I can quit whenever I want.
The cinematic alcoholic has a long and storied tradition, dating back to screen drunks like William "Nick Charles" Powell, real-life drunks like John Barrymore and combinations of the two like W.C. Fields.
And for the bulk of the 20th century, the drunk was usually a movie's comic relief (think Lee Marvin in Cat Ballou or Dean Martin in just about anything). More realistic depictions cropped up here and there (The Lost Weekend, Days of Wine and Roses), but it really wasn't until the '80s and '90s that Hollywood finally decided to start cashing in on America's new rehab culture.
Today we're going to take a look at two latter-era onscreen drunks, both based on real people, and both played by actors once (and occasionally still) regarded as two of the finest of their generation: Henry Chinanski from Barfly, and Ben Sanderson from Leaving Las Vegas.
In This Corner: Failed screenwriter Ben Sanderson (Nicolas Cage), whose alcoholism has cost him his career and family. He travels to Las Vegas to drink himself to death, which is one of the more honest reasons to actually go to Vegas.
And In This Corner: Part-time poet Henry Chinanski (Mickey Rourke), who submits short stories to literary magazines by day and gets drunk and fights his local bartender at night. Eh, it's a living.
Real-Life Counterparts: Sanderson is the semi-autobiographical character from writer John O'Brien's novel. Leaving Las Vegas was described by O'Brien's father as his suicide note, and indeed he killed himself two weeks after learning the novel was to be made into a movie. His sister completed a second novel from his notes, but O'Brien's only alleged screenwriting credit is an episode of the animated TV show Rugrats.
Chinanski is legendary author Charles Bukowski's alter ego, and appears in several of his works. Bukowski wrote the screenplay for Barfly specifically for director Barbet Schroeder, and it's based on the time Bukowski spent as a struggling writer in Los Angeles (though I'm pretty sure he didn't get beaten up every night by Frank Stallone).
Sympathetic as I am to O'Brien, and whatever your opinion of Bukowski,* you pretty much have to hand it to Chinanski here.
Quotability: This is a close one. Chinanski is, after all, a poet and given to florid turns of phrase and occasionally savant-like insight into the human experience:
Wanda: "I can't stand people."
Henry: "Oh yeah?"
Wanda: "You hate them?"
Henry: "No, but I seem to feel better when they're not around."
"Anybody can be a non-drunk. It takes a special talent to be a drunk. It takes endurance. Endurance is more important than truth."
Tully: "You know, in the guest house, you could write in peace." Henry: "Hey, Tully baby, nobody who could write worth a damn could ever write in peace, Jesus."
I tried that "hop behind the bar and help yourself from the tap" at a place in South Philly several years back. It turned out about as well.
Sanderson, on the other hand, is given to more fatalistic and forced merriment, the better to project an image of casual disregard for his fate:
Sera: "How do you feel?"
Ben: "Like the kling klang king of the rim ram room."
"I don't know if my wife left me because of my drinking or I started drinking 'cause my wife left me."
Ben: "I came here to drink myself to death."
Sera: "How long will it take you?"
Ben: "I'd say about three to four weeks."
I think I have to give the edge to Sanderson, if only because I tend to think Bukowski gets stale once you graduate college and start to realize getting drunk every morning by 11 is only a viable lifestyle choice if you're really committed to becoming a starving artist.
And really, how dedicated a drunk was Bukowski, anyway? He lived to 73, for crying out loud.
The Ladies In Their Lives Chinanski, in what I'd like to believe is dramatic license by Bukowski, not only beds his on again/off again girlfriend Wanda, but also hooks up with book publisher Tully. Not bad for a gentleman who seems to have a thin sheen of grease on his skin at all times.
Wanda is portrayed by the inimitable Faye Dunaway (looking far too healthy for a 40-something inebriate), while Tully is played by pre-Borq Queen Alice Krige. Advantage Chinanski...
...or so you'd think, for Sanderson is no slouch. Well, he's actually -- as Ty Webb would put it -- a tremendous slouch, but he still lands the lovely Sera and the appropriately named "Hooker at bar." Fine, they're both prostitutes, but I'm going to have to play the childhood crush card and say that Elisabeth Shue (Sera) is my longest-standing fictional love affair. Ever since Karate Kid, when she was but a cheerleader giving me a newfound appreciation for sweaters. Hell. I've been known to sit, voluntarily, through the entirety of The Saint and Cocktail just for her. That Sanderson is unwilling to alter his plan for her should give you an idea how serious he really is about killing himself.
And did I mention the hooker is pre-SUV Mariska Hargitay? Because that's what all prostitutes in Vegas look like. Sanderson in a walk.
The Dudes Behind The Drunks Both Barfly and Leaving Las Vegas represented, at least temporarily, career high points for both Cage and Rourke. After 1987, which also saw him starring in the nicely creepy Angel Heart, Rourke would go on to star in such (Razzie) award-winning fare as Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man and Double Team, alongside JCVD and a fluorescent Dennis Rodman. Cage's post-LLV career has had a few high points (The Rock, Adaptation) among the lows, but when your bombs are opening on 3,000 screens as opposed to going straight-to-DVD, they tend to be more spectacular (see also The Wicker Man).
Rourke, of course, has enjoyed a career renaissance with Darren Aronofksy's The Wrestler and new A-list cred after appearing in Iron Man 2. Cage never really lost his upper echelon status, but whereas Rourke's eccentricities are well-documented, recent news about Cage's spending habits, public dust-ups and general weirdness continue to make going to any movie he makes a crap shoot.
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to the mission of the Houston Press. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling Houston’s stories with no paywalls.
Support Our Journalism
I'm not sure how to grade this. I think I have more respect for Rourke as an actor, but Cage's real life is more entertaining than most of his movies. Call it a toss-up.
The Verdict: Chinanski is the less tragic figure, for obvious reasons. Even aside from the not-killing-yourself thing, he achieves a level of acceptance with his station in life that you know Sanderson never could. In the end, though, Sanderson's single-mindedness wins me over. There's nothing particularly admirable about it, but Cage's performance, coupled with the millennial anxiety that permeates the whole film (and, yes, Elisabeth Shue), give his character the edge. Sanderson is the winner.
Though I'd probably not want to drink with either of them.