Pryor engagements

Richard Pryor's re-issued CDs unleash the genius that his movies could never illuminate.


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The climax of bamboozled, Spike Lee’s satiric examination of black images in American popular culture, offers a horrifying montage of shots and tiny clips from old Hollywood movies ­– black cartoon crows and pop-eyed chauffeurs ­– going back to silent-film days.Lee’s point is that the spirit of the minstrel show lives on in contemporary culture, mostly, apparently, on the Warner Brothers network and in gangster rap. The argument is loaded, of course. Lee ignores everything that doesn’t fit his thesis, like Lena Horne in MGM musicals or Dorothy Dandridge in anything, but I get the point.

Richard Pryor, arguably the greatest stand-up comic who ever lived, had a movie career that fits eerily into Lee’s thesis.

Lasting from the early 70s to the early 90s, Pryor’s film career was the second great starring career for an African-American actor. There’s Sidney Poitier, then there’s Pryor, then Eddie Murphy.

But Pryor’s career, like Poitier’s, was not rooted in the blaxploitation genres, was not the product of the musical genre and was not limited to a series of small, independent films. From 1976’s Silver Streak to 1991’s Another You, Pryor, with white co-stars, starred in more than a dozen major studio movies marketed to a mainstream audience. That’s not counting guest appearances or cameos, or the crown of his film career, his three concert films.

Most of the time, Pryor plays the amiable companion of a white person, and does things that are one step removed from Mantan Moreland shrieking, “Feets, don’t fail me now!”

That Pryor wasted his talent and years of his time playing second banana to manifestly inferior talents like Gene Wilder was his own choice, or that of the demons that drove him, which he explores at length in his stand-up act.

To this day, Pryor’s filmography overshadows his greatness as a comic, something Rhino Records has attempted to rectify with the release of …And It’s Deep Too!, a nine-CD compilation of all his Warner’s recordings from 1968 to 83. It includes his first comedy album, Richard Pryor, and his last, Here & Now, from the third of his concert films. (The label claims the CDs include material from 1968 to 92, but the 1992 entry is a small addendum in which Pryor talks about contracting multiple sclerosis.)

There are few things more frustrating ­– and embarrassing ­– than discovering that something you liked 20 years ago actually sucks. Mercifully, Pryor’s comedy recordings are even funnier than I remembered. His mimicry has both technical and sociological precision. His preachers are magnificently crooked and profane.

His winos and junkies have the arrogance of the damned, pride in marginality. Pryor’s heirs ­– notably Eddie Murphy and Chris Rock ­– use their stardom as a form of armour, but Pryor uses it as a chance to get as naked as possible in front of the audience. His identification with the outcast comes from his own insecurities and inadequacy.

When Pryor talks about his own failures and terrors and addictions, he’s not doing standard self-deprecating humour. He’s not joking at all, although he’s very funny. When he talks about his freebase pipe talking to him, it’s funny because it’s real ­– realer than most people want to think about.

Of course, that stuff isn’t in the movies. In the movies, he’s a nice guy hanging out with Gene Wilder or Superman. Is there anything more embarrassing than his performance in Superman III?

He missed two great film opportunities. The first was Blazing Saddles ­– Cleavon Little took the part of the black sheriff that Pryor wrote with Mel Brooks for himself, and Pryor went off to do Silver Streak. The second was his one film as a writer-director, JoJo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling, which was cut beyond recognition by the studio.

As it is, there is not a single great film on Pryor’s filmography. Paul Schrader (Blue Collar), Herbert Ross (California Suite) and Walter Hill were the closest he ever got to major directors, and no one would argue that Brewster’s Millions is anywhere near Hill’s best film. Indeed, if you want to spend a truly depressing week or so, rent Bustin’ Loose, Critical Condition and Another You.

Pryor’s best film work isn’t comic at all: Piano Man in Lady Sings The Blues Zeke, the economically pressured auto worker in Blue Collar and Eddie, a disillusioned veteran, in Some Kind Of Hero.

Everyone is the keeper of his own talent. Everyone decides how to spend that talent.

Consider this revelatory bit in Eddie Murphy’s stand-up film, Raw. Murphy relates a phone conversation he had with Pryor, mentioning that Bill Cosby had called Murphy and told him not to work “blue.” According to Murphy, Pryor said, “Are they laughing? Do you get paid? Then tell Bill to shut the fuck up.” Indeed.

Getting paid matters. Pryor was a child of poverty. “I grew up in Peoria. They call it The Model City. That means “We got the niggers under control here.'” He got paid. He never lost his talent, and when he stood on a stage, it blazed forth intact. He could act. There’s a memorable appearance he made on Lily Tomlin’s TV show, where he played a homeless man to Tomlin’s working-class waitress ­– an absolute gem never made available on video. But it wasn’t a talent Hollywood had any idea how to use.

Pryor turns 60 this year, and has been quite ill for some years. In Another You, his final film with Wilder, you can see the beginning of his illness ­– his hands shake in some scenes, and he seems much older than 51. Despite the occasional TV appearance and film cameo (he was in David Lynch’s Lost Highway, of all things), his career is effectively over.

If Pryor is one of the greatest missed chances in the history of American movies, at least his comedy remains. Grab the Rhino box and wallow in his genius. Put it on your Christmas list. Nobody’s ever been funnier. johnh@nowtoronto.com

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