When it was announced that Marlon Wayans and not Eddie Murphy would be portraying Richard Pryor in the long-discussed biopic of the comedy giant, the news was greeted with Internet jeering. Wayans wasn't surprised when he read the disparaging comments -- you can't hang your star on films like "White Chicks" and "Little Man" without consequences.
"Look, I want to be able to make the stupidest movies ever, because they make people laugh and they make money," Wayans recently said with a smirk. "But that's not all I want to do. And I think I've proven to some people -- the ones paying attention -- that I can do more. Everybody else, well, they can wait and see and make up their mind."
Wayans believes he is on the verge of winning over skeptics and just maybe establishing a name for himself that goes beyond his status as "the other Wayans" -- or maybe even "the other-other-Wayans." The 37-year-old is the youngest of 10 children in the show-business brood that came to fame on "In Living Color," the 1990s television show created and written by Keenen Ivory Wayans and Damon Wayans. His position in the family photo has given Marlon Wayans plenty of opportunity -- he and sibling Shawn got their own show, "The Wayans Brothers," for four seasons on Fox beginning in 1995 -- but also an ongoing challenge in establishing anything resembling an individual identity.
"I have no complaints," Wayans said, "but I do have a plan. I love doing comedy, but I also love to do drama."
When it comes to laughter and tragedy, it would be hard to think of a figure that bundles them together in more compelling fashion than the late Richard Pryor, a Peoria, Ill., native who grew up in his grandmother's brothel, was expelled from school at age 14 and went on to become a firebrand force in pop culture as a stand-up comic, movie star, writer. When, in 1998, he became the first recipient of the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, he was described by Lawrence Wilker, the president of the Kennedy Center, as a signature voice in the national conversation: "He struck a chord, and a nerve, with America, forcing it to look at large social questions of race and the more tragicomic aspects of the human condition."
The Murphy factor
The effort to bring Pryor's story to the screen has been underway for a number of years and Jennifer Lee Pryor, the comedian's widow, is part of the process. For many months, the conventional assumption was that Murphy would play the lead role. That's not the case. Instead, Wayans arrived at lunch at a Los Angeles restaurant recently with the smile of a man who had a winning lottery ticket in his pocket.
"You need to be lucky in life, but it's also what you do with your luck," said the New York native, who still has sinewy arms from his role in last summer's action movie "G.I. Joe." "I'm ready."
As of now, the defining image of Wayans in the public mind is likely a tiny con man impersonating an infant in the 2006 film "Little Man," which was made with some unsettling CG-effects. There's also 2004's "White Chicks," another gimmicky farce, where he played a black FBI agent in rubbery pale-face drag. The films were relentlessly crass and made a combined $215 million in worldwide box office. Many film critics, of course, were aghast, among them British writer Mark Kermode, who wrote, "There is no pit deep enough in the world to dispose of every single copy of this film. . . . 'Little Man' is bad for the world."
That may well be true, but Wayans is trying to join a surging number of stars who specialize in coarse comedy and then pull their pants back up, step into a drama and ask the moviegoing world to quit laughing (But, seriously, folks. . .). Wayans doesn't have to look far from his family history to see role models.
"In Living Color" alumnus Jim Carrey pretended to talk out of his butt (literally) in "Ace Ventura: Pet Detective" but then won critical acclaim playing Andy Kaufman in "Man on the Moon." Will Ferrell and Jamie Foxx have had similar successes, and Adam Sandler, producer of the Pryor film project, with films such as "Punch-Drunk Love" and "Spanglish" has aspired to be art-house as well as outhouse in his screen times.
For Wayans, "Richard Pryor: Is It Something I Said?" (which begins shooting in the fall) is the sound of opportunity. "This is like an invitation to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro for me, and I've never been more excited in my life than when I got the role," he said last week. "I want to be in dramas, I want to produce, I want to write and I want to prove I can handle a role such as this one."
Fans of "Little Man" might have missed an earlier flash of dramatic ambition from Wayans. In 2000, he held his own in a cast with Oscar winners Ellen Burstyn and Jennifer Connelly and gave a shuddering performance as a hard-luck heroin addict in Darren Aronofsky's junkie epic "Requiem for a Dream."