You guys know me as a P. Kael freak so you can imagine how honored I am to be able to reprint one of her reviews–of a fun movie too (Damn, I miss Raul Julia):
The movie is a confluence of fantasies, with a crime plot that often seems to be stalled, as if a projector had broken down. A good melodramatic structure should rhyme: we should hold our breath at the pacing as the pieces come together, and maybe smile at how neat the fit is. Here the pieces straggle, and by the end you’re probably ignoring the plot points. Raul Julia, who turns up as the Mexican Comandante Escalante, has a big, likable, rumbling presence; his role recalls the Leo Carrillo parts in movies like The Gay Desperado, with a new aplomb. And for a few seconds here and there Raul Julia takes over; he’s funny, and he detonates. (The character’s lack of moral conflicts gives his scenes a giddy high.) Then the film’s languor settles in again. An elaborate government sting operation waits while Mac and Escalante play Ping-Pong, and waits again while they sit in a boat and Mac talks drivel about bullfighting. (It’s the worst dialogue in the film; for sheer inappropriateness it’s matched only by Dave Grusin’s aggressive, out-to-slay-you score.)
Most of the dialogue is sprightly—it’s easy, everyday talk that actors can breathe to. But Towne’s directing is, surprisingly, better than his construction—maybe because when he plans to direct he leaves things loose. He says, “I make the character fit the actor, I don’t try to make the actor fit the character.” That sounds as if he’s highly variable, a modernist. But he isn’t. He likes bits from old movies, such as having the cops who are planning to surprise Mac be so dumb that they leave peanut shells wherever they’ve been posted. The difference between the way Towne handles the peanut shells and the way a director of the thirties would have (and did) is that he doesn’t sock the joke home; he glides over it. He wants the effect, yet he doesn’t want to be crude about it, so he half does it. Almost everything in the action scenes of the last three-quarters of an hour is half done. Often he gives you the preparation for action and no follow-through; sometimes the reverse.
Huge thanks to Kael’s daughter, Gina James, for giving me permission to share this with you.
Good lookin’ to Pacific Street Films and Cinephilia and Beyond for getting this PBS documentary on Martin Scorsese back out there. I remember when it first aired. I videotaped it and watched it over and over.
I was in high school in 1986 the year Platoon and Hannah and Her Sisters and Something Wild came out. They made big impressions on me. So did David Lynch’s masterpiece.
About four months ago, I screened a beautiful 35mm print of the picture for my daughter and her friends. “Why do we keep watching this?” I suppose it’s [Joseph] Cotten and [Alida] Valli – that’s the emotional core of the picture. For instance, the scene where Holly Martins (Cotten) finally goes to her apartment. He’s a little drunk, and he tells her he loves her and he knows he doesn’t have a chance. That’s when she says, “The cat only liked Harry.” So that leads right into the great revelation of Harry Lime in the doorway with the cat – which is iconic. But it’s more than that – it’s one of the great epiphanies in movies: the cat turning the corner and nestling itself on those wing-tip shoes, and then Harry Lime being revealed when the light is turned on in the doorway and it shines in his face.
Remember Walker Percy’s great novel The Moviegoer? He refers to that moment in such a beautiful, special way. It became a moment internationally, a shared experience for a vast audience seeing that film. It’s not just a dramatic revelation – there’s something about Orson Welles’ smile at that point that shifts everything to another level, and it sustains no matter how many times you see it. Welles comes into the picture about halfway through. That’s the first time you actually see him, after you’ve spent so much time picturing him in your mind because everyone has been talking about him and thinking about him. So that might be the best revelation – or the best reveal, as they say – in all of cinema.
This one goes to eleven.
Remember the old Bugs Bunny cartoon where the airplane is plummeting to the earth and we see the numbers on the speedometer getting higher and higher, faster and faster and finally it says: “Silly, isn’t it?”
I kept waiting for a cutaway to that line as I watched Mad Max: Fury Road. There were moments that I laughed out loud because there’s a Looney Tunes quality to the movies’ craziness–I don’t know what other response you can have. I didn’t find the movie thrilling or suspenseful or even tense. There are some scary moments, but nothing that freaked me out. I felt excited in an over-caffeinated way, but it’s so over-the-top, so fantastic, I almost immediately felt detached and after about 15, 20 minutes, bored. It’s magnificent but not for me.
I was talking to a friend recently about appetites and he called himself a pathological maximalist. Forgive the pun, but I kept thinking about that as I watched Fury Road.
The ads boast that the movie was made by “Mastermind” George Miller and that’s no stretch. This isn’t the work of a director. This is a finely tuned, well-realized orchestration from a mastermind. It’s not pure chaos. There is a keen sense of pacing, there are quiet scenes, with breaks in the action, but really I thought the whole thing was akin to watching two-plus hours of slam dunk highlights. It’s an extended guitar solo, an orgy of technical virtuosity, one stunt more improbable than the next. The technique is formidable and some of the images are captivating–though I dare you to recall any specific images after being bombarded by so many. But the story–which at times suggests Thunderdome as much as The Road Warrior–is corny despite its admirable political sensibility. The dialogue is so sparse that it is easy to laugh at–B-movie fromage. The early movies had that quality too but they also had more of a low budget vibe, a punk vibe. This is Cirque du Soliel, this is Vegas, Grand Theft Auto. Miller’s left punk behind. This is rock opera video game for the hyper modern age.
I’ve read Tom Hardy, who plays Max, say that he had no idea what Miller wanted him to do during filming and I think that comes across. Not that it matters–Max is just an action figure who is playing the role of second banana (the lead is played by Charlize Theron). But it’s too bad because I liked Mel Gibson’s tortured hero of the early movies. (And I liked his dog.) There is nothing of the immediacy and realism of the first two movies here. Even if they were cartoons, there was a semblance of credibility, too Here, Max is captured, chained, and when he breaks free, instead of collapsing from fatigue, he springs to life like the Hulk.
I suppose this movie is in step with the times. Maybe that’s why the critics have fallen all over themselves writing about it. How can you ignore not admire such technical brilliance? But this is the kind of roller coaster that doesn’t appeal to me. It’s remarkable and if you like your thrills and spills larger than life you’ll dig it.
The rest of you can spare yourself the pounding.
The Road Warrior is one of my favorite action movies. Mad Max is creepy as hell, too. The thing about the first two Mad Max movies is that for all the unrelenting action, and despite the fantastic premise, it’s all rooted in credibility. I always felt that part of Miller’s achievement was to make you believe you are there–with these guys coming after you. They are a comic book–and the third movie went someplace that didn’t really appeal to me)–but realistic in a strange way; that’s what made them so frightening and effective. (The second movie also has some nice comedic touches).
Plus, I liked Max’s dog.
The new one looks pumped up with the action and pyrotechnics. I hope that same sense of urgency and credibility exist.
Mad Mad: Fury Road is supposed to be dope. Think I’ll have to cart my ass to the theater for this one.
Her career is pure stardust.
She was a teenage model in Italy, came to New York City at eighteen, and left for Los Angeles when her knees gave out for good; there she was discovered by her first manager, who was in line at the bank where she was trying—loudly and without success—to cash her last New York modeling-job check to keep her room at the Farmer’s Daughter, formerly an L. A. fleabag. But Theron came up hard in a hard country, on a hard continent.
“On the street where I was raised—75 percent of the people who lived on that street are not alive anymore. For no reason. For nothing. Life means nothing. In my formative years, I was in an environment that was filled with turmoil—political turmoil—in a world that was incredibly unsafe. And still is. In the early nineties, we were number one in homicide in the world. In HIV/AIDS, we’re still number one. We were number one in carjacking; I think we’re now number three. It became a place where the value of life—there was no value of life.
“You can’t oversimplify it; it comes from a very real place. It’s sad, because the people are good. They’re good people, and they’re resilient people, more than anywhere else in the world that I’ve ever come across. There’s something about South African flesh—we get up and we move forward, and we sometimes don’t take a moment for a little bit of self-awareness or self-pity. We’re such beasts at having to survive—I have the utmost respect for that, but it’s not the healthiest way to go through life. We’ve become a generation in South Africa that is driven by very valid anger, but the cost is coming at such a high level—and that’s a painful thing to watch. A lot of my emotional drive comes purely from the fact that I was born on that continent, and that I was raised there, and that it was different. I have a very strong relationship with Africa, one that’s built on lots of love and massive pain.”
I’m not a Hitchcock fan but I’ve probably seen close to half of his movies. Never saw Rear Window, though, just bits and pieces on TV. Until last week when I was in L.A. and went to see a screening of Rear Window at a revival theater in Santa Monica.
I had a good time; it was fun watching the movie with an audience.
I didn’t realize how erotic it is. I especially like this scene with Grace Kelly and Jimmy Stewart.
A few days ago I curated the following essay by Charles Simic on Buster Keaton over at the Daily Beast. Check it out, won’t you?
Comedy is about timing, faultless timing. It’s not so much what the story is about, but the way it is told, with its twists and surprises, that makes it humorous. Keaton draws a hook with chalk on the wall and hangs his coat on it. A brat in the theater drops his half-sucked lollipop from the balcony on an elegant lady in a box who picks it up and uses it as a lorgnette. The hangman uses a blindfold intended for the victim to polish the medal on his jacket. The shorts, especially, are full of such wild inventions. No other silent-film comic star was as ingenious.
Among hundreds of examples from Keaton’s films, one of my favorites comes from the short Cops. At the annual New York City policemen’s parade, Buster and his horse and wagon find themselves in the midst of the marching cops. Buster wants to light a cigarette, and is searching his pockets for matches, when a bomb thrown by an anarchist from a rooftop lands next to him on the seat with its short fuse already sizzling. There’s a pause, “an inspiring pause,” as Twain says, building itself to a deep hush. When it has reached its proper duration, Buster picks up the bomb absentmindedly, lights his cigarette with it as if this were the most normal thing to do, and throws it back over his head.
The short Cops is paradigmatic Keaton. Again, the plot is simplicity itself. In the opening scene we see Buster behind bars. The bars turn out to belong to the garden gate of the house of a girl he is in love with. “I won’t marry you till you become a businessman,” she tells him. Off he goes, through a series of adventures, first with a fat police detective in a rush to grab a taxi, the contents of whose wallet end up in Buster’s hands. Next, he is conned by a stranger who sells him a load of furniture on the sidewalk, pretending he is a starving man being evicted. The actual owner of the furniture and his family are simply moving to another location. When Buster starts to load the goods into the wagon he has just bought, the owner mistakes him for the moving man they’ve been expecting. His trip across town through the busy traffic culminates when he finds himself at the head of the police parade passing the flag-draped reviewing stand where the chief of police, the mayor, and the young woman he met at the garden gate are watching in astonishment. Still, the crowd is cheering, and he thinks it’s for him. After he tosses the anarchist’s bomb and it explodes, all hell breaks loose. “Get some cops to protect our policemen,” the mayor orders the chief of police. People run for cover, the streets empty, the entire police force takes after the diminutive hero.
What an irony! Starting with love and his desire to better himself and impress the girl he adores, all he gets in return is endless trouble. It’s the comic asymmetry between his extravagant hope and the outcome that makes the plot here. The early part of the movie, with its quick shuffle of gags, gives the misleading impression of a series of small triumphs over unfavorable circumstances. Just when Buster thinks he has his bad luck finally conquered, disaster strikes again. The full force of law and order, as it were, descends on his head. Innocent as he is, he is being pursued by hundreds of policemen. Whatever he attempts to do, all his stunts and clever evasions, come to nothing because he cannot outrun his destiny. After a long chase, he ends up, unwittingly, at the very door of a police precinct. The cops are converging on him from all sides like angry hornets, blurring the entrance in their frenzy to lay their nightsticks on him, but incredibly Buster crawls between the legs of the last cop, he himself now dressed in a policeman’s uniform. Suddenly alone on the street, he pulls a key out of his pocket, locks the precinct’s door from the outside, and throws the key into a nearby trashcan. At that moment, the girl he is smitten with struts by. He looks soulfully at her, but she lifts her nose even higher and walks on. Buster hesitates for a moment, then goes to the trashcan and retrieves the key. “No guise can protect him now that his heart has been trampled on,” Gabriella Oldham says in her magnificent study of Keaton’s shorts. At the end of the film, we see him unlocking the door and being pulled by hundreds of policemen’s hands into the darkness of the building.
What makes Keaton unforgettable is the composure and dignity he maintains in the face of what amounts to a deluge of misfortune in this and his other films. It’s more than anyone can bear, we think. Still, since it’s the American Dream Buster is pursuing, we anticipate a happy ending, or at least the hero having the last laugh. That’s rarely the case. Keaton’s films, despite their laughs, have a melancholy air. When a lone tombstone with Buster’s porkpie hat resting on it accompanies the end in Cops, we are disconcerted. The images of him running down the wide, empty avenue, of his feeble attempt to disguise himself by holding his clip-on tie under his nose to simulate a mustache and goatee, are equally poignant. Let’s see if we can make our fate laugh, is his hope. Comedy at such a high level says more about the predicament of the ordinary individual in the world than tragedy does. If you seek true seriousness and you suspect that it is inseparable from laughter, then Buster Keaton ought to be your favorite philosopher.
Little Boy Blues is Malcolm Jones’ beautiful memoir about growing up with his mother (and sometimes, his father) in North Carolina in the late Fifties and early Sixties. It’s my favorite kind of memoir–understated, succinct, honed. The prose is precise without being delicate: “My father was a quiet man. If he put more than two sentences together, that was a speech. There was nothing forbidding or taciturn about his silence, though. On the contrary, it was somehow companionable, almost comforting. He wore his quietness lightly, like a windbreaker.”
The book’s also funny: “On the one hand, I was an incorrigible optimism. I had no reasons for this, never figured out where this notion that things were bound to get better came from, but nothing could extinguish it. At the same time, I spent a good part of every day being terrified of something–anything from mayonnaise in sandwiches to batting against the older kids in backyard baseball games. I was like the boy who confronts a roomful of manure and becomes convinced that somewhere in that room is a pony. It was just that I was equally convinced the pony would eat me.”
I think you guys would dig it. Here’s a taste for you, reprinted with the author’s permission.
From Little Boy Blues
By Malcolm Jones
It was still hot outside when we left the movie theater. I had expected that. It was the darkness that took me by surprise. We had gone in while it was still broad daylight, and now it was full dark, an impenetrable darkness made even thicker and blacker by the humid heat of a late-summer night and the myriad tiny white-hot lights burning in the ceiling that projected well past the ticket booth, all the way out over the sidewalk, where the lights mapped a bright island on the concrete sidewalk. The ceiling supported an electric sign that spelled out, in a foursquare block-letter style, the word WINSTON, blazing in the night. Time had gotten away while I wasn’t looking.
“What are you waiting for, honey?” my mother said. “Let’s go.”
I was stuck in that island of light. We had crossed the thickly carpeted lobby lined with wall sconces generating just enough illumination to make the small room resemble a cave. We had pushed through the lobby’s heavy metal doors draped in lush velvet curtains, passing out of the twilit dimness of the lobby into the abrupt brilliance of the outside foyer. And there, between the theater and the real world, with my mother marching ahead, already almost to the sidewalk, I stopped to let my eyes adjust to the hot light that seemed to set the night on fire. The first things I saw when my vision returned were the heavy chrome and glass cases set into the walls flanking the foyer. Each case contained half a dozen stills from the film we had just seen, and every image shimmered like a tiny mirage. And there I stopped.
Mother was still speaking, but I barely heard her. I was too busy concentrating on the scenes depicted in those glass cases. My eye moved from one image to the next, dawdling the longest on Peter O’Toole as T. E. Lawrence striding down a sand dune toward a dynamited train lying on its side in the desert. Beside it was one of Lawrence smeared with blood after butchering Turkish soldiers on his way to Damascus. The movie ate up all the space in my head, addling me so thoroughly that I could not find words to express what I felt. I was not the same person who went into that movie theater, and I was having trouble catching up with myself.
Lawrence of Arabia was by far the most complex film I had ever seen, starting with an early scene in British headquarters in Cairo where Lawrence was a mapmaker. A soldier pulls out a cigarette. Lawrence lights it for him and then lets the match burn all the way down to his fingers. When another soldier tries the same thing with a lit match, he drops it, exclaiming, “Ow, it ’urts! What’s the trick?” Lawrence calmly replies, “The trick, William Potter, is not minding that it hurts.” A few minutes later, a black-clad Arab guns down Lawrence’s guide in the desert and then threatens to take his compass. “Nice English compass,” the killer says. “How about I take it?” Lawrence says, “Then that would make you a thief.” Impervious to pain, brave, resourceful—Lawrence’s exploits looked like the stuff of Boy Scout training manuals. Then, a bit at a time, it all came undone. He lost his Arab army and then his confidence. The capture of Damascus from the Turks felt hollow, even to me, although I wasn’t ready to give up on Lawrence. I walked out at the end not knowing what to think. Part of me was still mentally charging toward that wrecked train. But another part of me grappled with Lawrence’s uneasiness in his role as hero. I didn’t know quite what to make of him—it would be years before I understood that I wasn’t supposed to—and this disturbed me, had been disturbing me, in fact, since the movie started.
No sooner had the opening credits disappeared off the screen than Lawrence got killed in a motorcycle accident. The death of the hero in the first five minutes of a movie was not something I was used to, and for a while I nursed the hope that perhaps he would come back to life, injured but alive. But no: the rest of the movie, all three hours plus, was a flashback. And in case you forgot how it all started, the filmmakers had inserted a scene at the very end where Lawrence, on his way home to England from Arabia, sees a motorcycle—the very instrument of his death—coming toward the car in which he’s riding.
“Honey, hurry up!” I looked up out of my reverie to see my mother standing fifty feet down the sidewalk, waiting for me to catch up. Reluctantly, I followed her, and as soon as I passed from that pool of light—that enchanted territory—the spell was broken. The vividness—so intense that almost fifty years later I can still remember almost every detail of that movie and every detail of what I felt while watching it, even what I ate and drank while I watched—all that vanished in the split second in which I passed from light to dark and hurried to catch up with my mother.
John Boorman is a fabulously hit-or-miss director but when he’s on, he’s wonderful. I have hopes for his new movie, especially because it’s a continuation of the story he began in Hope & Glory, a beautiful, unpretentious film.
If you’ve never seen it, do yourself a favor.
Found via Longform: check out these excerpts from Cameron Crowe’s story, “Fast Times at Ridgemont High”:
Jeff Spicoli, a Ridgemont legend since third grade, lounged against the doorframe. His long dirty-blond hair was parted exactly in the middle. He spoke thickly, like molasses pouring from ajar. Most every school morning, Spicoli awoke before dawn, smoked three bowls of marijuana from a small steel bong, put on his wet suit and surfed before school. He was never at school on Fridays, and on Mondays only when he could handle it. He leaned a little into the room, red eyes glistening. His long hair was still wet, dampening the back of his white peasant shirt.
“May I come in?”
“Oh, please,” replied Mr. Hand. “I get so lonely when that third attendance bell rings and I don’t see all my kids here.”
The surfer laughed-he was the only one-and handed over his red add card. “Sorry I’m late. This new schedule is totally confusing.”
Mr. Hand read the card aloud with utter fascination in his voice. “Mr. Spicoli?”
“Yes, sir. That’s the name they gave me.”
Mr. Hand slowly tore the red add card into little pieces, effectively destroying the very existence of Jeffrey Spicoli, 15, in the Redondo school system. Mr. Hand sprinkled the little pieces over his wastebasket.
It took a moment for the words to work their way out of Spicoli’s mouth.
“You dick “
Mr. Hand cocked his head. He appeared poised on the edge of incredible violence. There was a sudden silence while the class wondered exactly what he might do to the surfer. Deck him? Throw him out of Ridgemont? Shoot him at sunrise?
But Mr. Hand simply turned away from Spicoli as if the kid had just ceased to exist. Small potatoes. Mr. Hand simply continued with his first-day lecture.
If you dig Richard Pryor, go get Scott Saul’s Becoming Richard Pryor and David and Joe Henry’s Furious Cool. Listen to Pryor’s best albums–”Craps”, “That Nigger’s Crazy”, “Is It Something I Said?” and “Wanted: Live in Concert”. (If you’ve never seen it you should watch “Live in Concert”–perhaps the finest filmed stand up performance of them all–or any number of his better movies: Blue Collar, The Mack, Greased Lightning, Which Way is Up?, Lady Sings the Blues, Stir Crazy.
In the meantime, check out “Richard Pryor Is the Blackest Comic Of Them All” by our pal Mark Jacobson. Originally published in New West, August 30, 1976, it is re-printed here with the author’s permission.
The zooty mobiles are rolling slow and sweet up the Strip. In front of the Roxy there’s style a block long. Hats, satin, dudes with their names rhinestoned on their eyeglass lenses, jumpsuits emblazoned with the word “coke,” denim cut every which way: an impressive preen of edgy cool. Inside his rose-decked dressing room, Richard Pryor feels the electric vibes. His leg is stiffed up like the beginnings of a really good nut, his back creaks, and maybe he’ll throw up. A bad case of the comic’s hazard: fear of not being funny.
Tonight, however, Richard is sweating double; his underwear is a mess. Tonight he’s going to record his new album, “Bicentennial Nigger.” A good title. For Richard, who once was accorded an honorary degree from San Jose State in “black street history,” has an unwavering eye for the doings of the past 200 years. He is also the man who took the word “nigger” — once feared like Godzilla by the liberal black and white communities, but always legal tender in street language — and made it his trademark.
Even so, Richard thinks about the people in line and gets sicker. He knows niggers don’t let you fudge; every space you leave they’re bound to fill it up with some sort of rap to make you cringe. And outside everyone knows the scene, too. They’ll be looking extra hard to see if this Pryor nigger is as crazy as ever.
Crazy. Hustlers who never got to die of natural causes and sharks floating around the pool halls of Peoria, Illinois, screamed, “Nigger, you crazy!” at Richard years ago. It was the old story; Richard couldn’t fight so he was funny. Fell on the floor, did impersonations, a regular ghetto jester. The name stuck. Now you find plenty of housewives bounding into the black middle-class calling Richard Pryor a crazy nigger. Mostly they say it when they hear Richard’s albums. And get an earful of Pryor’s “characters” — crazy niggers all. There are cats like Oilwell: six feet, five inches, 242 pounds of man, a police-punching-type nigger who’d bite a dude’s privates to keep from being fooled with. And the junkie, the kid who used to be the smartest nigger in town — he could book numbers without the aid of paper or pencil — but now he can’t even remember his name. No mistake that Richard’s most famous record is called “That Nigger’s Crazy”: After all, who ever heard a nigger talk like a nigger and get away with it?
“That Nigger’s Crazy,” despite a little X-rated sticker on the cellophane, became the first comedy record in recent years to break into the top twenty on the charts. Sold a million pieces — enough to “go platinum” — a precious metal indeed. Pryor’s next, “Is It Something I Said?” — the one with a picture of Richard being burned at the stake by men in hoods — did as well. Richard now might be sweating in his dressing room, but “Bicentennial Nigger” is already assured of “shipping gold” — $1 million worth. Stats like that make Pryor the largest selling comedy artist in America.
But all that is doodly-squat compared to what’s coming. Sometime last year, Richard decided that being a crazy nigger on vinyl wasn’t enough. He turned down more than a million smackers worth of concert gigs to become a movie star. People around him said, “But Richard, we don’t have any movie offers.” Pryor, one of those vision-seeing niggers, told them to cool it, the pictures would come. He was right, of course. If you spend any time at all watching movies in the next year, you should be able to trace Richard Pryor’s mellow face from memory. Right now, you can see him as a barnstorming baseball player in The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings. He just wrapped Silver Streak, in which he played opposite Gene Wilder. Before that he was a Reverend Ike type in Car Wash. Now he’s off making Greased Lightning with Michael Schultz in Georgia. At the end of the year he’ll do — get this — the Giancarlo Giannini part in Which Way Is Up? a semi-remake of Lina Wertmüller’s Seduction of Mimi. Next year, Pryor has already blocked time for the lead in Paul Schrader’s new depresso opus, Blue Collar, the story of assembly line workers in Detroit.
Check those names: Schrader, Wertmüller, Wilder. These aren’t Superfly projects. This crazy nigger has broken into the big leagues. And more scripts come in all the time. Not that Richard can accept any for a while. A couple of weeks ago, Universal, tossing around phrases like “uniquely talented” and “bankable,” signed Richard to a six-picture, multi-million-dollar deal. Pryor will offer his services as both screenwriter and actor. Company officials say It is the first such contract in the studio’s history.
All of which makes Richard Pryor one hell of a potential corporate nigger. Being the biggest-selling comedy artist in America and a movie star too is quite a parlay. And Richard’s got the accessories to prove It. A demure Mercedes, a classy brown and gold office for Richard Pryor Productions complete with a fishbowl full of exotic underwater plants, a lawyer who used to be partners with Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson, a full staff of frontmen and go-fers to shield him from prying eyes and push his T-shirts, and a brand new house in the Valley. Richard is especially fond of the Northridge house, which he is currently redecorating. After years of hotel rooms and rented cottages, at last he’s got a safe place. Stability is strange to Richard: The first month or so after moving in, he had dreams of men carrying briefcases coming to the door and saying, “You mean you own this house, Mr. Pryor?” But now that dream doesn’t recur. Richard says, “I feel secure, more than ever, maybe for the first time.”
Until tonight, that is. Being a star is terrific, but when you’ve got to go out on stage to face 500 niggers, knees get weak. Especially curious niggers. Tonight they’ll be asking a reasonable question: Can perhaps the hottest personality in Hollywood — white, black, or polka dot, as the old civil rights marcher used to say — be a crazy street nigger, too?
No doubt Richard used to be crazy. It seems as if everyone hoisting a tequila sunrise at Hollywood parties has at least one Richard Pryor horror story. There are tales of how Richard stabbed his landlord with a fork, jeers about Pryor’s supposed predilection for smashing women about his apartment, knowing smiles about his fabled Hoover-suck intake of cocaine. Pryor’s failures to show up for appointments, even dates to tell jokes on the Ed Sullivan Show, are the stuff of showbiz folklore. After all, who could be crazy enough to forget to show up for a Sullivan shot?
But then again, what do you expect of someone who claims to have been born in a Peoria whorehouse, says his father died in the saddle, and speaks of being kicked out of school for hitting teachers? Not to mention knowing all the bad news “characters” that Richard talks about on his records. That kind of background inspires gossip. But a little investigation reveals certain facts. Pryor did indeed miss a few Sullivan shows, once choosing instead to stay home to try out his new 16mm movie equipment. He did snort enough coke to “buy Peru” — sometimes $100 worth a day. He collects guns. He was sued for wife-beating. Also for knocking around a hotel clerk. Did a turn in the slams for not paying taxes on yearly earnings of nearly a quarter of a million.
Last week, however, around the Silver Streak set, you could see the difference a few years make. Pryor sat in an old XKE mounted on a platform and acted a scene with Gene Wilder in front of a process screen. Studio hotshots hovered. All of them seemed to be talking about how Richard hadn’t missed a day of shooting, how he’s never forgotten a line, how he “hasn’t been a problem of any kind.” They sounded relieved. In Hollywood, everyone knows the Pryor legend.
As for Richard himself, the man is looking good. No more dissipation or benders for this cat. Now Pryor is into health foods. Vitamins, too. “I’m through actively messing with my body,” Richard says like a born-again Californian. It’s paying off in many ways; a nice-looking lady in a perfect jumpsuit just told Richard how much weight he’s lost. From the smile on Pryor’s face, you figure lettuce means more to him today than a good freeze. About the old days, Pryor gets a little more solemn. Just thinking about that lunacy makes his body literally quake, like the first jolt from the Quentin death house. Looking at the ceiling, he says, “I was just a kid then. That was before I changed.”
Whether Richard has actually changed is hard to tell, but there was a night when he started to go in another direction. It was an evening in 1970 when Pryor — then 30 — was telling jokes at the Aladdin Hotel in Las Vegas. Richard was doing a typical show for him in those days: fairytale parodies, army jokes, talk show routines. It was the way Richard had worked since coming out of Peoria in the early sixties, except that he had dropped his second-rate Sammy Davis Jr. impression. That was the way Richard thought he had to work. People who knew told him if you were a black man who liked to play for $5,000 poker pots like Pryor did, then you should tell jokes like Bill Cosby, because the I Spy black man was the kind of Negro white folks wouldn’t mind coming to their door to sell encyclopedias. So it went for Pryor; renowned as the baddest dude in the desert, he played it harmless for the tourists. It helped him pick up a couple of movie roles, like the fifteen-year-old drummer in Chris Jones’s Wild in the Streets rock band, but something told Richard he was heading for insanity.
The craziness built inside of him until that night at the Aladdin when Richard blew it, or so it seemed. What happened is the pith of Pryor legend, a great Richard story, better because it’s true. Someday, after Pryor becomes a major movie star, someone will paint it as part of a series entitled “Showbiz Nightmares.” The picture will have Pryor reeling around the stage in his evening clothes, asking himself aloud, “What the fuck am I doing here?” and then walking off in the wrong direction. The tourists, all wearing corsages in the shape of cabbages, will look confused and horrified. The cigar-chomping owners will be screaming, telling Richard he’ll never work Vegas again.
Pryor missed that six grand a week, sure, but he didn’t care if he ever played Vegas again. He made an artist’s choice, and an artist he was going to be. That meant being “himself” and extending his act past the usual boundaries of stand-up. The last few years in Vegas, Pryor had begun to think in terms of “characters,” or assuming the personas of people he thought made meaningful statements about what it meant to be black in a white world: For Richard, these were winos, preachers, tough guys, and fakers. The typical black street scene, one he knew well. Vegas wasn’t buying that. So Pryor packed his coke spoon and went off to a place where the rules were slightly more bent: Berkeley. He took a little pad by the freeway — a $110 special — and “woodshedded” for nearly a year to bring together his new vision. For Pryor, it was a wonderful time. “It was when I got naked; I just sat in my house and didn’t come out until I was ready.”
When he finally did work again, Richard was a different sort of comic. Not only was he black, but he was real. Also real dirty. His first “new” album, some funky baggage called “Craps After Dark” (still in many ways his funniest), recorded for the fly-by-night Laff label, had Pryor saying things like, “Winos, winos know Jesus Christ…. They say ‘Yeah, nigger runs the elevator down the Jefferson Hotel.’ ” This was weird stuff, no lie. He talked about niggers at police lineups. Niggers who get caught with their pants down by irate fathers. He introduced several “characters,” including Black Bertha, “the 300-pound woman with the 280-pound-ass.” Richard said all the words you weren’t supposed to. No way to hide the teeth of it, either; this was black comedy for a black audience, and Whitey came in for his lumps. Example: “They don’t give a nigger a chance. Jackson Five be singing their ass off, they be talking about The Osmond Brothers… motherfuckin’ Osmond Brothers.” Forget Vegas now; TV too. Pryor burned up all the bridges. Just to make sure, he ended the record with a bit about how he took off all his clothes and ran around the casino, jumping on the gambling tables to scream, “BLACK, JACK!”
Defiance, to be sure. And who would have figured it would have worked out so sweet for Pryor? A few years ago, Richard could have wound up going back to Peoria to sit on the stoop and tell kids about how he was a great rebel who got crushed. Credit the black middle-class with changing the scenario. They had the money to spend and weren’t so deep into bedroom sets that they couldn’t relate to what Richard was putting down. No coincidence that Pryor’s big break came in that all-time great black middle-class movie, Lady Sings the Blues. Ostensibly a screen bio of Billie Holiday, the picture was the phoniest thing to come down the pike since Sal Mineo got addicted to grass in The Gene Krupa Story. But Pryor, in the role of Diana Ross’s hophead piano player and armed with firsthand knowledge, gave perhaps the most convincing portrayal ever of being stoned on the screen. People said he stole the show; you don’t grow up one generation out of the ghetto and not know when someone’s smashed or when they’re just acting silly. Seeing a black man acting real on the screen was so unusual at the time that most audiences pronounced it “crazy.” All of which neatly paved the way for Richard’s “That Nigger’s Crazy” album.
Crazy like a fox, maybe. Because when you compare Pryor’s success to that of the other big-time black comics, it tells an interesting story. Cosby, Pryor’s old idol-adversary, is cuter than ever; even if he’s got a hokey variety show coming up this fall, he seems to have reached his natural metier doing peachy-keen Del Monte commercials. Redd Foxx, the classic black X-rated comic, has made his big killing. But now he’s more Fred Sanford than Redd Foxx, and people say Foxx gets pissed when they won’t let him get dirty in Vegas. Dick Gregory did the honorable thing by running back and forth for peace, but it makes you wonder if he wouldn’t have more effect had he stood up on television more often. As for Godfrey Cambridge and Slappy White, where are they?
There was probably just a small opening for all that talent anyway. Pryor found it. And most likely it all comes back to Richard’s willingness to call a spade a spade, so to speak. While the TV dials have been full of watered-down black street life since the “ethnic shows” got on the air, Pryor has remained hard. Too hard for TV, a medium he doesn’t do well anyhow, except for rare shots like Lily Tomlin specials. Using the word “nigger” was the masterstroke. It aced him out of the mainstream, plus it made it quite clear where his racial allegiance lay. Everyone knows white people are not allowed to say that word. But, mostly, he was good. His “characters” are the essence of hanging-out humor. They’re languid, more improvisatory, with more emphasis on performance than the punch line. And in the characters, Pryor found a basic difference between black humor and Jewish humor. Which is why he is the first comic to make meaningful strides past the humor of Lenny Bruce.
* * * * *
Add all that up. The legend and the success. And it prints out into one dynamite image: the crazy nigger who had the courage to say no to bullcrap and come back bigger than ever on his own terms. It should be bottled and sold to politicians.
All the ingredients for a hero. And the other night at the Comedy Store, the showcase for young ha-ha merchants on Sunset, you could witness the worship. Not one of the several black comics didn’t use the word nigger. Every comic, all races, including even American Indian, did Pryor-like characters. But the show really began when Richard himself made an unscheduled appearance. Most everything Richard does is unscheduled: Change or no change, many of his activities still tend to have a fluid quality. Still, the word passes fast in the Hollywood Hills, and a half-hour before Pryor pulled up, scores of fly-looking people poured in. Big-shots, too. Redd Foxx peeked through the curtain; Freddie Prinze sat by the bar. Freddie is a special Pryor fan. Once he said he really felt like he was happening because he was staying in the same room Pryor once had. And as soon as Richard pops on stage wearing a white gangster hat (Richard: “Hats are good for your attitude; niggers love hats; when you ain’t got no money, you gotta get yourself an attitude”), Freddie starts punching people in the arm, screaming, “He’s the best, he’s the goddamn best…. Man, Pryor knows what’s right; he’s paid all the dues. If I could get five minutes like any of his stuff, I’d come for months.”
Pryor, who says he really likes Jonathan Winters, digs the admiration, but he’s wary. “Nice that they say they love me, but I see it like the Western movies, just the young gunfighters waiting for the old man to slow up.” But then again, Richard Pryor is always wary. The horror seasons in Vegas and the exile that followed did more than turn him into a gun collector; they hurt his heart, too. Richard is not the trusting sort. Every once in a while he’ll chill you with a statement like, “You know me; I’m cool until you lie to me, then I get bad.”
Pryor is probably a poor choice to cross. The other day Mel Brooks came by the Silver Streak set. Mel and Richard once had business dealings. Pryor wrote a script called Black Bart that Brooks eventually made into Blazing Saddles. Richard is not anxious to talk about it, but the story goes that Pryor expected to get the lead part in the film. Then Brooks supposedly got cold feet when Warner Brothers contended that Pryor’s coke rep made him too unsavory a character to be a star. Cleavon Little copped the role. Richard was further depressed when Mel garnered all the applause for the picture (especially after the movie was a tremendous smash with blacks who related to many of Pryor’s joke lines). It made Richard cry. But today he’s doing his best to keep a stiff upper. Mel is playing his Yid imp around the set, paling around with Gene Wilder. Richard is polite. Polite even when Mel cuffs him around the neck, saying that Richard is “wonderful and talented” even if he isn’t Jewish. Richard arranges his face into smiling position and even manages a Sammy Davis-style breakup for one of Mel’s funnies. But as soon as Wilder and Brooks disappear, Pryor makes a sneer and collapses sourly on his dressing room bed.
For Pryor, the Blazing Saddles number had racial overtones. In Richard’s world, everything has racial overtones. On the “That Nigger’s Crazy” album, Pryor’s wino tries to rally the spaced junkie back to this planet by saying, “Boy, you know what your problem is? You don’t know how to deal with the white man. I do, that’s why I’m in the position I am in today.” That’s Richard at his best, applying the touching irony. A combination of hip and poetry — a guy who knows every street word and still wants to discuss John Hersey books about Hiroshima. But ironic, too, that the more Pryor becomes a mainstream success, the more dealings he’ll have with the white man. By now a large segment of his audience has to be white. In that there are problems. Much of his white-black comparison routine is tiresome. Pryor will do seemingly endless portrayals of blacks as vital, hip, and honorable under fire while whites are all stewardess-sterile and have the style of accountants. A common harp, but a white person would have to be terribly guilty to accept much of it. Pryor shrugs off such criticism, saying, “It’s just characters.”
No doubt, however, that Pryor’s crazy nigger legend comes in handy. It helps him frighten press agents and other unwanted types away from his door. Tough attitudizing is old-hat for Pryor; he knows he only has to squint to send Beverly Hills souls running.
But there’s a more subtle, poignant side to Pryor’s relationship with the white world. There should be for a man with an obvious capacity for great love who’s twice been married to white women. You can see it in Pryor’s acting in Bingo Long. Richard plays Charlie Snow, a black ballplayer in the pre-Jackie Robinson days who desperately wants to make “El Bigtime,” the white leagues. He figures if he pretends he’s Cuban, no one will notice that he’s black, so he goes around talking like Ricardo Montalban. The ruse succeeds in getting Richard battered about by a passel of baddies. The moral could be easy, but Pryor’s sensitivity to the issues of power longing and self-doubt in his character make for bittersweet moments.
Very complicated and painful stuff. Let’s say Pryor is easier to hang out with than to ask questions of. “I hate interviews,” Pryor says. “Let’s hang out.” So we hang out at Denny’s while Richard eats chef’s salads and breaks up at the way David Banks, his record producer, gently pulls an old waitress’s leg by asking her what she’s doing after work. No one laughs as picturesquely as Pryor when he’s hanging out. If you make a funny, Pryor’s on it in a second. Immediately, he’s gagging from the bottom of his throat, his hands are shaking, his eyes tumbling. If he’s standing up, his feet stamp and he bends from the waist. If he’s sitting down, he lets his butt slip off the chair until his chin rests against the table top. Genuflecting for the jokes. But the man is thinking all the time; picking up rap. The other day he quizzed me about a story I once did about rough kids in Chinatown. A few nights later the whole spiel was in his Comedy Store routine.
The best hanging out we did was the night of the Ali-Inoki fight. Some cats on the Silver Streak set told Pryor that this could be the night Muhammad finally had his ass whipped. The idea threw Pryor into a cold sweat so he bought sixteen $25 tickets so that the champ would have a solid rooting section at the Hollywood Palladium where the closed-circuit was showing. After a bunch of phone calls, people like Jim Brown — looking more massive than ever — showed up to watch the battle. The fight was a total dog. The wrestler lay on the canvas all fifteen rounds, hoping to kick Ali in the kneecap. The lack of action was getting Jim and Richard pissed off. “What the champ gonna do?” Richard said, “Jump on him and screw him?” There was one great moment. Yelling at his corner, Ali blurted, “Shut up, motherfucker!” into an open mike. That mangled Richard’s brain cells. His feet started moving, his mouth was gagging, and he couldn’t sit down for five minutes. Later it was agreed that this was the first time such a word had been said on an outerspace satellite.
This week, Richard is too antsy even to hang out. It seems strange that a comic who’s been on the boards for fifteen years should be as nervous before a performance as Pryor is tonight, but there are solid reasons. Right now, Richard is in the middle of his “transition.” Last year, before cutting “Is It Something I Said?” Pryor worked the Comedy Store every night for six weeks. He polished the characters until they were perfect — so perfect that he could throw away the original stories, improvise madly, and still have it come out right every time. But that was before the movies hit — when Pryor only had one career to worry about.
Now, for “Bicentennial Nigger,” Pryor has done the Store a total of three times. He couldn’t help it; he was shooting Silver Streak until a few days ago. The Roxy gig has already been rescheduled twice so Richard could have more time to “get his head ready.” He hopes it comes out right the first time, too, because three days after the show he’s leaving to do another movie. Preparation is a comic fallback, good to have when the gags muff, even for someone like Pryor. His major new character — a preacher who gives a sermon entitled “How Long Will This Bullshit Go On?” — is not nearly worked out. But Richard is loath to spend more time. For him, life as a stand-up could be drawing to a close.
“Can’t do this forever,” Richard says. “I don’t really want to go around the country playing clubs, seeing cities. I did that already. I have this new house. I want to stay put and do films.” It was inevitable. Anyone who sees Richard’s theatrics on stage can tell that stand-up is restricting for him. That’s what the Vegas beef was partly about. Richard’s imagination is too big for the one-man-show shtick: Besides, Pryor has always been a tremendous movie fan. Asked what he sees, he says, “Whatever’s advertised.” Comic Jimmie Walker, another Pryor disciple, remembers hanging out with Richard. All they did was go to grind houses. Richard has been translating his passions into film scripts for years. And now, with the Universal deal, he’ll be free to do what he wants. More to it than that: Pryor says, “Hey Jack, saw Logan’s Run the other day; twenty-third century, but there wasn’t no niggers in it. Guess they’re not planning for us to be around. That’s why we got to make our own movies.”
Quite a ways from the twenty-third century to the Roxy tonight. Well, maybe not that far. Black Hollywood is out for Pryor, and space-age outfits abound. Minnie Riperton has a Martian hairdo; Smokey Robinson is dressed like a Sunset Cossack. White people look sharp too; record industry types really lay on the turquoise bracelets when they know they’re going to party with blacks. And as soon as Richard ambles on stage, rather timidly, he acknowledges the Caucasian presence. “WHITE PEOPLE!” he shouts in mock horror. The scream must be primal, because it seems to loosen him up. It’s a hip crowd; they all know the Pryor legend. They titter when Pryor mentions white women, applaud when he talks about coke. Richard is doing well, especially with a bit based on Jim Brown’s version of the Ali-Inoki fight. But so far it’s all fairly sedate.
The audience knows what it wants: Pryor can act in Lina Wertmüller movies next week, but tonight they’re looking for a crazy nigger. Cheers are heard when a guy shouts, “Get crazy, man!” Pryor looks at the heckler with a sly smile, then stamps his feet and screams, “What you talking, nigger, want to fight?” The challenge has been voiced and met. But Pryor really sticks it when he introduces black actress Rosalind Cash with a standard laudatory show biz patter and tops it with, “Wish I could get some of that pussy!” That’s gall. Rosalind giggles. And the heckler surrenders in stitches: “Richard, goddamn!”
The place breaks up; Pryor, too. Now people are calling for Mudbone. If Richard creates any lovable characters, Mudbone has got to be the one. One of those history-knowing niggers, Mudbone is full of old stories about how he came up from Tupelo, Mississippi, way back when. He’s one of those cats who’re lying all the time, but looking at their faces tells you they’re authentic, as if just “being around” imbues them with a certain trust.
A typical Mudbone story is the one about the two dudes boasting about the size of their respective organs. They decide to settle it with a dangling contest off the Golden Gate Bridge. “Man, that water’s cold!” says the first. “Yeah,” agrees the second. “And it’s deep. too!”
Tonight there’s a special Bicentennial Mudbone. Except for the two opening lines, the whole routine is different. Richard makes the whole thing up on the spot. Lines like, “Jimmy Carter! I ain’t votin’ for anybody that owns a plantation!” The crowd goes mad and gives him a standing ovation.
Later, Richard says, “See, I can’t do the same thing over and over again. Even Mudbone changes.” After which he drives away in his spanky Mercedes, heading for the movies.
[Photo Credits: via various Tumblr sites and Wikipedia; Ali and Inoki, Tim Wehr ©Stars and Stripes]