Jonathan Rosenbaum

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At the center of Richard Pryor's comedy is his grasp of poverty and weakness, pain and defeat—the very reverse of that strength and self-confidence which he can project so powerfully on a stage. Within the taut dynamics of his performance art, complex attitudes about success and failure, pride and shame, wealth and poverty, love and self-interest are constantly being formulated in relation to one another—guaranteeing the authenticity of his popular appeal, and the beauty and honesty of his self-scrutiny.

To get some measure of the imaginative empathy that Pryor can invest in his creations, his capacity to examine the reverse side of every coin, one need only compare his deer hunt in Richard Pryor Live in Concert (1979) with [the one in Michael Cimino's Oscar-winner The Deer Hunter]. For a big-time auteur like Cimino, intent on filling out a grand mythic design, the question of how a frightened deer drinks water never gets posed. Pryor does more than pose it; he becomes a frightened deer drinking water—along with himself as a kid and his father watching—in order to find out.

This has a lot to do with the art of a Chaplin as well. Limelight, for instance, set in London's East End around the turn of the century, was made the very same year that the father of the film's star, director, writer, producer, and composer—a music-hall performer and alcoholic, also named Charlie Chaplin—died in poverty. Thus Chaplain's speculative portrait of himself in 1952 as a has-been and failure is possibly based on what he might have become had he remained in English music halls, and reflects the fate of his own father, whom he barely knew.

The way that, even at his most egotistical and self-indulgent, Chaplin was able to construct an auto-critique founded on the antithesis of his fame and fortune, helps to define what makes him a great filmmaker, and Richard Pryor a great performer. Theirs is an art of rigorous dialectics shared with a mass audience, a game that few comics are capable of sustaining. Correspondingly, it is the absence of such dialectics in the work of Woody Allen—the literal absence of non-whites on the streets of his classy travel-poster Manhattan, or marginal working-class types in the Gothic recesses of his Stardust Memories—that prevents him from becoming major.

As it happens, Chaplin and Pryor also take in Woody Allen's key subject, the spectacle of middle-class consumption…. But Pryor and Chaplin never make the mistake that Allen does, of confusing the part with the whole, or middle-class Manhattan with the universe.

One might argue, in fact, that all three comics can be defined by their separate constituencies, and judged by their individual relationships to them, which amount to political mandates. Woody Allen betrayed his own middle-class mandate in Stardust Memories by insulting it; at the end of Richard Pryor Live on the Sunset Strip, Pryor thanks his audience for supporting him through his near-brush with death—"You gave me a lotta love when I wasn't feeling well"—and then gently chides them for telling nasty jokes, like the sight gag equating a moving lit match with Pryor as jogger.

According to Pauline Kael [see excerpt above], the new Pryor concert movies "goes thud" when Pryor, in response to requests from the audience, sits down on a stool and goes into his Mudbone routine, because this section "doesn't have the crackle of a performer interacting with an audience." Perhaps Kael would also fault Chaplin's speech at the end of The Great Dictator—that unnerving moment when the Jewish barber changes imperceptibly into Chaplin himself—on similar grounds, and it's easy to see why. But it must be acknowledged that these are the parts of both films that matter the most politically, as testaments and acts of witness: Chaplin's collapse of his own fiction; Pryor's presentation of his own gaudy success seen through the eyes of a poor rural black from Mississippi, uneducated yet skeptical…. In both cases, the comic finds he has to step outside his customary persona in order to speak the truth. For Pryor, this logically precedes his detailed account of his near-fatal accident from freebasing cocaine.

What are Chaplin and Pryor each doing here but reminding us who they are? In a way, the total "inadequacy" of Chaplin's speech as a response to Hitler in 1940 becomes the key truth that the film has to offer. Annihilating the Tramp before our eyes in order to speak as himself, Chaplin simultaneously resurrects the Tramp more profoundly, through exposure (however unwitting) of his own helplessness. He's revealing, in short, that even the famous Charlie Chaplin can't save the world, just as Pryor is revealing candidly that on one level, even a powerless nitwit like Mudbone from Tupelo has more smarts than he does when it comes to self-preservation.

Let's bring a final self-witness into the act. Leonard Maltin has pointed out that Jerry Lewis, while playing an unemployed circus clown in Hardly Working, still wears his Cartier wrist-watch and other expensive jewelry to signal to his audience that he's a hotshot celebrity as well as an out-of-work funnyman. This rather grotesque (or at least mannerist) application of dialectics remains operative on several levels throughout Lewis' last feature, which was largely a hit because of its working-class audience.

Richard Pryor is essentially caught in the same dilemma now; it is fascinating to see in his latest work how he deals, from moment to moment, with this problematical inpasse. Living (as Chaplin did) in a country where success constitutes no less deadly a trap than failure, and where a success such as his own is intimately tied up with his grasp of failure, he walks a very narrow tightrope that can snap at any moment, inviting us to watch his progress. Like any jazz musician, he depends vitally on this sexy form of suspense that keeps everyone off-balance. (pp. 17-18)

Unfortunately, unlike Chaplin, Allen, and Lewis, Pryor doesn't make movies; he gives performances. And apart from his two concert films, where the performance more closely equals the movies, his performances are taken by other people to make their movies out of them. (p. 18)

Live in Concert—an act of boundless courage, generosity, beauty, imagination, and wit—presented a lot of heavy-duty shit: Pryor's heart attack (expressed collectively by a chorus of different characters and voices, some of them white); Pryor shooting his wife's car with a Magnum (perishing tires and motor both lovingly recreated); his father's death; whites and blacks crying differently at funerals; women he has sex with who can't come; getting beaten with switches and fists by grandmother and father; finding roaches in his grandmother's cooking. By contrast, Live on the Sunset Strip is a piece of cake, and he knows it. He also knows what he can do now, and that's the major disappointment; in the earlier film, he was still discovering his capacities, finding his strength, and luxuriating in the power of that knowledge.

The latest concert movie, much less funny and Shakespearean (and structured with all the apparent "spontaneity" of a fireside chat), is largely concerned with Pryor's simple fears: A black mass-murderer encountered at Arizona State Penitentiary, whites who give rebel yells at night, and the chummy Mafia gangster he worked for at a nightclub in Youngstown, Ohio, when he was nineteen; also his simple day-to-day preoccupations with money, lawyers, marital fidelity, and memories of learning how to masturbate. His degree of candor remains admirable and touching; he even comments on his own tension about doing well, knowing how much is expected of him. Yet he mainly seems interested in keeping himself protected, under wraps—like most of Susan Sontag's writing since her own close brush with death….

There are times when one can speak of Pryor as one spoke of Charles Mingus—or as film theorist Raymond Bellour once wrote of Fritz Lang's two Indian films, when he alluded to "an inability to lie carried to the point of tragedy." Pryor's aversion to slickness and predictability can sometimes keep him interesting and truthful in the most threadbare projects, even when it works against his material. (p. 18)

Jonathan Rosenbaum, "The Man in the Great Flammable Suit" (copyright © 1982 by Jonathan Rosenbaum; reprinted by permission of the author), in Film Comment, Vol. 18, No. 4, July-August, 1982, pp. 17-20.


Michael H. Seitz