Monday, January 14, 2013

31 Performances Ripe for Rediscovery (1) Richard Pryor in BLUE COLLAR (1978)

"Man, where am I going to get that kind of money?  Shit, you're talkin' about, 'bout my life...I take home two-ten a week man, goddamn. I gotta pay for the lights, gas, clothes, food... every fuckin' thing, man. I'm left with about thirty bucks after all the fuckin' bills are paid. Gimme a break, will ya mister?"

In Leonard Schrader's novelization of Blue Collar, based on the searing script he wrote with his brother Paul, the character of Zeke Brown is introduced, and described, with this paragraph:

"Zeke Brown was a lightening bolt.  Thirty-one, lanky and sly, he was an urban-bred black who didn't know where he would strike next.  His quick eyes never missed a trick.  Though his devilish smile promised madcap excitement, his wiry body emitted a restless energy in search of power.  He wanted to rip off the whole system for anything possible, or at least his fair share.  But he never did because he was everybody's scapegoat:  an assembly worker with a wife and five kids."

Richard Pryor was nearing his fortieth birthday when he appeared as Zeke Brown in screenwriter Paul Schrader's directorial debut Blue Collar and he was already one of the most famous performers in the world.  Through a series of dazzling albums, television performances, concerts and film-roles, Pryor had established himself as one of the most trailblazing and visionary comedians, and popular cultural figures, of the post-war artist and man as fearless as he was funny, angry as he was witty and as poetic as he was vulgar.  Richard Pryor was at his absolute peak when Schrader took the bold move of casting him in the most overtly dramatic role of his career and it is one of the great tragedies of his career, and life, that more people didn't turn out for what would turn out to be one of the most towering performances of the seventies in what was one of the decade's greatest films.  

One of the books I had constantly by my side as a teenager in the eighties was Schrader on Schrader, a volume that is still among my favorite film books.  Glancing at the chapter on Blue Collar recently, I noticed I had scribbled on one of the pages these words, "Blue Collar as good as Taxi Driver" and all these years later I still feel that way.  Schrader's film might not be the cinematic equal to the monumental work he would pen for Scorsese but Blue Collar meant as much to me back in the day and as time has gone by, and life has caught up, it God's lonely men of Blue Collar that I relate to more than Travis Bickle.  Blue Collar is a part of me and it says as much to me about life in this country as any other American film I have ever seen.  Schrader's film is shockingly relevant and I have never seen a performance that so clearly essays the frustration, and justified anger, of the working man more than Richard Pryor's work as Zeke in this film.  It's a performance of staggering authority and weight...funny, caustic, enraged and, ultimately  tragic.  It's as though Pryor took the best of one of his most realistic comedic routines and transformed it into a portrait of a man destined to be run-over, forgotten, and then sold to the system he so hates.  

The shooting of Blue Collar was fuelled with drama from fist-fights and ego-clashes between Pryor and his co-stars (Harvey Keitel and Yaphet Kotto) to constant screaming matches in-between takes.  Schrader would describe it as, "introducing three bulls into a china shop and asking them to get along...right after you would say 'cut' a fight would break out."  The volcanic and troubled Pryor would prove to be Schrader's most difficult challenge.  The opposite of the trained Keitel, Pryor would be magic in the first several takes and then would become bored and start improvising in the later ones.  Schrader said that, "the first (take) would be good, the second would be really good, the third would be really terrific and the fourth would probably start to fall off."  
I have always suspected that Blue Collar was made up of those third takes.  

Paul Schrader would describe Blue Collar as being a film about, 'the politics of resentment and claustrophobia, the feeling of being manipulated and not in control of your life."  Richard Pryor was the classic example of a man who triumphed over the manipulation he was constantly pressured by and the claustrophobia of a system that had been set up for him to fail.  Pryor finally lost his way in a mirror of his own self-doubt and inner demons but he was ultimately a heroic figure who did that very rare things most great artists strive for but fail to really do...he changed people, he changed minds and in works like Blue Collar and Richard Pryor: Live in Concert he told us truths about ourselves that we might have been afraid to face otherwise.  

Despite some critical acclaim, Blue Collar failed to find an audience back in 1978 and it has slipped in and out of print on home video since its initial release.  Pryor's jaw-dropping performance as Zeke Brown should have led him to greater and greater roles but he seemed to begin to self-sabotage shortly after.    
The fact that such a special and unique talent would find himself in something like The Toy less than five years after Blue Collar's release is absolutely heartbreaking.  Only Some Kind of Hero (1982) and Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life is Calling (1986) contain traces of the dramatic fire Richard Pryor possessed under the laughter...and his stand-up films, which all showed his genius.  
There was disappointment, there was heartbreak, there was tragedy but when I think about Richard Pryor all I think of is greatness and the knowledge that I wouldn't be worth a damn if I hadn't discovered his work when I was a young man filled with a rage that needed challenging and a heart that needed direction.  

-Jeremy Richey, 2013-

"They pit the lifers against the new boy and the young against the old. The black against the white. Everything they do is to keep us in our place..."
-Yaphet Kotto with the closing lines of Blue Collar-


Ned Merrill said...

Long one of my most loved films, I can hardly think of a more thrilling double feature for me than AFFLICTION (then new and shown pre-release), followed by a conversation and q & a with Schrader, followed by a screening of BLUE COLLAR, from Schrader's personal 35mm print.

I recall asking Schrader if he was getting any royalties for the use of Jack Nitzsche & Schrader's "Hard Workin' Man" in the then-current Travolta vehicle A CIVIL ACTION. He laughed and, I think, said he needed to look into that.

Still my favorite Schrader film, I love all 3 leads in the this. Pryor is monumental as you so eloquently write and I probably most responded to him when I was watching this as a teen.

Watching it more recently (in the last several years), of the 3, I may be most partial to Kotto's quiet, powerful, very knowing performance as Smokey. Hard to find a cooler, tougher dude than him.

Watch BLUE COLLAR streaming and in HD on Netflix Instant to hear the original theatrical soundtrack. The DVD has some music alterations in a couple spots.

Stacia said...

I haven't thought of this film in years -- I vaguely remember the ads (I would have been about 6) and I'm pretty sure it was on network TV when I was a kid. Pryor very much impressed me in Some Kind of Hero, even though the script is a highly watered-down version of the book, and I'd love to see this. SO glad you mentioned it! Am very much loving your Rediscovery series, by the way.

Ned, thanks for the heads up on the music differences -- sadly, it looks like it's listed as unavailable on Netflix right now, but plenty of people reviewed it so it USED to be on Instant. Hope it will come back soon.

Ned Merrill said...

For those in the NY area, BAM will be doing a career retro of Pryor in February. ALL screenings will be 35mm and will include: BLUE COLLAR, BUSTIN' LOOSE, WATTSTAX, CAR WASH, WHICH WAY IS UP?, BREWSTER'S MILLIONS, LIVE IN CONCERT, BINGO LONG..., STIR CRAZY, and more.,d.dmQ