Tuesday, Dec. 13, 2005 – Copyright Slate
Do some artists need to destroy themselves to create? It’s a dangerous mythÃ³dangerous because it has an element of truth (alas). It’s certainly possible that Richard Pryor, who died on Saturday at the age of 65, would have overcome his self-doubts and self-loathing and flown as gloriously high without being, well, high. He would certainly have flown for longer distances and with fewer horrific collisions. But would he have burned (I use the term advisedly) as brightly?
I never saw Pryor live, but I saw Live in Concert (1979), his first stand-up feature, about 300 times. Today’s comedians are quipsters whose jokes have little in the way of a connecting thread and whose patter has been honed and rubbed and buffed to a mechanical perfection. Pryor certainly worked up his routinesÃ³his timing was gorgeous. But there was an element of menace, of live-wire-ness, that made you think of Lenny Bruce. You didn’t know where his free-associations might take him. Some of his bits were like sÃˆances, in which the spirits of African-American junkies and winosÃ³people Pryor knew as a child, people he could have been, people he knew he could becomeÃ³had a crack at the mike and could finally give voice to their rage and self-pity and delusions.
Many obituaries have cited Pryor’s early career in the accommodating Bill Cosby be-nice-to-whitey mode. It was when he began to speak to African-Americans that he became an object of worshipÃ³by blacks and whites. He had the audacity to show whites (especially white liberals) how they looked through a black man’s eyesÃ³and, more important, how they sounded: whiny, unmusical, cringing, borderline insane. White people amused Pryor, and we loved to watch him laugh at usÃ³not just because we were masochists, but because he showed us how far we still had to go.
Pryor exposed his demons without necessarily celebrating them. Well, he celebrated them, but he didn’t, if you’ll pardon the expression, whitewash them. He didn’t mind coming off as a crazy, self-centered asshole with too much freedom and power for his own good. “It’s hard to wake up and see the same person all the fucking time,” he said of his marriage in Live in Concert. “In the first year and a half, my wife thought her name was ‘White Honky Bitch.’ ” When he said on Saturday Night Live that the problem with women is that they don’t just leave you but they tell you why (“Don’t tell me why, bitch. Just leave”), he was basically saying there was no hope. He didn’t want to make it work. He didn’t want to grow up and be mellow and nice. And we didn’t want him to be, either.
We certainly didn’t want him to be the man he became in his moviesÃ³which squandered his gifts as badly as anything this side of Elvis Presley’s Clambake. After a thrilling start in the otherwise dire Silver Streak (watch the scene in which he poses as a servile train porter before pulling out a big gun and shoving it in the racist villain’s face), Pryor muffled his blowtorch rage and impersonated shaky, pushed-around little guys who’d manage to stand up for themselves after much humiliation. Not much later, Eddie Murphy would take the multiplexes by storm playing the kinds of characters that Pryor should have playedÃ³only Murphy had none of Pryor’s emotional honesty or capacity for self-criticism. He was Pryor reinvented as a combination little prince and cynical businessman.
I’m not an expert on multiple sclerosisÃ³although in a recent interview I heard Teri Garr (who has a new book out about her life and her MS) speculate on the ways in which a physical trauma might have brought on and exacerbated her disease. Certainly being burned to a crisp by an exploding crack pipe didn’t help Pryor’s health. In later years, he had the look of a man who’d brought calamity on himself. No one missed the irony that this cock of the walk who’d once strutted around the stage exulting in his misogyny was now dependent on the kindness of wives and ex-wives. It was payback time.
Pryor-the-artist used Pryor-the-man as a character, and there’s no telling how much the latter acted up to make kindling for the former. God, I wish he’d found a middle groundÃ³a design for creating and living. But what other comedian could have embodied the freebasing pipe that nearly did him in, the pipe that in Live on the Sunset Strip speaks in the consoling tones of the mother he never had? “Rich, me and you are gonna hang out in this room todayÃ– I understand, Rich. It’s your life. Where were they when you needed them?” We should lament the demons that engulfed Richard Pryor, but celebrate the exquisite madnessÃ³and the geniusÃ³it took to yank them into the light. … 9:16 a.m. PT
David Edelstein is Slate’s film critic. You can read his reviews in “Reel Time” and in “Movies.” He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.