It’s a double shot “Still Dead” this week as we commemorate the 15th anniversary of the passing of John Candy (March 4) and Charles Bukowski (March 9).
While both men worked in “the arts,” you might not think there was too much in common between them. But both made careers out of their individual skills honed at the expense of themselves. Creatures of excess, they each excelled not in spite of their demons, but because of them.
Candy gained fame as part of the legendary Canadian sketch comedy show SCTV (also known as “SCTV Network” among other titles, having been renamed several times for broadcast in the US). The cast–largely from the Second City improv stage–included Candy as well as Eugene Levy, Joe Flaherty, Rick Moranis, Andrea Martin, Catherine O’Hara, and Dave Thomas. They were a satire of television, lampooning everything from “television greats” to the gross commercialization of the medium they saw emerging in their day.
The portly Candy stood out in many of his recurring sketches but made a bigger name for himself in movies, where he appeared in or contributed his voice to more than 50 feature films. His movie career was marked by his stand out performances in bad to mediocre films, with only a handful of them real gems. One critic wrote Candy “has been in more turkeys than stuffing mix, yet everyone seems to love him.”
Indeed, we did. He had that ability to make you feel like you were watching somebody real, even in the stupidest of situations. His work in Ron Howard’s Splash (1984) represented his big break. For that film, Candy did what he did so well–made you laugh at him and love him at the same time. After being the comic relief for most of his scenes, he turned it up in a serious scene toward the end. He showed depth, as well as skill in putting himself front and center in creating his character.
The quality of films he got always bothered Candy, who took his art seriously. But he was a star. He was respected by comics, loved by his fans, and known professionally for being the kind of “good guy” he played so well. In many ways he was the friendly version of Jackie Gleason, always down for a party, always social, always larger than life, and always in love with excess. When he died of a massive heart attack at age 43, nobody could be surprised, or unmoved.
Bukowski was no Candy. Where the Canadian used his weight struggles to inspire laughter, Bukowski used his life struggles to inspire a wide array of darker emotions and reactions. On the surface, he was a self-loathing, womanizing, alcoholic, but Bukowski was a prolific and disciplined writer of “real L.A.”, depicting the lives of people often dismissed in the literary arts.
A German immigrant, Bukowski worked as a postal worker for much of his adult life, writing during most of that period (except during a decade of drinking spanning from his 20s to 30s). He suffered abuse at the hands of a domineering father, who wold cut his face with a razor strap for misbehaving. This pain and turmoil crafted the battered face of the adult Bukowski, a face Paul Ciotti described as “a sandblasted face, warts on his eyelids and a dominating nose that looks as if it was assembled in a junkyard from Studebaker hoods and Buick fenders.” It also certainly crafted the batered voice with which he spoke.
In this clip from Barbet Shcroeder’s legendary (to Bukowski fans) series of short interviews called “The Bukowski Tapes,” the man shows some of his myth and brilliance.
He turned pain into brilliance, into filth, into humor, and even into occasional warmth. Leading something of a life infused with addiction and the emotional remnants of survival, Bukowski achieved huge success. Whether he was “acting the part” or not was always a question in the minds of critics. I always thought he was, but not in the way they might have meant, not as a device to get attention and sales. I saw him as a frail, lonely, wounded soul trying to act like a “man” in the most simplistically crafted version of what that is, an act performed as a means of survival.
For fans of the 1987 film Barfly, a loose adaptation (as was much of his work) of his life, this piece by Roger Ebert may be of interest. It stands as something of a more human version of the drunk so many followed.
I was a college senior when both men died. Candy was, in many ways, the symbol of my youth. He was one of my favorite entertainers, from his early TV days to his long career in film. Bukowski had become my entertainment of the late teens and early twenties. His realism and “fuck-it-all” attitude were appealing to a kid just starting to read Marxist history and trying to make sense of the L.A. riots of 1992. (I must have seen the film Barfly with my friends about once a week between 1992 and 1994.)
In my adulthood, I continue to enjoy both, though in different ways. A John Candy movie–even a bad one–is still something I find watchable. He has a charisma on the screen, something that shines even brighter in one of his good films (Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, Only the Lonely, Uncle Buck). Candy had a way of turning formula into something special. As for Bukowski, he is like a glass of scotch, best in small quantities on special occasions. But even in those doses he has a knack for staying with me for a week or two. Always a challenge, he is both simple and complicated, a lot like life.