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Cinema: Pryor’s Back ? Twice as Funny

11 minute read
Richard Corliss

Bold, black and hilarious, he is Hollywood’s biggest hit

Preach, nigger, preach!” Out of the darkness the voice rose—young, proud, urgent, female and black. It was an exhortation that might have been addressed to the spellbinding pastor of a Harlem storefront church, or to a Black Panther stopping pedestrian traffic on a street corner in Oakland, or to an ardent buck accelerating into passion on an apartment-house roof in Atlanta. As it happens, the voice came from the back of a theater auditorium in Long Beach, Calif. It was shouted to the man onstage, who could lay claim to being all those people: minister to the oppressed, political agitator, champion womanizer. The Hollywood moguls may think of Richard Pryor, 41, simply as the hottest black movie star ever. But to millions of his fans, black and white, this self-described nigger is preaching The Word—four-lettered, furious and achingly funny.

In a troubled period for movies, when attendance is slipping and not even the presence of Burt Reynolds or Clint Eastwood can guarantee box office gold, Richard Pryor is the one actor whose name spells HIT. Stir Crazy, the comedy in which he co-starred with Gene Wilder as a bumbling convict, was the No. 3 moneymaking movie of 1981 and, except for National Lampoon ‘s Animal House, the most successful comedy in industry history. Pryor’s other 1981 film, the sugar-and-spice Bustin’ Loose, was also a moneymaker, establishing him as the only star to have two films in the year’s top 20. And so it goes and grows. His first monologue film, Richard Pryor Live in Concert—the one recorded in Long Beach in 1978—surprised everyone and earned $20 million. The success of that film’s current sequel, Richard Pryor Live on the Sunset Strip, is no surprise at all. Since its release on March 12, it has demolished the more expensive competition, pulling in $8 million its first weekend. Next week moviegoers will be able to see yet another facet of Pryor when Some Kind of Hero opens. In it he plays the seriocomic role of a Viet Nam vet who tries to adjust to the apathy and red tape he finds back home.

Popularity is one measure of a performer’s achievement, but in this case it is the least compelling. Pryor is not a flash, a freak, even a one-man trend; he is the soaring demon angel of movies, concerts and Grammy-winning albums. As a comedy monologuist, Pryor is without peer. Drawing his material from the black hole of ghetto life and death, Pryor uses his dramatic power to magnetize his listeners into the fire-flash fear of the moment—even as his skewed comic perspective offers distance, safety, reassurance. As a straight actor, he has the uncanny knack of educing raw emotions from himself and his audience. Vulnerability, untempered rage, urchin craftiness, a rough dignity—all these moods seem to seep through him. In fact, the two Richard Pryors, kamikaze comic and sensitive actor, are overlapping parts of the same intricate talent. If the fates are colorblind, they will start engraving his name on next year’s Oscar for his performance as that most exasperating, charming, contradictory of humans—Richard Pryor—in Live on the Sunset Strip. In craft as well as celebrity, Pryor is not merely hot; he is, as Variety has characterized him, “incendiary.”

Fire metaphors are ghoulishly appropriate for a man who, in June 1980, was lucky to be alive with third-degree burns over much of his body. Even so, fire images would be in consummate bad taste if 1) Pryor thought there were such a thing as bad taste, and 2) he had not used a recitation of the event and its aftermath as the climax of Sunset Strip. In the days after Pryor was found in shock a few blocks from his Northridge, Calif., home, his attorney declared that he had accidentally ignited a glass of rum with a butane lighter. Few believed it. Stories from the rumor mill are darker and more credible for a man who had made habitual use of cocaine part of his onstage act. They said that Pryor had been “freebasing”—mixing coke with ether to produce a more concentrated substance, a high with a mule kick—when the ether exploded.

Amazingly, Pryor pulled through; within two months he was telling Barbara Walters and a national TV audience how he had died and been born again. More amazingly, and even more typically, he was able to focus the laser of his art on this suicidal immolation. “Before I go to bed,” he tells his Sunset Strip audience with a straight face and in the voice of aggrieved reason, “I like to have some milk and cookies. This night I had some low-fat milk, and I mixed it with some pasteurized, and I dipped the cookie in, and …” Then comes the confession: “Ten million mothers freebase—and blow up!” And then, the memory of his favorite coke pipe, talking soothing self-destruction to him: “Me ‘n’ you’re just gonna hang out in this room together. We’ll talk it out.” And the futile attempts of friends like Actor Jim Brown, and even some of his drug suppliers, to save him from his habit. And of the accident, and his anguished scamper across the lawns of Northridge: “I did the 100-yard dash in four-point-three.” And his admission to the hospital—”I was all steam and smoke”—and his excruciatingly painful recovery.

And finally .. . but it would not be proper to reveal Pryor’s punch line to the grim joke life played on him; and there are words best left to R-rated movies. Pryor uses them all, relentlessly and with relish. For him—as for Lenny Bruce, the pioneer of Savonarola satire, and Pryor’s only true antecedent—profanity serves to give both a salty rhythm to his sentences and a Joy Buzzer shock to his more refeened listeners. It remains for his fearless comic acuity to tell him precisely how much gutter imagery his audience can take. As box office returns show, more and more moviegoers are taking him in huge, healthy doses. Pryor has always been big with the hip and in Harlem. Now he knows his comedy can play in Peoria.

In fact, Pryor was playing in Peoria—on the streets of that central Illinois city—from the time he was born there in 1940. Like many other comedians, Richie was the little kid with the big sassy mouth in a tough neighborhood. Pryor has minted much comic revenue from images of his youth: the whorehouse his grandmother ran, his father’s satyric appetite, his own early awakening to the pleasures of the flesh, the sniper fire of racism. Some of this currency is counterfeit (his family, as he says in Sunset Strip, was not poor), but all is dross for his alchemist’s mind.

At his best, Pryor is still the naughty little boy, acting mean to mask the raging fear in his eyes, transforming everyday existence into a dangerous and beautiful night world. People, animals, things talk to him—talk through him. In his two concert films, this profane Pentecostalist speaks in tongues of bad black dudes, whining white liberals, Mafia hitmen and a stuttering Chinese. He conjures a menagerie of horny monkeys, a neurotic Doberman, a scared and suspicious deer, a killer rabbit, two suave malamutes in need of an exorcist. Physical pain is a constant—and chatty—companion. It may visit him as a sharp twinge while he jogs, and speak in the argot of an officious tax accountant: “Hello! I’ll be messin’ with you the next hour or so. I’ll be moving from side to side, down your groin and up your ass. When you drop dead, I will stop.” Onstage, Pryor re-creates his 1977 heart attack, and now pain arrives as an all-business mugger: “Don’t breathe. Was you tryin’ to talk to God behind my back?” Sometimes the pain turns to fear, and his mind tells his body: “Run!”

“Run!”—a strangulated scream that sends his body shivering like a savvy Stepin Fetchit—set the tone for the movie roles that, gradually, made Pryor a star. He had appeared in half a dozen parts before winning an Oscar nomination for his performance as the piano player in Lady Sings the Blues (1972). Silver Streak, which his presence enlivened into the surprise hit of 1977, was his 15th film; Stir Crazy was his 25th. Compromise was the dues paid on this long climb—minimal roles in marginal movies—but from it emerged a Richard Pryor the movie audience found ingratiating, droll, poignant, even cute.

Many of these parts offered Pryor nothing more than the chance to outshine his material. And when he was powerful enough to control his films, the results were mixed. Bustin’ Loose is too shamblingly agreeable, with its easy gags and its busload of orphans. Even Some Kind of Hero, despite its street slang and high ambitions, is standard stuff; it swings from farce to melodrama to human comedy to oblivion. But Pryor is superb, expertly moving his audience as this born loser determines to be born again a winner, and earning every laugh and tear he is bound to get. These films invest Pryor with a soft core of strength everybody’s aunt can respond to. The concert films are the hard stuff—the stuff he is made of.

“I am no day at the beach,” Pryor confides to his Sunset Strip listeners. The danger some moviegoers feel watching unadulterated Pryor—the danger that is surely the dark side of his power and appeal—has been felt offstage by friends and strangers. A man who in the ’50s stabbed a fellow U.S. Army soldier in West Germany, who in 1967 assaulted a Hollywood motel clerk, who in 1978 threatened his new wife (he has had four) and shot a car full of holes with a .357 magnum—this is a soul who seems desperately late for a blind date with chaos.

Pryor is solo now, and soaring—on-and offstage. He was moved by the 25,000 get-well cards he received after his 1980 accident. Now he lives in Hawaii, commuting to the mainland for work. John Badham, who directed Pryor in The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings, finds him “gentle and mellow now.” He cites Pryor’s renunciation, in Sunset Strip, of the word nigger, which Pryor had legitimized as a term of defiant pride but now finds demeaning. Stan Shaw, who co-starred in Bingo Long and helped Pryor through the hospital siege, sees reason for optimism. “He is no longer self-destructive,” Shaw says. “He is over the drugs. If people are lucky, they grow—and Richard is lucky. You’ll see more of this new Richard Pryor in his work. He has a very special gift, and finally he realizes it. John Belushi didn’t survive. But Richard did. I think he was destined to stay here with us.”

Can we agree and grant some unforced sentiment to this volatile genius who is no longer too tough for tears? We can at least hope that Pryor will harness his gifts to do even stronger work in a longer life. “When they bury me,” he told Playboy in 1979, “they better dig the hole deep, because I may get out of that too.” He has already done so. Incorrigible, indestructible, irrepressible, irreplaceable, Pryor is like the boy described in Sunset Strip by one of the comedian’s favorite characters, the old black man called Mudbone. “That boy,” Mudbone muses, smiling in spite of himself, “he could make you laugh at a funeral on a Sunday Christmas Day.” Now look decades ahead, to the end of Richard Pryor’s life, and see that impish boy standing over an un-get-outable grave. Watch as the boy looks up and smiles. Listen as his voice rises over the mourning: “Preach, Richard, preach!”

—By Richard Corliss

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