Superman III 4.3: Enter Gus

“Next!”

It’s an appropriate word to begin Superman III, history’s first superhero sequel. Superman II doesn’t count, of course, because the original Superman movie was planned as a two-part story. So this moment — the beginning of film #3 — is the first time the filmmakers have to skip over the origin myth, and start a brand new story from scratch.

And it begins, naturally, with a negotiation over how much money we’re going to give to Richard Pryor.

You see, Ilya Salkind’s idea for what to do with the third movie was rejected by Warner Bros, because it was clearly the ravings of a madman who should not be left alone with a typewriter. Obviously, Ilya couldn’t just forget about the film and join Gus Gorman on the unemployment line because he wasn’t even sure what country he was a citizen of, so he turned to the screenwriting team of David and Leslie Newman, who’d contributed to the scripts for both Superman and Superman II.

Happily, the Newmans had a couple ideas for Superman III they’d been kicking around. As they told American Film, “We never wanted to do anything more with Lois Lane. Biblically and otherwise they did everything. So, we thought, remember that girl that Clark Kent used to like in high school? Wouldn’t it be nice if he saw her, his old high school sweetheart, Lana Lang?”

That’s a cute idea, but so far it doesn’t sound much like a blockbuster film. They were thinking maybe it would have something to do with computers, but they weren’t getting very far — and then they saw Richard Pryor, on The Tonight Show.

There are actually two relevant appearances that Richard Pryor made on The Tonight Show in 1981 — one before Superman II was released, and one after.

In the first one, Carson asks what kind of movies he goes to see, and Pryor says, “I want to see Superman II! That’s what I’m waitin’ on to see.” Carson says, “Really?” and Pryor says, “Yeah! Did you see Superman 1? Well, in this one, remember the peoples in the glass? He goes and gets them, and brings ’em back to Earth, accidentally. And there’s four Supermans! Yeah, and one Superwoman.”

Carson chuckles, not sure what to make of this free promotion given to somebody else’s movie, and he throws to commercial.

The second appearance, after Pryor saw the movie, is the one that the Newmans saw. That one isn’t on YouTube and I don’t know where to find it, so here’s what I picked up from reading about it: Pryor told Carson that he saw Superman II, and said, “I love that dude!” Then he did an impromptu routine about what he would do if he had Superman’s powers, ending with, “Just give me some of that x-ray vision for one day, and I’ll be king. Maybe even emperor!”

And so, as David Newman told American Film, “I can’t remember how it happened, but suddenly we were saying, ‘Wouldn’t it be wonderful if Richard Pryor was in this movie!'”

The Newmans really needed to learn that “Wouldn’t it be nice” is not actually a story idea. They didn’t write a lot of movies after Superman III.

Warner Bros approved the stunt casting, figuring it would broaden the appeal of the movie to include both Superman fans and Richard Pryor fans, which isn’t really how that works. When the script arrived, Pryor wasn’t particularly interested, but they offered him four million dollars, and you say yes to four million dollars.

So now they’ve got Richard Pryor in a Superman movie, and the question is: what will they do with him?

Well, the first thing they do is put him behind bars, which was something of a running theme in Pryor’s movie career.

He played crooks in early 70s Blaxploitation films like The Mack and Uptown Saturday Night, and in his first mainstream success — 1976’s Silver Streak, with Gene Wilder — he introduced himself by yelling, “I’m a thief!” In 1980’s Stir Crazy, his next big hit with Wilder, the two friends were thrown in jail after being accused of a bank robbery.

In 1981, Pryor played a convict breaking parole in Bustin’ Loose, and in 1982, he was a bank robber again in Some Kind of Hero. It seems like maybe Hollywood was trying to tell us something about what they thought of Black people.

But giving Pryor a down-on-his-luck character, as they did with Gus Gorman, makes some sense, based on his stand-up comedy persona.

Everybody says that Pryor was a brilliant comedian, because he was, and it appears to be mandatory to say so. He started performing in the 1960s with a jacket and tie on like Bill Cosby, doing funny middlebrow material on The Ed Sullivan Show about TV commercials and the New York subway.

“You gotta watch when you ride the subway, because once I was riding the subway, I caught a guy with his hand in my pocket. I say, man, whatcha doin’ with your hand in my pocket? ‘Looking for change!’ You gotta watch the pickpockets, they slick, see? They bump into you, say ‘excuse me’, take everything but your pants. Gotta take your elbow and go, POW! like that. I was on the train, ridin’, someody bumped into me, said ‘excuse me’, I go, POW! Turn around, woman eighty years old… Wild, man.”

He was very successful and drew a big crowd, until one night in 1967 at the Las Vegas Aladdin Hotel, when he looked around at his almost entirely white audience, said “What the fuck am I doing here?” and walked off the stage.

And that’s when he became Richard Pryor. From then on, he started loosening up on stage, and stopped trying to be a model example of a Black man craving appreciation from a white audience. He started using the word “nigger” a lot, as well as every other curse word he could think of, and he told the truth about the way he experienced the world.

His breakthrough album was That Nigger’s Crazy in 1973, and this is how it starts:

“What? Don’t start no shit, now. Niggers be startin’ a fight and shit in a club. Pull out a pistol and shit, clear everything out. Niggers never get burned up in buildings. They know how to get out of a motherfuckin’ situation. They do! White folks just panic, run to the door, fall all over each other, choke to death and shit. Niggers get outside, and then argue. ‘I left my money in that motherfucker!’

He does an imitation of a guy ordering a complicated drink and getting mad at the waitress, and then another man who gets really drunk and starts a fight. “You know, everybody know one nigger that drink, and every weekend he get his ass whooped. He never wins a fight, but he always want to fight! You know what I mean? Nice guy during the week: ‘Hi, hi, hi-yo.’ Weekend: ‘Motherfucker! Get out my face!'”

And then that imitation goes on for another five minutes, exploring the drunk guy’s entire night: yelling at the bartender, messing with other patrons, getting beat up, vomiting in his friend’s car on the way home, promising God he’ll quit drinking, telling his girlfriend that he kicked a guy’s ass to defend her honor, promising to fuck her all night… and then falling noisily asleep.

What makes this a great routine, and Pryor a great comedian, is that he’s still doing comedy from the drunk guy’s point of view. The character has his own jokes — when he’s told by the bartender that he’s too drunk to get another whiskey, he cries, “Shit, you didn’t say that an hour ago, when you were selling me that shit!” So the audience can’t help but like the guy and empathize with him, all the way home.

Pryor dug deep into his own experience, growing up poor and Black in Peoria with an abusive father and grandmother, trying to get with girls and avoid the police. He was vulnerable. He talked about his own pain and made it funny; he admitted to his own mistakes, and connected them to the common human experience.

That’s the comic persona that they want in the movie, so yeah, you make him unemployed and apparently unemployable, a guy who’s got hold of the losing end of the shtick.

The problem is: this is a Superman movie, with very strict moral lines. The villain is pure capital-E Evil, with no redeeming characteristics, and the hero is the ultimate symbol of Good. In this movie, the damage done by the villain is actually fairly easy to resolve; the real crisis is the five minutes in Superman’s life when he gets drunk and wants to have sex with girls.

So where does Pryor’s flawed-but-loveable persona fit, in that world? You can’t make him Superman’s friend, because he’s not perfect enough — this is a guy who enjoys getting drunk, which in this movie is a clear sign of moral decay. But you don’t want to make him the villain either, because he’s Richard Pryor, and you can’t help but like him.

The story has two main sources of conflict — Superman vs Webster, and Superman vs Drunk Superman — and Gus doesn’t have a clear place in either of those plot tracks. He wouldn’t fit in with the squeaky clean middle-class people at the Daily Planet, and he doesn’t fit in with the corrupt wealthy people on the top floor of the Webscoe building. So he hangs around on the fringes, a comic relief side character promoted to co-star status because he’s too expensive for his actual role in the story. This is a problem that the movie one hundred percent does not know how to solve.

Tomorrow:
4.4: March of the Penguins


Footnote:

This didn’t fit in the post, but my favorite Richard Pryor routine is “Prison Play” from his first album. It’s basically a parody of the racist narrative behind Birth of a Nation, which I wrote about back during the first Superman movie, as well as the way that story was received. He plays six different characters over the course of nine minutes, and it’s utterly brilliant and I love it, so here it is:

Chapters

— Danny Horn

9 thoughts on “Superman III 4.3: Enter Gus

  1. I seem to remember Richard Pryor having similar problems with his primetime show and his Saturday morning kiddie show. He was popular but his comedy routine was wildly inappropriate for prime time and Saturday morning.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Pryor defined “ahead of his time.” He did adult routines, the Black experience, used his personal experiences with drugs and alcohol way before comedians like Robin Williams did…just about everything you can see comedians doing now on TV, movies and stage shows, he was doing fifty years ago.

      He basically drove Hollywood nuts, because he was popular, could draw an audience, so he seemed like a natural moneymaker, right? But his stuff was simply too strong for marketing and focus groups and everything used to tame and bulk up entertainers so that their stuff would appeal to the widest natural audience. He was absinthe and the power structure was designed to sell lite beer.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I dunno, I like Gus’ character arc in this movie precisely because it doesn’t fit into the black and white morality of Superman. It’s nice to have someone who isn’t already good and noble at the start of the movie and who isn’t committed to being a villain either. Just a wayward character who falls in with the wrong crowd. Heck, he’s much more interesting than the cardboard cutout played by Robert Vaughn, who’s nonsensically malicious and meaninglessly coldhearted.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Exactly! There’s a “why” behind his character, as opposed to Vaughn’s “I am rich and heartless. What? That’s it. Get out of my office.”

      Liked by 1 person

  3. The Pryor word association exchange with Chevy Chase on SNL is my favorite.
    How much was Christopher Reeve paid for this movie?
    The Gus character seems like a survival from Ilya’s treatment, an adaptation of Mr. Mxyzptlk. They’re both tricksters and not entirely evil villains. Gus gives the Robert Vaughan character Kryptonite. Mr. Mxyzptlk gives Krimson Kryptonite to Lex Luthor in the comic. Both have unexpected results for Superman. The Newmans haven’t totally abandoned Ilya’s ideas, just seriously edited them. The Kryptonite causes Superman’s split, rather than Brainiac’s machine, but the end result for Superman is a change in personality in both cases.

    Liked by 5 people

  4. When I first heard that Richard Pryor was going to be in a Superman movie, I wondered if he was going to write it. Thinking of the sketches he wrote for his TV show and of the script for BLAZING SADDLES, I imagined a movie about a Black guy from Krypton who comes to Earth and gets so frustrated with the idiotic white people he meets (Superman being the biggest idiot of all) that he decides to take all of their most ridiculous stereotypes and model them to the hilt. The title would of course have been his favorite word with “Super-” in front of it.

    Liked by 3 people

  5. I’ve never been a big fan of Richard Pryor and certainly wouldn’t have been too aware of his off-color material when the movie was released. I found him to be painfully unfunny here, which I imagine was part not being able to do his regular type of material and part not having his heart in it because he was just doing it for the paycheck. And there was probably only so much he could do with the material he had to work with here.

    Liked by 3 people

  6. I still have my copy of that album. One thing that set Pryor apart was being genuine. He made you laugh, but you could feel the pain that inspired the humor. You don’t see that in this movie because he’s playing a part.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. “Just give me some of that x-ray vision for one day and I’ll be king. Maybe even emperor!” It’s lucky Rich was a comedian because I don’t think he thought that x-ray vision ideas through, um, motherfucker!
    Holy Moly! The notion that saying Richard Pryor was a great comedian seems mandatory is both hilarious and true. That this needs saying is sooo goofy though. What kind of numnal *doesn’t* know/think Pryor was a great comedian? It’s like needing to say that David Bowie and Kate Bush were/are great rock/pop artists or Shakespeare (William not Ernie) was a great playwright or Hitchcock/Capra/Truffaut/Spielberg were great directors or one needs oxygen to breathe… But then looks at the hideous state of the world and, yeah, some things do bear repeating. *sad trombone* (and after I asked for rusty.)
    One thing worth noting is that although Gus is a pretty peculiar character to fit into Superman III (He would have enlivened Man of Steel no end tho’), Pryor is extremely likeable in the role. He could play really cold-eyed nasty bastards (method acting?) but he brings a warmth (more method acting? From the better part of himself?) to Gus that means he isn’t demeaned.
    Of the two Dicks, it was probably Lester who gave him the better deal. Mr Donner’s offering? You’ve probably already brought this up… The Toy. *Ouch!*

    Liked by 1 person

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