, as it holds a 74% rating on Rotten Tomatoes based on 19 reviews.Nominee Best Actress-Drama - Golden Globes (Faye Dunaway)
Nominee Palme d'Or - Cannes Film Festival
Nominee Best Cinematography - Independent Spirit Awards (Robby Müller)
Nominee Best Actor - Independent Spirit Awards (Mickey Rourke)
The film is recognized by American Film Institute in these lists:2002: AFI's 100 Years...100 Passions – Nominated
Barfly is referenced in the 2009 movie Precious.
Other films based on the life or writings of Bukowski include Bukowski: Born into This (2003 documentary), Tales of Ordinary Madness (1981), Crazy Love (1987), and Factotum (2005).
In 2011 it was reported that actor and director James Franco was working on a movie version of Ham on Rye.
The film was mentioned in a Season 5 episode of the television series Entourage. One of the show's characters, Johnny Drama (who plays an actor in the show), claims that he did three days as an extra on Barfly.
A line of dialogue from the movie was used in a track titled "Only Angel" from Harry Styles' self-titled debut album.