The genius of Richard Pryor can be summed up by the last lines in Live on the Sunset Strip: Pryor tells a joke that made the rounds while he was hospitalized for his infamous fire accident. “I heard what you motherfuckers were saying about me,” he chastises. Striking a match and moving it around, he then asks “What’s this?” The answer: “Richard Pryor runnin’ down the street.” Here was a man making jokes about being burned over most of his body, and doing so while the wounds were still healing. Pryor’s stand-up was method acting applied to jokes: He brought his success and his failure to the table, mocking and deconstructing each to make us laugh and teach us a lesson. The regular Joe with the fearless, black mouth would, with reckless abandon, call bullshit on both you and himself. His tact filter was perpetually in the shop, never available when necessary, and that made Pryor a scary proposition. This persona seeped out of the corners of even the harshest onscreen restraints; Rich would always be “Rich,” the way Jack Nicholson would always be “Jack.” This is probably why, with rare exception, Hollywood didn’t know what to do with Richard Pryor. You can see 18 examples of what they did do at BAM’s “A Pryor Engagement” retrospective.
Running from February 8-21, 2013, the program showcases daily double doses of Pryor, from his stand-up to his early work as hip Master of Ceremonies to his pairings with Gene Wilder. There is the familiar and the obscure, the funny and the sad, the outrageously profane and the surprisingly sweet. The films range from mediocre to great, but what’s here showcases its subject in a variety of environments. It’s a feast for both the Pryor acolyte and the die-hard fan.
In addition to Sunset Strip (February 9th), “A Pryor Engagement” begins and ends with filmed concerts. On February 8th, the retrospective kicks off with Pryor’s masterpiece, Live in Concert. Pryor’s first filmed concert special pops with a ferocity that counterbalances the one that ends the series, the slightly more mellow (and less funny) Here and Now. Pryor heckles latecomers in the audience, portrays his grandmother freaking out when she discovers his drug use, and merges the female orgasm with Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Sweating through his clothes, Pryor prowls the stage with leonine hunger and grace; he’s a moving target damn near impossible to hit, firing off jokes that rarely miss. This is the model for all filmed comedy concerts to come.
On the same day, BAM presents the first of two Pryor films directed by prolific black director Michael Schultz. Written by Joel Schumacher, who for some reason was the go-to screenwriter for the black experience circa 1975-1977, Car Wash (February 8th) is known more for the infectious hand-clapper of a title tune than Pryor’s small role. Widely promoted as a Pryor vehicle upon release, I remember feeling profoundly ripped off by his blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo with the Pointer Sisters. Granted, it’s a fun scene in a pretty corny movie, but this isn’t a Pryor film. If you see Car Wash for any reason, see it for Franklyn Ajaye’s Afro, one of the greatest in the history of cinema.
Pryor is far more effective as a guest star in Uptown Saturday Night (February 9th). The first of the Cosby-Poitier trilogy, Uptown Saturday Night is an uproarious action comedy, unafraid of its blackness and featuring a bullshitting Cosby far removed from Cliff Huxtable. In the role originally reserved for Cosby, Pryor plays Sharp-Eye Washington, a shady, bootleg, ass-out private eye to whom the Cos and Sidney come for help retrieving a stolen wallet. Pryor’s role is a mini-masterpiece of both physical and verbal comedy, with director Poitier and contemporary Cosby standing back to marvel at his work. Sharp-Eye tries to conduct business while running from the law. It’s obvious that his clients have caught him mid-escape, but that won’t stop him from trying to make a buck AND a clean getaway. Pryor’s attempt to act casual while desperation seeps from every pore is a must-see example of how to run off with somebody else’s movie.
On February 10th and 11th, BAM presents Pryor in two guises one may not expect: master of ceremonies and fine dramatic actor. In Wattstax (February 10th), the excellent concert film about the “Black Woodstock,” Pryor serves as a funky, hip and funny host. In segments filmed after the concert and edited into Wattstax as buffers, Pryor riffs on ghetto life and occasionally interacts with denizens of Watts. Director Mel Stuart may have cast Pryor after seeing him in a similar guise in Dynamite Chicken (February 11th). Pryor’s appearances are rays of sunshine in that incredibly unfunny sketch comedy film. The best thing about it, besides Pryor’s early comedy routines, is the poster.
If Live in Concert is Pryor’s comedic masterpiece, Paul Schrader’s Blue Collar (February 10th) is his dramatic one. Pryor is spectacular here, channeling the frustrated rage that fuels his comedy into actual rage. Co-starring with Yaphet Kotto and Harvey Keitel, Pryor stuns the audience by first matching, then exceeding, the intensity of those more experienced dramatic actors. This is an angry film, timeless in its notions of American race and class warfare. Universal billed it as a comedy, which it is absolutely not, and audiences felt betrayed. This is as close to an Oscar as Pryor would ever get, and the Academy completely ignored him. If you see nothing else in this retrospective, see this.
To wash the bad taste of Dynamite Chicken from your palate, BAM offers Lady Sings the Blues (February 11th). While this is Miss Ross’s show (and fuck the critics, she’s great here), Pryor is excellent in a perfect example of a supporting role. Basing his piano player on a guy he knew in Peoria, Pryor has an easy chemistry with Miss Ross; his first appearance with her is almost as nice as her first meeting with Billy Dee. Pryor juggles comedy and pathos with a dexterity that the Academy should have noticed 5 years before Blue Collar (they didn’t), and his tragic last scene still haunts me. Lady Sings the Blues is gorgeously shot by John A. Alonzo, a man who knew how to light brown faces better than anybody else in the business.
As unlikely a pairing as Hollywood could muster, Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder made four movies together (five if you count Blazing Saddles, which Pryor co-wrote). BAM presents two on February 12th. Silver Streak is a serviceable crime drama that could have been a far better buddy comedy had the filmmakers not waited 2/3rds of the way into the film to introduce Pryor to Wilder. This causes Silver Streak to suffer greatly on subsequent viewings. We keep waiting for Pryor’s thief to show up and literally steal the movie. Pryor’s job is that reliable Hollywood cliché of teaching the White man Soul™, but this is no ordinary example. When Pryor smears shoe polish on Wilder’s face in an attempt to pass him off as black, Pryor’s dialogue and Wilder’s physical comedy tip the hands of their awareness and how they plan to subvert the cliché. Pryor’s line about how convincing Wilder is rockets the scene out of the cringe-worthy and into the hilarious.
Stir Crazy kind of reverses their roles. Pryor is more the straight man here, with Wilder more comically unhinged. Still, the moment where Pryor sells one too many woof tickets in a prison cell is the highlight of the Wilder-Pryor quadrilogy. Pryor physically represents what his stand up comedy has been telling us all along: He talks tough, but in the face of confrontation, he’s not as tough as his mouth would indicate. Just like most of us.
Stir Crazy was a huge hit, overshadowing the better of the two films Pryor did that year. BAM presents the other film, Bustin’ Loose, on February 19th. Paired with John Badham’s Bingo Long Travelling All Stars and Motor Kings (a fun baseball movie with a great cast), Bustin’ Loose is on the surface a cutesy movie about a man saddled with a bunch of badass kids he grows to love. But underneath that surface is a much darker film. These kids have problems, and not little ones either—these kids are fucked up. And their mentor is in many ways the grown up version of them, equally fucked up but also all they’ve got. Pryor plays the role superbly, once again balancing comedy and pathos while knocking a more renowned actor (Cicely Tyson here) off the screen. While Bustin’ Loose is at times howlingly funny (Pryor’s scene with the KKK may be the funniest thing he’s ever done in a movie), there’s a bittersweet sadness that threatens whenever the film starts to get schmaltzy. I saw this when it came out, and even as a kid I knew I’d rather have a caretaking mentor like Pryor’s Joe Braxton than Mrs. Doubtfire or Mary Poppins. He felt real to my ghetto heart and soul, and continues to do so.
Also real to my ’hood rat characteristics is the Pryor who inhabits Michael Schultz’s Lina Wertmueller remake, Which Way Is Up? Showing on February 20th with the far tamer (though entertaining in an old-fashioned way) Walter Hill comedy Brewster’s Millions, Which Way Is Up? stands as the only example of Hollywood attempting to weld the unhinged Pryor of his stand-up to a vehicle. How much you enjoy Which Way Is Up? will be contingent on your tolerance for profanity and casual misogyny, though in the film’s defense, the women are equally violent, vicious and vengeful as the men who mistreat them. This too is a dark picture, though I find it hilarious in ways I probably should not. There’s a soft spot in my heart for Which Way Is Up?, as it taught the 8-year-old me about bondage and domination. Make of that what you will.
Speaking of torture, on February 13th BAM screens Lost Highway and Car Wash. The latter stars Red Shoe Diaries creator Zalman King, who’s a better actor than director. The former is Pryor’s last big screen appearance, and to me, David Lynch uses the MS-stricken Pryor the way Michael Winner used those people at the end of The Sentinel. Thirteen can either be a lucky or an unlucky number, depending on your perspective. Go to this double feature if you dare.
“A Pryor Engagement” ends on February 21st with the two films Pryor directed, the aforementioned Here and Now and the dramatic feature, Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life is Calling. It’s Pryor’s All that Jazz, a funny and ultimately devastating hash of a film. Pryor’s choices behind the camera (aided by John Alonzo), make me wish he’d directed other films. For all its narrative flaws, Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life is Calling is visually arresting, with Pryor’s dual incarnation serving as both master of ceremony and dramatic actor. For one who, according to Bill Cosby, merged comedy and tragedy, painting the line between them “as thin as one could possibly paint it,” this is a fine way to end a fascinating series.
If You’ve Got Time to Kill: Car Wash, Silver Streak, Brewster’s Millions
If You Want to Kill Yourself: Dynamite Chicken, Lost Highway, Some Call It Loving