When a jittery Richard Pryor emerges from underneath a desk in Uptown Saturday Night, playing a black private eye who is not a sex machine to anybody, a jolt of adrenaline shoots into this sluggish comedy that keeps it wired long after he’s gone.
In a virtuoso sendup of Shaft-style cool, he agrees to find a missing wallet, but not before somehow negotiating his price through the floor, confessing to being lonely and then nervously ducking out a window, after which he’s arrested. Once cornered, Pryor moves through a dizzying number of emotions: panic, casual exasperation, denial and, finally, bluster. “Is the governor in town?” he yells as he’s being frisked. “Get him down here! I want to see him!”
When critics talk about the genius of Richard Pryor, they usually mean his singularly influential work as a stand-up comedian, not as an actor. Hilton Als of The New Yorker even argued that Pryor had “a kind of contempt” for his own films.
But a different story comes through in A Pryor Engagement, a savvy film retrospective, beginning on Friday at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, which leans heavily on movies from the 1970s. In the decade that included his greatest achievement, the seminal 1979 stand-up concert film Richard Pryor: Live! In Concert, Pryor delivered many superb, committed, often brief performances hidden in movies that were mediocre or worse.
One of the good things about bad movies from that era, particularly the low-budget ones, is that they often didn’t get in the way of comic performers, as they did in later years. Their slower pace allowed for more improvisation and spontaneity. Pryor, who appeared in about 20 movies around that time, was drawn to dramatic roles. He’s a gentle, doomed piano player in the Billie Holiday biopic Lady Sings the Blues, and imbues the wizard in “The Wiz” with a pathos and terror at odds with that frenetic musical.
At the other end of the commercial spectrum, the pretentious Some Call It Loving shifts gears when its listless, jazz-playing hero finds Pryor’s character strung out in a bathroom, waxing poetic as if his graffiti above a urinal were a masterpiece. The scene is not played for broad laughs. Pryor gives his addict role more respect than the movie does.
In comedies Pryor was funny when he was lying, funnier when he was scared. When he could play both, watch out. Take his one truly great comedy, Which Way Is Up? (1977), which Michael Schultz directed the year after he cast Pryor as the plastic-grinned evangelist Daddy Rich in Car Wash. In Which Way Is Up?, a remake of a Lina Wertmüller film, Pryor plays multiple parts, often in the same scene, but he anchored the movie as a Chaplin-esque orange picker, Leroy Jones.
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