Wednesday, July 25, 2018

New Perspective on Richard Pryor

Given the acclaim and popularity of the late Richard Pryor (1940-2005), it's not surprising that Hollywood executives eagerly gave him lucrative movie contracts for much of the 1970s and 1980s. But what a spotty track record he had as a movie star, as seen in Anthony Balducci's thoughtful book Richard Pryor in Hollywood: The Narrative Films, 1967-1997 (McFarland). For a man who could be so funny, why did his movies (excepting his concert films) often fail to capture his gifts?

Unlike most other books about Pryor, this one doesn't let his chaotic private life frame the narrative. Balducci, a film historian whose expertise in motion picture comedy extends back to the silent era, brings a valuable long-term perspective to Pryor's work. While he provides useful cultural context for the societal atmosphere reflected in such films as Wild in the Streets (1968), he also strips away much of the baggage that prevented earlier critics from successfully analyzing Pryor's film comedy on its own terms. Enriching the text are Balducci's interviews with several screenwriters who worked on Pryor films, helping us understand the changes that took place between script and screen.

This is an important work about movie comedy that merits widespread attention, and at the same time a highly readable account that will interest Pryor's many admirers.

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