Bukowski: What Lies Beneath

As an avid reader who doesn’t know that much about Charles Bukowski, apart from the poems I read in school and his reputation as the hardened “dirty old man”, I felt that it was time to educate myself more on the prolific writer. Especially since my friend, who is reading Christopher Ciconne’s Life With My Sister, told me that Bukowski actually lived with Madonna and Sean Penn for a while. If that isn’t reason enough to learn about Bukowski, I don’t know what is (note sarcasm).

John Dullaghan’s 2003 documentary, Bukowski: Born Into This, is a perfect primer on Bukowski. Dullaghan was certainly invested in the project, devoting seven years to bringing Bukowski’s life to the screen. He traveled the globe to collect photos, film footage, and documents such as resignation letters and eviction notices, and put them in the film.

In addition, he worked side-by-side with those who knew Bukowski best: friends, colleagues, his publisher, past girlfriends, his daughter Marina, and his wife, Linda. He brought celebrity to the film by interviewing famous friends of the poet like Sean Penn, Bono, and Tom Waits. As a result of all of Dullaghan’s efforts, the film takes an exceptionally in-depth look at Bukowski’s life and reveals several sides of the poet most never got to see.

Henry Charles Bukowski, known as Buk and Hank, wrote poetry inspired by the mundane grind of work, his relationship with women and booze, and his love of the racetrack. Some say that he did for American poetry what punk rock did for music by writing unpretentious poems that reached beyond what was accepted in the academic world at the time. As Bono so aptly puts it in the film, he didn’t have time for metaphor so instead he said exactly what he meant, no matter how gritty.

He wrote a lot about Los Angeles, which he eventually called home, but originally Bukowski was born in Germany in 1920. His family moved to the United States when he was very young and settled in California. In the film, Bukowski goes back to the California house he grew up in, which he calls “the house of horrors, the house of agony” and reenacts the dreadful abuse he endured from his father. He shows the viewer exactly where his father whipped him in the bathroom and reveals that his mother merely stood by and said, “Your father is always right.”

This is one of many times in the film we get to see beyond the “dirty old man” and witness Bukowski’s vulnerability. Another of these occasions occurs when he tells an interviewer the story of losing his virginity at 24 years old to a “three hundred pound whore”. While the story is humorous, he goes on to talk about being an outcast in school and suffering from disfiguring acne and low self-esteem.

Despite his insecurity, he eventually had many lovers. A very funny moment occurs when he recalls his first girlfriend, Jane, and describes her as “a real fine-looking woman with body and sense”. Meanwhile, his former co-worker, Dom Muto, remembers how unsightly she was, saying, “I saw her once…she had a fat ass and was good to lean up against in the wintertime…. If you like them big, ya know. She did not have the good looks or sophistication of a classy woman.”

Bukowski’s odd relationship with women is at the forefront of the film. We learn that he met his wife, Linda, while writing the book Women, doing what she refers to as “research”. She says: “When he got a little bit of notoriety, women started coming to him and he had the opportunity to take his pick and just sort of have experiences. Like a child, almost, he was discovering this whole world of women in a way he hadn’t.”

In the film, there’s footage of Bukowski sitting in his living room reading a poem about his former girlfriend. As he reads, he suddenly breaks down into tears. At this moment we see him exposed and vulnerable. Later in the film, when he marries his wife Linda, the wedding footage shows him openly weeping as he says, “I do.” These instances are what make the film so good — they break through the parody Bukowski had become of himself in the public eye.

Bukowski thought that Barfly, the movie which traced his roots as a young man, was too focused on him as a caricature. In Born Into This, he reveals that he was unhappy with the outcome and disillusioned by Hollywood even more than he thought he might be. He says he found it “more crooked, dumber, crueler, stupider than all the books I’ve read about it”. He then goes on to say that Hollywood “lacks art and soul and heart” and is “really a piece of crap”.

He even thought Mickey Rourke over-acted the part when playing him: “He really overdid it with the hair hanging down. I don’t think the kid’s ever been on Skid Row…. He had it all kind of exaggerated and untrue. A little bit show-off about it…. It was kind of misdone.” A former girlfriend sounds downright shocked that they chose Rourke for the part when she scoffs, “How could Mickey Rourke portray Hank? It was an impossibility. They needed to get some old duffer.”

After contracting tuberculosis in 1988, Bukowski stopped drinking heavily. Linda says he had enough wisdom and confidence to go beyond the myth of Bukowski and “be a cause of goodness”. Near the end of the film, Tom Waits reveals, “By the time he got to The Last Night of the Earth Poems [1992], he was really a wise man and a very thoughtful man and was not afraid to be vulnerable. He was turning the ball around in front of you and let you see as many sides as he could see himself.”

In 1993, Bukowski was diagnosed with Leukemia. At the end of the film, there’s a touching scene that shows his Linda sitting by Bukowski’s graveside. She says of his passing in the hospital: “At that moment his face became absolutely transparent and serene. Every wrinkly scar and tension — everything completely relaxed. And there was an utter tranquility that existed and permeated everything at that point. And it was so gentle and pure. He had a smooth face like a newborn baby.”

The film then ends with photos of Bukowski and a voiceover of him reading one of my favorite poems, “Bluebird”:

there’s a bluebird in my heart that

wants to get out

but I’m too tough for him,

I say, stay in there, I’m not going

to let anybody see


there’s a bluebird in my heart that

wants to get out

but I pour whiskey on him and inhale

cigarette smoke

and the whores and the bartenders

and the grocery clerks

never know that


in there.

there’s a bluebird in my heart that

wants to get out

but I’m too tough for him,

I say,

stay down, do you want to mess

me up?

you want to screw up the


you want to blow my book sales in


there’s a bluebird in my heart that

wants to get out

but I’m too clever, I only let him out

at night sometimes

when everybody’s asleep.

I say, I know that you’re there,

so don’t be


then I put him back,

but he’s singing a little

in there, I haven’t quite let him


and we sleep together like


with our

secret pact

and it’s nice enough to

make a man

weep, but I don’t

weep, do


Whether you’re already a die-hard fan or just wanting to get to know Bukowski better, Bukowski: Born Into This is an excellent choice. Dullaghan’s film is as multifaceted as Bukowski was. It does a fantastic job of chipping away at the tough, pockmarked mask Bukowski wore in order to reveal the sensitive human being and artist beneath.