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Richard Pryor (#110 of 8)

Summer of ‘89: The Evil that Five Screenwriters Do Lives On—See No Evil, Hear No Evil

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Summer of ‘89: The Evil that Five Screenwriters Do Lives On—<em>See No Evil, Hear No Evil</em>
Summer of ‘89: The Evil that Five Screenwriters Do Lives On—<em>See No Evil, Hear No Evil</em>

It’s hard to speak no evil about See No Evil, Hear No Evil, the third on-screen collaboration between Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder. It bears the stench of missed opportunity. Trapped inside its overwritten crime story is a breezy character study starring two men with genuine chemistry and a flair for both physical and verbal comedy. In the rare moments when Pryor and Wilder simply talk to each other, there’s the potential for a funny and poignant interracial two-hander like I’m Not Rappaport. It’s too bad that potential is squandered on a senseless murder plot.

Pryor plays Wally Karue, a blind man who constantly tries to hide his blindness. He gets a job working at a newsstand run by Wilder’s Dave Lyons, a deaf man who shares Wally’s misguided pride about his affliction. The duo do a fair job masking their missing abilities: Dave reads lips and Wally is a pro at commandeering his other senses for navigational purposes. Together, they complete one another, a dependency made palatable by the realistic friendship vibe Wilder and Pryor create on screen.

The actors are so credible together that one forgives a lot in this movie. A fight scene between Wally and some bar bullies could have easily ended with Dave punching out the guys himself, but we’d be robbed of the sheer joy of watching these guys work through a conjoined piece of physical slapstick. Later, when their attempt to impersonate European doctors goes spectacularly awry, the two work off each other so well it saves a poorly written scene. Pryor’s fake accent is a delicious cross between the Swedish Chef and the neighborhood wino from his stand-up routines.

A Pryor Engagement: BAM Celebrates Richard Pryor

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A Pryor Engagement: BAM Celebrates Richard Pryor
A Pryor Engagement: BAM Celebrates Richard Pryor

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.

Interview: Director Robert O’Hara Talks Wild with Happy

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Interview: Director Robert O’Hara Talks Wild with Happy
Interview: Director Robert O’Hara Talks Wild with Happy

Now playing downtown at the Public Theater, Wild with Happy is a wacky and outrageously funny take on death and grieving written by Colman Domingo, who also plays the lead role in the play. The actor-playwright is best known to New York audiences for his multiple roles in Stew’s Passing Strange and for his Tony-nominated turn in Kander and Ebb’s musical The Scottsboro Boys. He also wrote and performed A Boy and His Soul, a solo work which premiered off-Broadway in 2010. In his new play, Domingo plays Gil, a struggling New York actor who returns to his home in Philadelphia to arrange for his mother’s funeral. He’s flooded with memories of his mother when she was alive and has to face the admonitions of her sister, his aunt Glo (both parts played to the hilt by Sharon Washington), who has her own ideas about proper rites for the dead. With the help of his friend Mo (Maurice McRae) and an unusually attentive undertaker (Korey Jackson), Gil eventually finds resolution and his deceased mother gets a fairytale send-off, courtesy of Disney.

The zany goings-on in Wild with Happy are overseen by Robert O’Hara, a director with a taste for the wild and outrageous himself. O’Hara, who’s also a playwright, made a splash when he was in his mid 20s with Insurrection: Holding History, which he directed at the Public Theater in 1996. An epic tale about a gay black college grad student who time-travels back to the days of the Nat Turner slave rebellion in 1831 more than lived up to its billing as “Roots meets The Wizard of Oz.” O’Hara spoke to us recently about his collaboration with Domingo on Wild with Happy.

15 Famous Detroit Movies

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15 Famous Detroit Movies
15 Famous Detroit Movies

This weekend’s hot doc is Detropia, the latest from Jesus Camp directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady. A painterly ode to a recession-ravaged empire, the movie explores the rock-bottom state of Detroit, and questions whether or not it has the stuff to rebuild itself. A unique metropolis, Motor City is one offbeat cinematic setting, far from the glamor of New York and the commonness of Toronto, Hollywood’s go-to stand-in town. Only a handful of films have been set in Detroit (and even fewer have actually been filmed there), but we scrounged up an eclectic selection, boasting the likes of Clint Eastwood, Carl Weathers, Warren Beatty, and Eminem.

Summer of ‘86: Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling

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Summer of ‘86: <em>Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling</em>
Summer of ‘86: <em>Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling</em>

With its fractured narrative, complete with gimmicky spectral figure guiding us through the proceedings, Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling is Richard Pryor’s All That Jazz. Playing like a greatest hits collection of Pryor’s stand-up routines, it begins with its titular character freebasing his way into a hospital burn unit, features him pulling a starter pistol on the Mafia, and shows him destroying his wife’s car when she threatens to leave him. Jo Jo Dancer’s profession mirrors Pryor’s own, as does his backstory: The film is shot in Peoria, Illinois, Pryor’s hometown and the location of the brothel where both he and Jo Jo Dancer grew up. Columbia Pictures wouldn’t grant Bob Fosse’s wish to play Jazz’s Joe Gideon, but they let Pryor play himself, or “himself” as it were, creating a meta experience before meta was popular.

Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling is far from a perfect film, with passages as awkward as its title. But it is far more ambitious than one would expect from Pryor, who made this his narrative feature film debut. After directing Richard Pryor: Here and Now, Pryor and his longtime comedy writer Mr. Paul Mooney teamed up with Rocco Urbisci to write a biographical film about a destructive stand-up comedian. Since Hollywood, with rare exception, gave Pryor the chance to play dramatic scenes of great pathos and emotion, his writers script him several well-executed moments where Pryor proves a much more subtly effective actor than one might envision. As director, Pryor makes typical newbie mistakes but is excellent when portraying something he knows well. Assisted by his DP John A. Alonzo, Pryor shoots a coke-fueled party with frenetic energy, visually propelling the narrative forward with minimal dialogue. Dancer’s first scene, with Pryor crawling around looking for freebase to smoke, reeks with desperation.

Take Two #2: The Wizard of Oz (1939) and The Wiz (1978)

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Take Two #2: <em>The Wizard of Oz</em> (1939) and <em>The Wiz</em> (1978)
Take Two #2: <em>The Wizard of Oz</em> (1939) and <em>The Wiz</em> (1978)

[Editor’s Note: Take Two is an occasional series about remakes, reboots, relaunches, ripoffs, and do-overs in every cinematic genre.]

Few four-word concepts would seem as predestined for American canonization as “Motown Wizard of Oz,” and yet I can’t recall anyone—critics, friends, fellow Hitsville and classic soul aficionados—ever recommending the film version of Charlie Smalls’s 1975 Broadway musical The Wiz. If only by default, this movie should be remembered at least as a curio in the career of one of its many notable contributors—Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, Richard Pryor, Nipsey Russell, Lena Horne, Ashford and Simpson, Sidney Lumet, Quincy Jones, and Joel Schumacher among them.

I wish I could report that The Wiz deserves better than this cultural lacuna, but alas: This is a certifiable turkey, one of those doomed “star-studded” productions where a football team’s worth of talent can’t overcome the fact that nobody’s doing what feels natural. Everyone, particularly Ross, who, by all accounts, was the project’s true auteur, seems so amazed by the virtue and capital-I Importance of their undertaking that even the lighthearted numbers feel leaden. As Dorothy, a put-upon Harlem schoolteacher who’s “never been below 125th St.,” Ross plays her character as if she represented the dramatic and emotional summit of Western civilization. And a handful of other reliably joyful entertainers—most egregiously Jackson, Russell, and Pryor—follow her lead. This is The Wizard of Oz pitched midway between the first act of A Raisin in the Sun and the last scene of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, and it lasts a mind-boggling 135 minutes.