The Outsider in American Cinema:
From Charles Bukowski to the Big Lebowski

Bowling Ball

By Joe Hauser

During his lifetime Charles Bukowski (1920 – 1994) was the quintessential outsider, a loner separated from both America’s literary culture and its mainstream society.  The figure of the outsider who rejects, or is rejected by, the mainstream is a popular theme in American cinema, one that has been explored by countless filmmakers over the last century.  Moreover, the meaning of “outsider” in cinema has changed dramatically over the years. 

In the early years of Hollywood, the outsider was typically an outcast from society. It wasn’t until the cultural shift of the 1960s when the modern notion of choosing to reject society would dominate as a cinematic theme.  The screwball comedy My Man Godfrey (1936) opens with an idle-rich family playing a scavenger hunt game in which one of the sought after objects is “a forgotten man” -- quite a meaningful scenario in the midst of the Great Depression.  After bringing home a shabby (though oddly well-spoken) hobo named Godfrey (William Powell), Irene Bullock (Carole Lombard) wins the dubious contest and soon offers Godfrey a job as butler to her spoiled family.  Though it is played for laughs, there is a sharp edge to the zany humor and the viewer is obviously meant to identify with Godfrey, the acerbic outsider, over the shallow and foolish upper class family.   

In Sullivan’s Travels (1940), successful Hollywood film director John L. Sullivan (Joel McCrea), fed up with churning out what he sees as trivial comedies, dreams instead of making a “serious” film about the poor and outcast in contemporary (i.e. Depression era) America. He even has an appropriately overwrought title for this didactic opus: O Brother Where Art Thou?  When his producers correctly point out that the Hollywood big shot has little knowledge of poverty, Sullivan sets out to hobo his way across America to gain much needed experience.  Director Preston Sturges has a lot of fun with the theme, and nearly every time Sullivan experiences real hardship he pulls one of his Hollywood strings to help himself out of his plight.  The film nevertheless has real pathos, such as when a group of shackled prisoners shuffle into a theater for a rare treat: a night at the movies watching Disney cartoons.  The resulting laughter of the bound men is an epiphany for Sullivan, who realizes that what the downtrodden (and by extent, Americans) need is precisely what he is already providing them: the gift of laughter.

The Coen Brothers paid homage to Sullivan’s Travels in the name of their Depression road comedy O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), the same earnest title that Sullivan had dreamed up.  In a further tip of the hat, the Coens include a scene in which a group of chain gang prisoners shuffle into a movie house for an evening’s entertainment.  (As usual in a Coen Brothers venture, a lot more is going on; the entire film is a reimagining of Homer’s The Odyssey, transplanted to the 1930s American South.)

In their iconic stoner cult flick The Big Lebowski (1998), the Coens showcase a decidedly different outsider in Jeff Bridges’ The Dude, a Los Angeles ex-hippie thirty years past his prime.  Content to pass his days smoking weed, drinking White Russians and bowling in a league, The Dude unwittingly gets mixed up in a kidnapping plot straight out of Raymond Chandler.  The source of his trouble is the cosmic coincidence of having the same name as Jeffrey Lebowski, an uber-capitalist/anti-Dude who delivers a rousing indictment of The Dude’s lifestyle: “Your revolution is over, Mr. Lebowski. Condolences. The bums lost. My advice is to do what your parents did; get a job, sir. The bums will always lose. Do you hear me, Lebowski?”  In his hilarious and haphazard attempts to set right his world, The Dude is buffeted by forces beyond his control much like the characters Godfrey and Sullivan before him.

Woody Allen often portrayed the outsider as a put-upon nebbish in his early films.  In his later film Sweet And Lowdown (1999) however, he tapped Sean Penn to play musical outsider Emmett Ray, the world’s second greatest guitarist after Django Reinhardt.  Though Ray is a fictitious character, the film begins as a talking-head documentary with academic types opining about the mysterious and eccentric 1930s jazz guitarist.  Emmett Ray is a soul somewhat akin to Henry Chinaski, caring only about two things: his art, and partying hard.  Like Chinaski, he uses women for sex and as a sounding board for his outsized ego. The irony is that while he possesses musical talent so pure it can reduce a grown man to tears, Emmett Ray himself is a petty, self-absorbed jerk who enjoys nothing more than shooting rats at the train yard.  

As for Bukowski himself, his life and writings (which are essentially the same thing) have been adapted to cinema.  Bukowski himself worked as screenwriter on Barfly (1987), a decent if Hollywoodized version of Bukowski’s life.  The film, directed by Barbet Schroeder, stars Mickey Rourke (before his own Bukowskian descent) and Faye Dunaway.  Rourke is Bukowski’s alter-ego, Henry Chinaski, subsisting on blue collar jobs to keep himself in drinking money while pursuing his one passion, writing. Dunaway is his hard-drinking girlfriend, and the film’s thin plot concerns a literary agent’s attempt to secure Chinaski’s work and steal his affections.  The film was shot in the real-life dive bar Big Eddie’s in Los Angeles, his favored watering hole.  However, in an on-set interview with critic Roger Ebert, Bukowski said the setting was a combination of Big Eddie’s and a long-defunct bar located at 16th & Fairmount in Philadelphia, where Bukowski lived in the 1940s. 

Two decades later, Matt Dillon took up the Henry Chinaski role in Factotum (2006), based on Bukowski’s 1975 novel of the same name (which means “somebody who does many jobs”) and other writings.  Aside from the movie-star handsome Dillon playing Chinaski (Bukowski was far from handsome), the film is faithful to the Bukowski spirit.  Chinaski drifts from one soul-crushing menial job to another, sleeps in cheap boardinghouse rooms, and beds the barflies he finds in his tavern haunts.  All the while he continues to write and submit his work to publishers by mail.  In his day jobs, Chinaski is either incompetent or irresponsible, apparently by design.  Let other men take pride in their work; Chinaski takes pride in shirking his duties.  The main relationship portrayed in the film is between Henry and Jan (Lily Taylor, in what seems to be a role made for her), and it is one based on nothing but a mutual love of booze and sex.  There is no hint of romance, no pretense of affection.  She revels in their poverty, even ridiculing Henry when he begins making money from his new betting system at the race track. When he finally tires of Jan, Chinaski slaps her in a crowded bar and challenges any man there to fight him over it.  They all decline, perhaps calculating that the drunken woman isn’t worth a broken nose.  

Chinaski replaces Jan with a prostitute (Marisa Tomei), even joining her on a yacht trip with her rich client Pierre and his entourage of paid female companions.  The outing has an unreal quality arising out of the fact that there is no human connection among any of the people present.  Everyone is paid to be there except Henry, who is nevertheless getting free drink and a glimpse of the high life, though it scarcely makes an impression on him. Throughout the film, people drift in and out of Chinaski’s life and he seems to have nothing beyond a passing interest in any of them.  If this is an accurate portrayal of Bukowski’s life it seems a strangely empty one.

Beginning in the 1960s the portrayal of outlaws in the movies changed, as criminals went from black-hatted villain to unabashed folk hero.  Arthur Penn’s seminal film Bonnie and Clyde (1967) romanticized the duo as Depression-era Robin Hoods, stealing from the banks that had foreclosed on family farms.  In Dog Day Afternoon (1975), bank robber Sonny Wortzik (Al Pacino) is the ultimate outsider: a married man having an affair with another man who wants to be a woman.  In Taxi Driver (1976), Travis Bickle (Robert DeNiro) is hailed as a hero by the media after rescuing a 12 year old prostitute, which only happened after his failure to assassinate a presidential candidate.  Likewise the gangster film genre celebrates the exploits of mafioso, from the Godfather films to Goodfellas.

Some actors play a variation of the outsider throughout their careers.  Montgomery Clift’s best-known role is as the stoic soldier Prewitt in From Here to Eternity (1953).  After having accidentally killed a man in the ring, Prewitt refuses to bow to pressure to join his new platoon’s boxing team.  In A Place In The Sun (1951), Clift plays George Eastman, a poor relation of a wealthy industrialist family.  George goes to work at the Eastman factory but harbors no expectations of being welcomed into their elite circle. In one early scene we see George, wearing his only suit to a society bash at the Eastman mansion.  His sense of loneliness is palpable as he moves unseen through the party, a stranger in a strange land.  To this point he has accepted his station in life, and has sought some measure of comfort in dating a plain-jane factory girl named Alice (Shelley Winters).  But upon meeting Angela Vickers (Elizabeth Taylor), everything changes for George.  To win her, he climbs the social ladder and even succeeds in gaining the approval of the elites, only to lose it all once he finds out Alice is pregnant.  Clift was a homosexual at a time when that was hardly accepted in Hollywood, and (according to biographers) was racked with guilt over his sexuality.   Like many actors, he seems to have channeled his experiences to craft better, more intense performances.

Clint Eastwood has made a career out of playing the outsider, from Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns as the man with no name to his Dirty Harry roles as a hardnosed cop rebelling against his pusillanimous superiors.  In Gran Torino (2008), an aging Eastwood plays Walt Kowalski, a Detroit widower and retired autoworker.  Walt has become an outsider in his own neighborhood as it transformed from a tight knit, blue collar Polish-Catholic community to one filled with minorities, gangs and crime.  Despite his initial prejudice Walt befriends his next door neighbors, a Hmong family whose old-world culture seems more familiar to him than what he sees in his own self-absorbed kids and grandkids.  When a gang threatens his new friends, Walt performs an act of heroism that is perfect in its selflessness yet incomprehensible to his children.

In the independent film The Station Agent (2003), a New Jersey dwarf named Fin (Pete Dinklage) is forced to live as an outsider due to his stature.  A lifetime of enduring the stares, jokes and whispers of thoughtless strangers has hardened Fin into a cynical recluse.  His one joy in life is his passion for trains and railroads that he shares with his boss at a Hoboken hobby shop.  When the older man dies and leaves Fin the deed to an abandoned train station in rural Jersey, Fin begins a new life there.  But his dream of monkish solitude proves hard to realize when he meets his new neighbors, a garrulous hot dog vendor (Bobby Cannavale) and a woman (Patricia Clarkson) grieving the loss of her son.  Writer/director Tom McCarthy deftly avoids the maudlin pitfalls inherent in his subject, and presents a touching and funny character study of three lonely people trying to connect.

In Paris, Texas (1984), director Wim Wenders uses the spare desolation of the southwest American landscape as a metaphor for his character’s isolation.  As the film opens, a wordless drifter named Travis (veteran character actor Harry Dean Stanton in a rare starring role) emerges half-dead from the desert.  As he reconnects with his young son, the two of them search for the boy’s mother in the city amid the sleaze of the urban sex industry.  As we learn more about Travis, his sojourn in the desert is revealed as a self-imposed exile, a penance to be paid for his past sins against his loved ones.

In some respects the figure of the outsider has become a cliché in cinema, an easy way for a screenwriter or director to make the viewer sympathize with a protagonist, whether deserved or not.  Yet it remains a valid device because nearly everyone has experienced the feeling of being an outsider, if only fleetingly.  Perhaps we’ve been like George Eastman, all dressed up at a swanky party, but with no one to talk to.  Or like Fin, the subject of staring eyes and whispered comments because of our appearance. The outsider is also a classic American figure: the individualist taking on the powers that be.  For these reasons, the outsider will continue to resonate in American cinema for decades to come.