Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Richard Pryor's Narrative Films (1980-1982)

[This article contains material that wasn't included in "Richard Pryor in Hollywood."]

Wholly Moses! (1980)

Pryor was willing to let the film's star, Dudley Moore, get closer to him than the lion.

In God We Tru$t (or Gimme That Prime Time Religion) (1980)

Stir Crazy (1980) 

JoBeth Williams said of her experience working on Stir Crazy:
I was extraordinarily lucky earlier on to work with Gene Wilder and see his comic timing.  Richard Pryor was in the movie and to watch him with Gene was amazing.  They are comedic geniuses.  Sidney Poitier is the kindest man in the world.  He said things to me like, "You are such a professional at such a young age.  It is a pleasure to work with you."

She said of Poitier in another interview, "He was dealing with Richard Pryor in that movie, who was dealing with his own drug issues at the time, so it wasn't easy for Sidney.  But, I had such respect for him, and no question that he was a mentor."

Poitier did, in fact, have problems with Pryor during the making of Stir Crazy.  At one point, Pryor's drug use got so out of control that the comedian couldn't make it to the set.  Poitier called Pryor's ex-girlfriend Pam Grier and asked her for help.  According to Grier, Poitier told her, "Pam, Richard’s high, and we’re like 10 weeks behind and they’re going to pull the plug on the movie.  Gene Wilder. . . everybody’s mad.  Everybody’s upset.  Everyone's afraid they’re going to lose their jobs. Can you come down here and talk to Richard? I think you’re the only person who can reach him."

Grier explained:
I was on my way to do Fort Apache, The Bronx. . . and I said I would come down on my way and see if I can do anything or say anything.  I get there, and he’s freebasing. I’d never seen anything like that.  Holding a Bunsen burner of liquid in front of your face, while something’s in a net that looks like a rock cooking … it was just so bizarre to me.  And I wanted to say, ‘Well, you know, Sidney, Richard has some fears, insecurities and they have to be addressed.  Maybe like a musician he has to prepare himself, get high before he comes to the set.  I don’t know.  You always knew he did indulge and now you want him to stop?  I don’t know how you’re gonna do that.  But you’re gonna have to give him some time, help him figure out how he can prepare without that, so his career isn’t destroyed.’

So Richard and I talk, we go to the set and he says, "I'm glad you came and I’m going to try, I’m really going to try to stop.  I didn’t want you to be disappointed."  And I said, "I’m not disappointed.  It’s just you have such an opportunity.  People love you so much.  And you're gonna take it all away.  For some reason you don’t want to give whatever it is.  So, I’m gonna go."

Bustin' Loose (1981)

The film begins with Pryor getting caught trying to steal televisions from a warehouse.

Pryor is coerced by his parole officer into driving a group of special needs children from Pennsylvania to Washington in a dilapidated school bus.

It takes great effort and great patience to make the bus roadworthy.

Pryor filmed a scene with Vincent Price at Seattle's historic Firehouse 25, which the city constructed in 1909 as its first brick firehouse.

Set designers dressed up the firehouse to look like a ramshackle garage owned by Price's eccentric character, Smokey St. James.  This is where Pryor takes the bus to get it repaired.  Smokey is a man of many faces - scholar, drunkard and mechanic.  Unfortunately, none of these faces made it up on screen as the scene was deleted from the final cut.

"My friends call me 'Smokey St. James,' Raconteur Extraordinaire and resident wino at your service."
The fact that Smokey got the bus running is never mentioned.

Pryor is impatient with the children at first.

But he eventually takes the time to get to know them and act as a father to them.

On June 9, 1980, Pryor poured rum on himself and lit himself on fire. He was in the hospital recovering from severe burns when Universal Pictures executives contacted him about returning to work for reshoots on Bustin' Loose.  The Bustin' Loose reshoots turned out to be the first time that the comedian worked after his injury.  Pryor's pre-burn scenes can easily be identified as Pryor's face is noticeably fuller in these scenes.

Pre-burn scene
Post-burn scene
The film includes a scene in which Pryor catches fire.

The original cut of the film emphasized the dramatic elements of the story.

But the third act of the film was reshot to add more comedy to the film.  In an effort to help the children, Pryor dresses as a rich cowboy to rob money from a con man.

Pryor flees with the money, but the con man's goons corner him inside a warehouse.

The film climaxes at this point with a slapstick battle.

Pryor is triumphant in the end.

Film critics were less than enthusiastic about the film.  The New York Times review by Vincent Canby brandished the headline 'BUSTIN' LOOSE' STARS RICHARD PRYOR GONE SOFTY.

Some Kind of Hero (1982) 

Pryor plays a former prisoner of war who suffers a difficult homecoming.

He learns that his wife has found another man and his mother been debilitated by a stroke.

He finds comfort in the arms of  a hooker played by Margot Kidder.

Pryor resorts to robbery to pay his mother's medical bills.

Strangely, the filmmakers saw the war veteran's medical exam by army officials as an opportunity to add more laughs to the sad story.

Pryor wanted to make dramas.  He wanted Greased Lightning to be a drama.  He wanted Bustin' Loose (originally titled "Family Dreams") to be a drama.  He wanted Some Kind of Hero to be a drama.  But studio executives didn't see the point of having Pryor in a film unless he could be funny.

The Toy (1982)

Ray Stark was an acclaimed film producer whose prolific output (33 films between 1960 and 1993) included mostly comedies and musicals. Stark formed a creative partnership with famed comedy writer Neil Simon that resulted in 11 films, including The Sunshine Boys (1975), The Goodbye Girl (1977) and California Suite (1978). Stark became interested in the work of Francis Veber, who many critics hailed as the French Neil Simon. The producer set out to remake Veber's French comedy Le Jouet (1976).  Stark's film, The Toy, stood as the first American adaptation of a Veber film.  Veber was excited by the project and was willing to do anything he could to assure its success.  He said:
I arrived in Los Angeles for the first time and I called Ray Stark and I talked to his secretary, and I said, "I'm the original writer of The Toy.  If you want me to work with you as screenwriter, I would be delighted." And he never called me back. So I understood then that, when they buy a film, they don't want to be disturbed by the people who did it, you know?
When asked what he thought about The Toy, Veber replied bluntly, "It was a disaster."

Veber was then asked why most of the American remakes of his films failed.  He replied:
Because I think the process of filmmaking is very complicated. I have a kind of explanation. When a producer, for instance, buys a French or Italian or Spanish film, he shows the film to a lot of people — writers, actors. And he starts to get used to the jokes, the situations, you know? And he asks his writers, "Make it richer." And this is the beginning of trouble.
Veber had Chaplin in mind as he put Le Jouet's protagonist through a series of humiliating situations.  He said, "Chaplin was always being humiliated.  Life is humiliating."  Veber was asked if it was necessary to inflict cruel indignities on comedy characters.  He said, "Humor must be cruel.  It's very hard not to be cruel.  There is a base of cruelty in comedy. Mostly in mine."

But it completely changed the story to put a black man into these humiliating situations.  It is one type of story when a wealthy white man's bratty son buys a white man to amuse him.  It is something else entirely when a wealthy white man's bratty son buys a black man to similarly do his bidding.

Columbia Pictures released two high-profile comedies, The Toy and Tootsie, a week apart.  Dustin Hoffman becomes empowered when he dons a dress in Tootsie.

Putting a black man in a dress is different.  Look at Pryor in a maid's outfit in this scene from The Toy.

It is emasculating.  In the end, Hoffman got far more laughs in a dress than Pryor did.  It's is no wonder that Pryor is in anguish through much of the film.

"Richard Pryor in Hollywood" can be purchased at Amazon.

Reference Sources

"Francis Veber — The Valet— 04/11/07," Groucho Reviews.

"JoBeth Williams On Her Longevity, Philanthropy, Exciting New Projects And More!" Icon Vs. Icon - All Things Pop Culture, December 18, 2014.

Jamie Allen, "Francis Veber: Playing 'The Dinner Game,'" CNN, August 31, 1999.

Mike Fleming Jr., "'70s Screen Icon Pam Grier Speaks On Sex Harassment & Her Biopic With Jay Pharoah Playing Richard Pryor," Deadline Hollywood, January 16, 2018.

Kelly Oden, "An Exclusive Interview with Jobeth Williams," Coming of Age (Winter, 2004).

Sharon Waxman, "Comedy Francaise: Director Francis Veber's Unusual Cultural Export," Washington Post, July 5, 2001.

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