With Sea of Love, Novelist Richard Price Drops Anchor Among Hollywood's Writer Elite
Inside 150 Wooster Street, New York City’s only place to be seen (this week), where people with very good hair and drop-dead clothes and studied arrogance drink and eat and laugh about, oh, nothing really, Richard Price remains wary, a stranger in a strange land. As ever. On the one hand, he’s one of them—the acclaimed novelist, the Oscar-nominated screenwriter (The Color of Money) whose latest success, Sea of Love, has catapulted him into that rarefied stratum of Hollywood scribes able to command more than $500,000 per script. (Critic David Denby calls him “the best screenwriter in the country.”) On the other hand, Price leads a double, triple, quadruple life. “One day I’m doing double cheek kisses in a chi-chi restaurant, the next day I’m talking to crackheads,” he says. “Then I’m at the premiere of Sea of Love. Then I’m with my family in East Hampton. It’s like hippy hippy shake.”
The collision of worlds may in fact be the secret of Price’s success. In 1974 he detonated a literary land mine by writing about his hometown—the Bronx—and its projects and gangs. The Wanderers made real and personal a place most people saw as dark and impenetrable. Two years later Bloodbrothers stalked the same territory, but Price, 40, has also successfully applied his jazzed-up prose and fierce ear for dialogue to the shadow-sphere of pool hustling (The Color of Money) and the SoHo art scene (the Martin Scorsese-directed segment of New York Stories).
Getting to the gritty heart of a story leads Price to deep immersion in his subjects. To research Sea of Love, a crime thriller in which a cop (Al Pacino) falls for his No. 1 suspect (Ellen Barkin), he followed a team of homicide investigators. “I got totally wrapped up in their world,” he says. “They all wear guns and have these life-and-death stories. You get sucked in.” Currently researching his next novel, about a crack murder, Price is spending time in penitentiaries and crack dens. He occasionally volunteers as a creative-writing teacher in the Bronx’s Daytop Village, a drug rehab clinic.
When he wrote The Wanderers, a collection of stories about a teenage gang from a Bronx housing project, no such research was needed—Price had lived it. The son of a window dresser who never made more than $7,000 a year and a housewife who later worked as a bank teller, he grew up in a “stricken area that was full of Life of Riley-type guys.” But he had a literary role model in his grandfather Morris Price, who worked in a silver-plating factory. “He read a lot and wrote poems and little dramatic dialogues,” remembers Price. “No one else for a country mile was doing it. In a working-class culture, the arts are not very important.”
They became very important to Price, who was born with cerebral palsy that left him slightly disabled on his right side. “It had a definite impact on my self-image,” says Richard, who writes with a left-handed scrawl on legal pads that are later sent to a typist. As a child he scribbled poems and horror stories to impress his father, who held his grandfather in awe. “I thought, This is what people do to get loved around here? Okay, I’ll do that.’ My whole self-esteem was tied into the drama of being a writer.” Later he wrote, among other reasons, to impress girls. “Of course,” he says, with characteristic, low-key humor. “You eat to impress girls. You breathe to impress girls.”
In 1967 Price won a partial scholarship to Cornell. “I felt like a Martian there,” he says. “There weren’t any college graduates in the Bronx. A foreigner to me was someone from Brooklyn. I was very intimidated, so I came on very Bronxy. Everybody associates the Bronx as being so spooky anyway, so I capitalized on it.”
He threw himself into college life. “I was hell master of a fraternity,” Price says. “I flirted with SDS. I wanted to be a writer, but I got a degree in labor relations. I wanted to be a beatnik, but I was from the Bronx. I always wanted to be something else. A lot of that went into the writing.”
After graduation he enrolled in a Columbia University creative-writing program. “My parents panicked,” he says. “You’re the first person in your family to go to college, and you tell your parents you want to be a poet, and they go, ‘What?’ ” But when one of his stories was published in the literary journal Antaeus, an editor at Houghton Mifflin asked to see more.
The resulting book was The Wanderers, hailed as “an extraordinary first novel” (Newsweek) and an “outstanding work of art” (Hubert Selby writing in the New York Times Book Review). Richard Price had just turned 24. Despite offers from Hollywood, Price declined to write the screenplay. “The two things to watch out for after your first big success,” he advises, “are drugs and screenplays. I avoided them both.” But when the good notices continued with Bloodbrothers in 1976, Price says he began believing his press: “I thought, ‘Yeah, I am one of these tough shmos from the Bronx.’ ” Unfortunately that image was tied to his youth. “There’s nothing worse than being an aging young person,” he says now. “I don’t like anyone younger than me doing anything.” By 1978, with his third book, Ladies’ Man, behind him, Price had fallen into the celebrity drug vortex. “I know from the past that I’m very vulnerable to anything that could be addictive or destructive. That’s why, doing research for my book now, I’ll do anything but crack myself.”
Price had another close brush during the ’70s—an involvement with the Sullivanians, a controversial New York City—based psychotherapeutic cult that discourages monogamy and advocates separating members from their children. Today he will say only, “It’s a matter of public record that I was in the group.”
Five years ago he married his girlfriend of more than a decade, artist Judy Hudson, now 40. In Hudson, Price, a ladies’ man himself, had found his first serious girlfriend. During their courtship, Judy told him that her favorite song was Phil Phillips’s 1959 “Sea of Love.” “When I asked her to be my steady, I bought a copy of ‘Sea of Love,’ ” he says. “That was the only thing from my life that I put in the movie.”
Stuffed animals belonging to Annie, 4, and Genevieve, 2, now threaten to overtake the unfinished canvases and autographed first editions scattered around the couple’s funky SoHo loft. Richard, a gifted mimic with a cutting, sarcastic streak, softens in the presence of his daughters. “The idea to have kids came to me and Judy at the same time,” he says. “I had that yearning thing you wake up with.” Price can often be seen scurrying them through the streets. “Two hands, two kids,” he says, struggling. “That’s enough.”
“Richard is hilariously funny to live with,” says Judy. “From the minute my eyes open, he starts making me laugh. We’re madly in love. We fight a lot. I’m never bored.”
Price, for his part, is never quite at ease. “I feel uncomfortable with everybody,” he says. And he is a worrier of the first order. “I worry about making up a laundry list—if it involves writing, I’m miserable.” He eyes the stacks of notebooks in his study space—research for the novel—with dread. Though he received a $500,000 advance for his crack novel, he says he is filled with only a “blinding white panic” about producing it.
Still, he won’t trade books for Hollywood. “Screenwriting is invariably a disheartening experience,” he says. “Most screenwriters walk around like the Ancient Mariner—’You should’ve seen what they did to my script.’ In most cases the script is bad too, but not as bad as the movie.” And if the compromise doesn’t kill you, the waiting might. Price wrote Sea of Love in 1986; Dustin Hoffman planned to play Pacino’s part but got tied up with Rain Man. “The script was growing mold,” says Richard. “It was about to cure polio.”
Price has another script in production—his last, he says, about cops—but he retains his several worlds. “I hang out with cops, artists and moviemakers,” he says. “It’s very schizophrenic. But this way I get to tell good stories to each group. I’m the Marco Polo of SoHo.”
—Tim Allis, Victoria Balfour in New York