Tuesday, December 1, 2009
Imagined Films: Woody and Richard
IMDb tells me that today is the shared birthday of two comic giants: Woody Allen (who is 74), and Richard Pryor (who would have been 69). This got me wondering-- what would it have been like to see these two men collaborate on a film?
It seems counter-intuitive, at first, to pair the brilliantly foul-mouthed physical genius and the neurotic anti-intellectual intellectual. But for all their differences of style and background, and for all the different paths their respective careers took, they have enough in common to suggest that a collaboration in some alternative universe might have been possible. Both were stand-ups whose humor derived from the observational, from the surreal spins one could find on everyday occurrences like psychiatrist's appointments or the weather. Their work often delighted in the personification of objects like books, stuffed bears, laundry lists, cars and crack pipes-- these things would start talking and moving, chasing our heroes down in physical and emotional ways, and suggesting that the humorous and the horrific were siamese twins rather than polar opposites. Early Woody films delight in a kind of Sennett-esque slapstick that doesn't seem far removed from the way Pryor transforms his body into wind or jungle animals in his stand-up routines. Both often used their films and stand-up routines to explore their sexual hang-ups, their fears of intimacy and the pressures of fame. And of course, both were verbally dazzling, transforming words into tennis balls that they could bounce off the walls of their obsessions.
A Pryor-Allen collaboration could have helped both men. The spellbinding gifts Pryor displays in Richard Pryor In Concert and Live On The Sunset Strip were only intermittently deployed in his narrative features; for every Lady Sings The Blues, there was a Superman III; for every Blue Collar, there was The Toy; for every Silver Streak, there was Another You. It would've been cool to see Richard Pryor in a romantic comedy like Manhattan, a seriocomic pastiche like Zelig (think of how much fun he could've had blending into those newsreels!) or giving weight and depth to an exploration of fame like Stardust Memories. What kind of fantasy film, a la The Purple Rose of Cairo, could Allen and Pryor have crafted together?
But the benefits would've gone Allen's way, too. Freed from the need to cast himself in his films, he could've stretched himself even further, not so much generically (an area where he's often been a risk-taker), but emotionally and thematically: would Pryor's presence have kept Allen from falling into the mid-90s rut of "fame sucks, relationships suck, popular culture is dying" that marred films like Celebrity and Mighty Aprhodite? Would a movie like Alice have felt a bit less precious and claustrophobically self-involved? Would it have spared us Shadows and Fog? If Allen could've provided Pryor with much-deserved dramatic showcases, could Pryor have reminded Allen that comedy is not the lesser art, that being "smart" in films doesn't mean abandoning your slapstick and verbal gifts?