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“Gene Wilder loved to jump in the middle of the killers and start talking. ‘Hi guys, how ya doin?!’ I’d say, ‘Gene bring your ass out of there!’ He said, ‘What do you think they’d do to us if we were here, Rich?’ I said ‘Fuck us!’ He said, ‘I’m not homosexual!’ I said, ‘homosexual ain’t got nothin’ to do with it. They don’t fuck you cuz you like it! They fuck you just to see the look on your face!’”
-Richard Pryor, “Arizona State Penitentiary,” from Live on the Sunset Strip
Had Mel Brooks gotten his way, Stir Crazy would have been the third pairing of Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor. Pryor was up for the lead in the film he co-wrote with Brooks, Blazing Saddles. Warners wouldn’t put up the insurance, so Pryor and Wilder’s debut came in 1976’s Silver Streak. In that film, Pryor did what Eddie Murphy did 6 years later in 48 Hrs.: He stepped on the screen and walked away with the picture. Silver Streak was a murder mystery on a train movie, with Wilder and Jill Clayburgh caught up in all manner of mistaken identity and trouble. Pryor shows up 2/3 of the way through the picture, as a smooth thief named Grover Muldoon. The comic chemistry between the two reaches its high point when, to disguise himself from the murderers, Wilder covers his face with brown shoe polish. It’s Pryor’s idea, but Wilder doesn’t think he can pull this blackface number off. Pryor is not concerned about Wilder’s Black acting (which is terrible in all manner of funny ways). “I just hope we don’t run into no Muslims,” says Pryor. Something tells me that line was improvised.
Stir Crazy is the first feature where Pryor and Wilder get top billing and the entire runtime together. Directed by Sidney Poitier, who once directed Pryor in Uptown Saturday Night, Stir Crazy was a huge hit in 1980, placing third behind Nine to Five and the best installment of the Star Wars series, The Empire Strikes Back. Jennifer Lee Pryor, Pryor’s fourth (and seventh) wife, says the film was made at the height of Pryor’s extreme freebase addiction. He was so high during the filming that she said she couldn’t watch the finished product. High or not, Pryor is funny as hell and it looks as if he and Wilder are having the time of their lives.
One of the odder things about Stir Crazy is that, for much of the film, Pryor is the straight man. It’s Gene Wilder who is wild and unhinged while Pryor is the voice of reason or experience. Things happen, and Pryor responds. He’s rarely the main focus of the laughs, though he gets them. The film’s opening scenes set the stage for this distinction. After the opening credits, where Wilder sings over scenes of the old NYC I know and love (and the NYC attitude that never changes), we meet our heroes. Wilder is Skip Donohoe, a playwright turned store detective harassing an actress in his store. Pryor is Harry Monroe, a waiter at a ritzy catered affair. As Skip follows the actress around the store, pelting her with insane accusations, Harry can’t bring the food fast enough to his customers. Their hunger may have something to do with the fact that his boss, the cook, has accidentally confused oregano with Harry’s stash of weed. She’s put it on everything, and now the cute blonde is rubbing against the suddenly potty-mouthed priest. These polite rich people are losing their inhibitions from weed so powerful that, according to Harry, “it put Southern California to sleep in 1965! There was a [Black] revolution, and we didn’t know because we were all asleep!”
Both Skip and Harry get fired for their mistakes (the actress does indeed have clothes on under her coat). Skip begs to get out of the city, but Harry wants to stay. This conversation occurs while two men duke it out over a coat check. The coat check guy is much smaller than the man who has shortchanged him, but the smaller guy gets the upper hand with strategically placed pliers. Oblivious Skip goes over to talk to the men (Harry cowers in his seat), thinking that his conversation, rather than the pliers crushing the bigger guy’s genitals, is helping the men resolve their differences. Skip spends a lot of the film being oblivious and/or lucky, characteristics that will help him out once he winds up in prison. But I’m getting ahead of the story.
After the altercation, and Skip’s luscious depiction of bouncing titties, Harry is ready to get out of NYC. In a beat up Dodge, the duo take off for Hollywood where Skip can write and Harry can act. in Glenboro, Arizona, the Dodge radiator goes kaput, costing $150 to fix. In a redneck bar, Skip tells Harry how much he loves the town. Harry looks at him with a “get the eff outta here” look. Skip sees two men working the bar’s punching bag. The duo don’t look friendly—one has a wicked tattoo on his hand—but oblivious Skip tries to make conversation with them. Even after one of the men sends the punching bag through the wall, Skip assumes they’re friendly. Harry drags him away, and then Skip tells him he was able to procure a gig to help them get money to get out of town.
The gig is a pair of singing and dancing woodpeckers at a bank. The woodpeckers look like they’re into disco, with their warped colors, and their lyrics aren’t as family friendly as the 6 year old girl in the bank requires. “Come to the Glenboro Savings bank, you little pecker, you!!!” the duo sing at the end of the song. As the vacuum-cleaning woolly mammoth on the Flintstones would say, “it’s a living.”
While the duo is on lunch, two other men don the woodpecker costumes and perform the promotional number. This performance ends in a bank robbery. The men escape, taking the beat up Dodge as their getaway car to frame Harry and Skip. When Skip and Harry return to the bank, it’s surrounded by cops. Harry begs Skip not to be nosy, but Skip goes anyway. The bank manager identifies them, and they are arrested.
On their way to the holding cell, Harry tells Skip that he has to act hard to keep the prisoners from kicking his ass (or worse). As they strut into the cell, we’re given the first scene you paid to see when you rented this movie. “That’s right,” says a confident Harry, “we bad! We bad! And we don’t take no shit!” He tells Skip to say no shit, and Wilder goofily complies. The façade quickly crumbles as Skip, looking for imaginary flies (don’t ask) slaps a very large Black man on his bald head. Baldy swings, but connects instead with an even bigger brother, this one wearing a vest and no shirt. The vested man’s crushed joint is replaced by Baldy, who runs away afterward. The vest guy asks Harry for a light, and Pryor can’t strike his match no matter what he rubs it on (including his nappy head). As a last resort, Harry strikes the match on the vested guy’s chest hair. It ignites. “Oh shit, ooooh shit!” cries Harry as the man lights his joint.
With an inept city-appointed lawyer (Joel Brooks), Harry and Skip are sentenced to 125 years in Glenboro Penitentiary. Skip doesn’t respond to well to it, nor does Harry. On the bus to the prison, they meet champion bull rider and bank robber Jesus Ramirez (Miguel Angel Suarez) and stepdad-murdering Rory (Georg Stanford Brown from TV’s The Rookies). Rory is not only gay but taken with Harry. After our heroes unconvincingly go crazy, they are put into a cell and their prison life begins.
Three months into their terms, the warden sends Deputy Wilson (Craig T. Nelson from Coach) to bring prisoners to his office to test them on a mechanical bull. There’s a yearly prison rodeo and the warden is looking for a prisoner good enough to beat a rival warden at a nearby jail. Despite his New York origins, Skip is quite good on the bull, riding it even as the film speeds the bull up to absurd speeds. The warden smiles; he has his man. Deputy Wilson seethes, because his pal and former rodeo star Graham is being kicked to the curb by this city slicker.
Rory and Jesus fill Skip in on the rodeo. It’s corrupt. The money meant for the prisoners as a result of the rodeo is being pocketed every year by the wardens. The wardens also have a huge bet every year. Al of that goes to one of them too. The upside of Skip riding in the rodeo is that it may allow he and Harry to escape. Our inept lawyer hasn’t been able to help, even though the 6-year old at the bank noticed the weird tattoo on the hand of one of the woodpeckers, a tattoo that wasn’t there when Harry and Skip portrayed them. The lawyer has hired his social worker cousin, Meredith (JoBeth Williams) to help him with the case. She gets a job at a strip club waiting tables so she can look for anyone with the incriminating tattoo.
In order to get Jesus, Harry and Rory on his team, Skip resists riding in the rodeo. This leads to a series of punishments for Skip and Harry. First, they are put on hard labor, then Skip is hung up by the hands and feet, then Skip is put in the hot box, then Skip and Harry get a new cellmate, Grossberger. Grossberger is a huge mass murderer who speaks in grunts; he’s the most feared prisoner in the joint. Each punishment backfires: Skip’s tortures get him in touch with his inner self, heal his back, and make him a new friend in Grossberger. (Later, Grossberger will show he’s more than just grunts, providing an eerie, sensitive rendition of a folk song, as if he’d eaten Joni Mitchell.)
Only after the warden threatens Harry with botched surgery does Skip make a deal with the warden to ride the rodeo. Franklyn Ajaye shows up, as he did In Hollywood Shuffle, to provide important medical information to a Black comedian. Ajaye warns Harry that, instead of his appendix, the doctor took his testicles. “My appendix didn’t grow back!” yells Harry.
With the team in place—Jesus provides riding advice, Grossberger muscle and Rory and Harry rodeo clown services—the escape is hatched. Jesus gets his wife and his brother to assist on the outside. On the inside, Skip finds himself falling for Meredith, asking her out while she’s on the Midnight Express breast-against-the-glass side of the prisoner chat partition. “Let’s get you out of here first,” Meredith answers.
The day of the rodeo arrives, and Skip not only has to deal with riding the bulls, but also executing the escape and working through Deputy Wilson’s dirty tricks. Director Poitier brings a little tension to the rodeo scenes, cutting between the action on the bulls and the escape plan. Who wins the rodeo, and do the guys escape? I’ll leave it up to you to discover how this Great Escape plays out.
Poitier stands back and lets his comedy team do their thing. Pryor and Wilder feed off each other and their improvisation makes their scenes all the funnier. Pryor’s reactions to Brown’s affection—his Rory is the original Jangle Leg—is amusing without being offensive. When Rory tries to hold Harry’s hand, he gets slapped. After informing Harry that slapping is what made him kill his stepfather, Harry gently places Rory’s hand back over his. Later in the film, notice how Harry seems to get used to Rory being next to him. He even helps Rory knit. “I’ll protect you,” says Brown in his Razzie-nominated performance, “I seem to make some guys uncomfortable!” (Rory is over-the-top, but nowhere near the horrific level of ghetto gay stereotype assayed by Meschach Taylor in Kim Cattral’s Mannequin. Now THAT deserves a Razzie.)
Gene Wilder relishes being Costello to Pryor’s Abbott. He uses his wide eyes and neurotic voice to great effect, tossing caution to the wind in scenes that work because he’s not below looking ridiculous. As Pryor tries, under his breath, to keep order, Wilder frustrates him to no end. Pryor gets to run around in a scene or two, but most of the physical humor falls to Wilder. Pryor bops correctly in his “we bad” scene, while Wilder puts on a rhythmless gait. It would have been funnier to see Pryor on top of that bull, and a nice homage to the Black cowboys who invented much of the rodeo stuff performed today, but Wilder is the star so he gets the girl and the plot line.
One of Pryor’s more understated verbal gags involves figuring out what word will set off the bull he’s trying to provoke. “Malt liquor,” says Pryor, invoking my pal the Schlitz Malt Liquor bull. When he figures out the word, (hint: it goes with bull), it’s anti-climactic because his malt liquor crack was so unexpected. This is the best pairing between Gene and Richard; their latter two films are lousy (See No Evil, Hear No Evil) and unbearable (Another You). Pryor was so weak during Another You that it’s rumored that Full House’s Dave Coulier provided Pryor’s voice during some of the looping in post-production. The only laugh in that film comes from Pryor (or Coulier?) cussing out the Tri-Star horse: “Fuckin’ White Horse!”
While watching today, I realized that Poltergeist wasn’t the first film Nelson and Williams appeared in. They’re both here, though they don’t have a scene together. Nelson’s interactions with mustached Black men didn’t end here, either. He’s the villain in Carl Weathers’ Action Jackson, one of the guiltiest pleasures I have.
Your Homework Assignment:
Rent Live on the Sunset Strip to hear the rest of the routine I quoted above.