Alper Kavak: Sidney Poitier’s first directorial entry into the 1980s was Stir Crazy, a quirky and lighthearted buddy comedy that revolves around the adventures of a realist and an optimist who set off on the road as a duo from the east side to the west side with big ambitions but end up in a prison. Anyone familiar with Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor’s performances would not need longer than a few minutes to recognise their usual albeit unique charms as actors.
Before delving into the details though, Nick, I remember you suggesting Stir Crazy merely days after Poitier had passed, which makes this conversation, in my opinion, more valuable than it would have normally been. Combined with the fact that it is currently Black History Month, even though we are discussing a buddy comedy more or less, it made me watch the film with a more socially conscious lens than I would otherwise. This is because, even when a film does concern itself with political commentary, I feel it carries the traces of the time period it is produced in. What do you make of the social constructs portrayed in Stir Crazy?
Nick Davie: Thank you for the introduction, Alper. Firstly, this is a childhood favourite of mine, and my first encounter with anything involving the late great Sidney Poitier. The comedic duo of Wilder and Pryor – always whacky, weird, slapstick, and silly, just brilliant fun. The chemistry the two had on screen was palpable, their kinetic energy really peaks in Stir Crazy.
It is a very interesting watch regarding the social settings of its narrative. It is worth noting that when watching a comedy, the social or political settings are often ignored somewhat or just not considered by audiences, so acknowledging the genre and being mindful of the political undercurrent isn’t self-evident. 1980 in the US, from my limited knowledge as a commentator based in the UK, was a period of neoliberalism introduced by Ronald Reagan (and Thatcher in the UK), which had a profound effect on society. This is represented well in my opinion in Stir Crazy – you have the two protagonists out of work but willing to pursue other avenues in hopes of a career at the end of the tunnel, so to speak. As this all goes awry and the pair end up in prison, this neoliberal idea of individualism, the pursuit of your own goals and destiny, is not always as simple or straightforward as it may seem, and the pair discover this in abundance. Not to veer too far off track and deep into the politics of the era, there are a multitude of political and social issues on display in Stir Crazy; I am glad you have mentioned this to start us off Alper, what did you see when viewing this through a more socially conscious lens?
To also bring us back to Poitier, do you have experience with his performances or other director roles?
Alper: We see quite eye-to-eye on ‘the neoliberal idea of individualism’, especially when put in contrast between selfishness and wishful thinking. This is also prominent from more subtle details in the film, such as in Skip Donahue’s (Gene Wilder) belief that any problem between two parties can be solved through niceties and polite communication, which does not really prove to be true as he would be quickly told by his buddy every time. Maybe I am interpreting too much, but after all, neoliberalism was the result of the collapse of the classical liberalism, which, some would say, was wishful thinking that failed to function. Furthermore, it is worth noting that one of the biggest criticisms of neoliberalism is the significant increase in imprisonment rates thereafter. This, of course, is not the reason the duo gets arrested, but wouldn’t you say that on some level, Donahue and Monroe (Richard Pryor) set off on a quest for economic freedom, though they get disillusioned to no fault of their own? I think there are some ties here.
Nevertheless, on a more social scale, the opening of the film right out of the blue points out communication issues between men and women through a comedic, dialogue-free storytelling. Those first few scenes made me think that ‘there may be more to this comedy than I would have thought.’ Granted, the film does not concern itself much with sexism, nor does it touch on the issues of Black people as much as one would think, yet in between the lines, there is much going on. The most obvious one is that Skip, as a white man, can afford to be an optimist and – if he wants to be – somewhat irrational, whereas Harry, as a Black man, has to always look at things realistically at best while calculating what could possibly go wrong. This alone shows that different heritages could put individuals into different mindsets. Did you notice anything similar, Nick?
I will have to admit that I am not all too familiar with Poitier’s work, which is, as I have realised while watching Stir Crazy, is an issue that I will do my best to solve. I understand you are quite familiar with his projects though, am I right?
Nick: I believe you are correct in the assertion of Skip’s nice and polite approach could serve as a metaphor for ‘failed’ classic liberalism; it seems to fit well with the time period of the film’s release and content. I think we are both making assumptions here, but that is the beauty of these discussions, we get to play around with ideas and, Alper, you have made some fantastic observations. There is definitely an element of privilege (or lack thereof) associated with the world views of Skip and Harry, the latter much more aware of the world the pair occupy. In terms of narrative and political commentary, how did you find the prison sequences fit into what we have discussed? I think some of the criticism in terms of narrative upon the film’s release found the prison-based narrative to convolute the overall plot.
I would definitely recommend seeing Poitier’s performance In The Heat of the Night, directed by Norman Jewison, and They Call Me Mister Tibbs! where Poitier reprises the iconic role of Virgil Tibbs. Another perhaps, obvious choice is Stanley Kramer’s Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, a commentary on racism. In terms of directing, I will be checking out his debut Buck and the Preacher next.
Alper: I definitely agree, in fact, you encapsulated what I was trying to say better than I did. As to the narrative and political commentary – and this is probably not what you had in mind- what fascinated me the most was their interactions with apparently one of the biggest series killers of the area. Grossberger (Erland Van Lidth), as he was called, was first presented as this horrifying, ruthless, inhumane character that everybody in the prison was frightened of. Cut to the next few scenes – we see Skip and Harry hanging out with him in their cell. It was really interesting to see the softer side to a terrifying serial killer. But well, this is less political and more observatory in philosophical terms. What do you make of the prison sequences?
Nick: I agree and I feel like the character of Grossberger is built up of mental health issues and though that may be an obvious statement, the interactions between all the prisoners and Grossberger eventually lead to a humanising character arc. Whether this was intentional or not, it plays an important role in the eventual escape of Skip and Harry. The change in flow when the lead pair are imprisoned shifts dramatically – I mentioned Roger Ebert’s criticism and I tend to agree, it becomes convoluted. Though I don’t think it is fatal to the film as Wilder and Pryor are watchable anywhere, and in fairness keeping the pair in enclosed spaces works in their favour. To move away from our political discussion, did you find the film to be a successful comedy? Comedy is a genre that never really gets the its fair acclaim but Stir Crazy is a good ride. And do you have any previous watching experience of Pryor and Wilder?
Alper: Yes, the change in flow is most definitely restructured with the beginning of the prison sequence, but I do not think that it necessarily becomes convoluted. On the contrary, it felt more or less like the film was just beginning, with good reason as well, since prison was part of the story that went on until the very final scenes.
You are absolutely right about comedy rarely getting acclaim, which is actually quite unfair, because comedy requires a lot of talent in writing to make anything even remotely funny, and as if that was not enough, the actors have to accomplish the delivery with an interpretation of their own which still has to comply with the intention of the writers. It goes without saying that a director also works quite differently when they direct a comedy film. To break it down, I think Stir Crazy’s writing -and I mean this only in terms of comedy- was nothing huge. There were some puns in the script that put a smile on my face, but I think mainly Pryor and Wilder’s performances were the real reason why Stir Crazy was funny, as well as Poitier’s sequences arrangement and swift scene-changing, which worked very well for the script. So yes, I think that Stir Crazy is a successful comedy.
I do have some (very limited) experience with both Pryor and Wilder, but I would still like to ask, for myself and on behalf of the readers: which movies of Pryor and Wilder would you suggest for someone who enjoyed Stir Crazy?
Nick: That is a fair point Alper, I wonder how this film could have progressed without the prison narrative. There are some minor road movie elements under the surface somewhere in the beginning but point being, the film is still an enjoyable watch with plenty of laughs. Good observations about writing and acting, I think the well thought out direction of Poitier in Stir Crazy keeps Wilder and Pryor in close proximity to each other and this helps them play off each other so well. While I do think there are many faults within the plot, one advantage comedy does have, despite the numerous disadvantages discussed, is the freedom to let the conventional narrative strictness slip away slightly; let the dynamic duo do what they do best and cause mayhem. The prison stereotypes, the neoliberal commentary and the prods at the American Dream all work even if the plot isn’t completely concise.
The duo are worth seeing together in Arthur Hiller‘s See No Evil, Hear No Evil – this was a personal favourite as a young kid, another absolutely absurd plot that is carried by the goofy antics of a blind and deaf protagonist. There is evident chemistry between them and Pryor’s nervous energy is heightened by Wilder’s naive optimism in whatever they have appeared in. I would also recommend seeing the pair separated, Wilder in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is excellent and Pryor in Blue Collar, both more serious roles which demonstrate the range of their talents. To wrap up, I’d like to finish with credit to the late Sidney Poitier, a generational talent whose memory in film history will be honoured forever.