The names Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro in tandem on a movie poster are a seal of quality for many a film lover. The pair have had a hand in some of the darkest and most thrilling moments that mainstream American cinema has had to offer, often making the blood curdle and the adrenalin shoot into overdrive.
Their films together excel in exploring the outer limits of machismo, psychosis and extreme violence, with little or no regard for the censor or those of a nervous disposition. Taxi Driver, Mean Streets, Goodfellas, Raging Bull. These aren’t just your run of the mill Saturday drive-ins, these are some of the most original films of their time, and ones that get better with repeated viewings.
One film missing from that list is Scorsese’s biting satire on the nature of celebrity: The King of Comedy. Underappreciated at the time of release, it has been re-evaluated over the years and is now regarded as a major work in both their careers. It also has extra relevance for the media-soaked society of today that’s obsessed with stargazing.
The King of Comedy was Scorsese’s follow up to his award-winning boxing biopic Raging Bull, again with De Niro in the lead role. It was the opening film at Cannes in 1983 and was released later that year.
Scorsese was actually set on making his torturous biblical epic The Last Temptation of Christ as his next film. However De Niro, coming off a Best Actor Oscar for his gruelling portrayal of Jake La Motta, wanted to make a comedy (can you blame him?), and presented Scorsese with a script that had been lying around Hollywood for years, written by film critic Paul Zimmerman.
Set in a noisy and bustling New York City, The King of Comedy tells the story of Rupert Pupkin, an autograph hunter verging on stalker and wannabe stand-up comedian, who daydreams his way into the life of his hero: talk-show host Jerry Langford.
A chance encounter between the pair backstage after one of Jerry’s shows leads the delusional Rupert to believe he has a shot at stardom. However, after a series of knockbacks and humiliations, Rupert, along with his seriously unhinged female accomplice Masha, also a Jerry-worshipper, take matters into their own hands and kidnap Jerry in an attempt to fulfil both their dreams.
This is very much an actor’s movie driven by character, dialogue and a simple plot, rather than Scorsese’s usual frenetic camerawork and editing. De Niro plays totally against type as the naïve and hapless nobody Pupkin (“often mispronounced and misspelled”). With his hair plastered to his forehead in a terrible matted side-parting, his pencil moustache and cheesy grin spreading over his face, and his grey three-piece suit and red tie/hanky combo looking cheap and gimmicky, Rupert Pupkin is one of the all-time great cinematic geeks.
It’s a brilliant characterisation from the award winning actor, and a long way from his heroic and macho roles in The Deer Hunter and The Godfather Part II.
De Niro’s finest moments come about during Rupert’s daydreams. These are mostly would-be scenarios that he imagines taking place between himself and Jerry.
Rupert’s basement bedroom is a shrine to Jerry and the show, with life-sized cardboard cutouts of his idols and a full-scale mural of an enraptured audience, in front of which he practices his comedy routine. In a scarily funny interlude, Rupert, imagining that he now has his own talk show, conducts a one-sided conversation with said cutouts of both Liza Minnelli and Jerry as his guests until he’s interrupted by the shrill voice of his mother ordering him to keep the noise down. It’s De Niro at his loopy best, acting and reacting against silence as if in front of a CGI blue screen.
The film critic Pauline Kael has described Pupkin as “Jake La Motta without fists”. But surely Rupert bares closer resemblance to De Niro and Scorsese’s other great disturbed dreamer, Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle? Both characters live out their lives as a daydream and at times the lines between fantasy and reality are misty to say the least. Both of their escapisms are born of frustration and alienation with the world at large.
Travis dreams his violent hallucinations with good intentions. His distress is spawned from what he sees around him and his wish for a better world. However, Rupert’s flights of fancy are totally tied up with his own dreams of celebrity and stardom. His total and undiluted faith in himself and his talents are as misplaced as his terrible jokes. So that when reality comes crashing home he takes desperate measures to fulfil what he believes to be his destiny as being crowned the new King of Comedy.
Who is the more dangerous then – Travis or Rupert? Travis wants to help people. Rupert ends up threatening Jerry, the lines between love and hatred crossing over via our good, old friend: jealousy.
Alongside De Niro, acting honours go to Jerry Lewis as his namesake Jerry Langford and Sandra Bernhard as Masha. Lewis made a career of playing wacky, goofy roles in screwball comedies during the fifties and sixties alongside Dean Martin. In fact both Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra were considered for the role of Langford before Scorsese settled on Jerry Lewis, and the former funny man brings a weathered seriousness to the role.
The pressures of celebrity are always apparent in the creases on his forehead, in his terror as he tries to exit backstage from a gig surrounded by baying and clawing fans, and in his pent-up rage when faced with a deluded Rupert turning up at his house in the Hamptons for the weekend. It’s a powerful and understated performance.
Bernhard provides an uncomfortable raw carnal presence as Masha, even more besotted with Jerry than Rupert is. Striding through midtown Manhattan stalking her prey, Bernhard plays Masha as a sexual terrorist who will stop at nothing to get her man.
At that stage in her career, Bernhard was a budding stand-up comedian and she uses all the uncompromising improvisational skills she learned in the clubs to bring Masha to life. Her guerrilla tactics come to a head in Masha’s one scene alone with Jerry. Stripped to her underwear in her apartment, she sits opposite a gagged and gaffer-taped Jerry over a perfectly laid dinner table, informing him in no uncertain terms what the evening has in store for him. It’s a scene played to perfection by both actors, and also beautifully shot by Scorsese. Lit by candles alone, it is almost Kubrick-like in its clarity and eye for minute detail.
The King of Comedy has rich black humour in spades, celebrating the comedy of humiliation at its core. Not surprising then really, that a proud and Conservative Reagan-era America found it difficult to identify with the themes and characters on show.
Indeed, The King of Comedy was a commercial and critical failure – “The Flop of the Year” as Entertainment Tonight announced it on air.
The film also provided a juncture point in Scorsese and De Niro’s careers. The pair were not to work together again until 1990 with Goodfellas. Scorsese had toned down his style and subject matter for The King of Comedy and his next two movies, After Hours and The Color of Money followed suit, being much quieter affairs.
However the stakes were ramped up again rapidly for his last film of the 80s – The Last Temptation of Christ.
Despite its initial unpopularity, The King of Comedy is a very entertaining film. Along with Sidney Lumet’s Network, it’s one of the most insightful movies about the power of television and its effect on the TV generation. Today The King of Comedy has more relevance than ever. In a world where people will do anything to the point of embarrassment for their fifteen minutes, and where bog standard reality shows bestow celebrity and stardom on those with little or nothing to say for themselves, the movie has a harsh ring of truth.
Is it really better to be a king for a night than a schmuck for a lifetime?
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