Street Smart

Street Smart

“Manypeeplia Upsidownia”

Is Morgan Freeman the greatest American actor? Back in 1980, in a late-night-over-drinks conversation, a friend and I wound up agreeing that maybe he was. That was after seeing him in plays and on television and, earlier that night, in BRUBAKER. As a death-row prisoner who broke out of his hole and started to strangle another convict, he gave the film a sudden charge that the moviemakers didn't seem to know what to do with. Freeman just shot out onto the screen, and then his character was dropped from the story. After seeing him in the new Jerry Schatzberg film, STREET SMART, I don't think that my friend and I were too far off. This is probably the first major screen role he's ever had, and he turns a haphazardly written Times Square pimp into something so revealing that it's a classic performance. Tall and slim, and looking like a very handsome, elongated Richard Pryor, he gives the role of Fast Black a scary, sordid magnetism, and he gives the picture some bite. Fast Black is old for a pimp; he's heading toward fifty, and he has watchful eyes; they're weary and shifty—you wouldn't want to look into them. This man's coiled power is in his complete lack of scruple; it's in his willingness to resort to violence. So it's best not to make the mistake of thinking that you can put anything over on him. He's seductive—he has a veneer of affability—but he's all contradictions; you never know where you are with him except right this minute, and the minute can be cut short. Magically, Morgan Freeman sustains Fast Black's authenticity; it's like sustaining King Lear inside GIDGET GOES HAWAIIAN.

Christopher Reeve plays Jonathan, a privileged young man trying to be a smooth hotshot; he has gone from Harvard to free-lance writing for a weekly "lifestyle" magazine like New York. Lately, his facility has been failing him, and when he pitches ideas the editor (Andre Gregory) barely listens to him, until he comes up with "twenty-four hours in the life of a pimp." The editor jumps at it and wants it fast; Jonathan assures him that he has the contacts, and then he goes out to try to find them. He can't, so he fabricates the story—that's what the screenwriter, David Freeman, did. when he published "The Lifestyle of a Pimp” in New York for May 5, 1969. It created no big stir; there were no dire results, and no big-time benefits, either. In the movie, though, we get the screenwriter's fantasies of all the things that could or should have happened. Doggedly, he piles them on: Jonathan's fiction appears as a cover story and is such a wow that he becomes the editor's pet and a celebrity; he's hired to appear on the local TV news as a roving reporter specializing in street life; his apocryphal pimp is somehow thought to be based on Fast Black, who is facing a murder charge; Fast Black seeks Jonathan out and gets to know him, and when the editor wants to meet the pimp it's Fast Black that Jonathan introduces; both the assistant D.A. and Fast Black's lawyer are now on Jonathan's tail; a judge orders him to turn over his nonexistent notes, and he goes to jail when he refuses. Eventually, after Jonathan's girlfriend (Mimi Rogers) has been knifed and a prostitute called Punchy (Kathy Baker) has been killed, the new, wised-up, devious Jonathan gives in to Fast Black's pressure, fakes notes that clear the pimp of the murder charge, and then, in the screenwriter's final (most synthetic) twist, outwits Fast Black for all time.

Often underrated, Jerry Schatzberg can make viewers feel the beauty and excitement of everyday grit. (He even brings off the trick of using Montreal for most of the Manhattan locations.) Schatzberg knows how to tell a story visually: in a hotel-room scene between Jonathan and Punchy, the movements of the actors and the camera show us layers of sexual gamesmanship building up. He makes the script look and play better than it deserves to. But he can't give it conviction, rootedness. He can't conceal the author's thin, brassy attitudes: this screenwriter is out to show that everybody is corrupt, that everybody uses everybody, and so on. Most of the performers do their damnedest. Kathy Baker's Punchy looks as if she'd be called Punchy; at times she's as forlorn as an alcoholic who has been falling face down. Baker's face seems to go out of focus, as if her expressions had changed too fast for the camera—but in sexual situations her face takes on an all-out intelligent sexiness. As a hooker, she makes you feel she's a pro who delivers pleasure. (She even gets by with seducing Jonathan to Aretha Franklin singing "Natural Woman.") Andre Gregory is terrific as the heartless, dryly self-amused editor. Trim and dandified, he's more than pleased with himself: he's his own yes-man. Gregory is some kind of eccentric genius: this editor inflects smugness, cackling at his own cleverness, leaving a trail of media slime.

Morgan Freeman wears long fingernails (proof that Fast Black is not a laboring man); he has the accompaniment of funky music and Miles Davis's trumpet; and he's terrifying in a battle of wills with Punchy, who has made the mistake of thinking they're friends. But Christopher Reeve has no peculiarities, no distinctive musical backup, and no threat. He's a big nothing. Reeve is willing to play Jonathan as a suck-up who's trying to make his name. But as an actor he's physically too inexpressive to play inexpressiveness; it isn't the character who's a lug—it's Reeve. (When Jonathan's girlfriend marvels at his wonderful article and asks where the material came from, he crooks a finger to his skull. I blinked, expecting the finger to go right through.) Reeve has a personality when he's Superman; here, though, he doesn't seem to do anything but play what's on paper (diffidendy), and it isn't enough. In the scenes where Jonathan thinks he can hold his own with Fast Black and discovers he's a helpless babe, Reeve isn't bad. His clumsiness works when he's up against Morgan Freeman's dancerlike swiftness; this taut actor can whip him with an eyelash. But when Jonathan gains the cunning to out-street-smart Fast Black it's a joke—an Ivy League white boy's dream of glory. We're supposed to take his victory as proof that he's learned his lesson and become a dirty realist. Actually, it's just a confirmation that the plot is a sham. Screenwriters who come on with the scoop that we're all pimps should just speak for themselves.

[April 20, 1987]

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