One of the great Martin Scorsese films, and featuring a career-best performance by Robert De Niro, yet strangely not generally well-known or well-loved, The King of Comedy is perhaps too difficult a film to attract widespread mainstream appeal. But for those who know and love it, it is one of the greatest character studies in cinema, and a savage swipe at the culture of celebrity.
Scorsese’s best films, from Mean Streets onwards, have focused on individuals with conflicting ideas about their own identities, and how these fit in with the expectations of their friends, followers and peers. Mean Streets confronted us with Charlie Cappa’s self-doubt, and feelings of responsibility for his wild friend Jonny Boy, even when this becomes self-destructive. Taxi Driver focused on Travis Bickle, lonely and alienated from society but wanting to make a difference, to have some reason for existence. Raging Bull was an exploration of how boxer Jake La Motta’s enforced repression of his confused sexuality resulted in violent self-destruction.
Taxi Driver and Raging Bull present us with odd, rather pathetic and dislikable protagonists; but in The King of Comedy we see Scorsese’s greatest anti-hero: Rupert Pupkin. At first he appears harmless, even an object for our sympathy: his gaudy clothing, awful sense of humour, terrible chat-up lines, the way that everyone pronounces his name wrong. His general pitifulness seem to suggest that this is a born-loser, a man who in many a film we would like to see ultimately triumph and find his redemption.
This is where The King of Comedy is difficult; as the film progresses we see more and more that Pupkin is not a sympathetic character at all. He is a vain egotist, utterly convinced of his own self importance, with seemingly no regard for anyone: not his mother, not his friends, not his colleagues, not even Jerry Langford, the talk-show host he apparently reveres. Also, through a series of slightly unreal sequences, we can see that he is a Walter Mitty-like fantasist who sees himself as a famous talk-show host and comedian. What is wrong with this, you may ask? The film makes it abundantly clear that this fantasy world is what is feeding into his deluded self-regard, turning him into more and more of a sociopathic monster. With this, this pathetic character, far from being a harmless geek, becomes more and more appalling. His permanent false smile and kindly tone scarcely hide his contempt for everyone and everything standing in his way from stardom.
One fantasy scene sums all of this up. Pupkin’s old school headmaster, who clearly used to dislike him, appears on a nationwide television show to perform a marriage ceremony between Pupkin and Rita, the popular girl he wanted to ask out at school. During the ‘ceremony’, the teacher asks for Rupert’s forgiveness for the way everyone treated him when he was younger, and to thank him for the “meaning you’ve given to our lives”. What Pupkin is dreaming is not some idle boyish fantasy; he is creating a completely fabricated redemption for himself and his failures in life, and motivated not out of despair, but from a desire for revenge.
The strange tone of the film is an intriguing one. Unlike other Scorsese films, there is no real sense of physical menace; instead we see a something different, and perhaps more menacing: celebrity. It inhabits the film, from both sides of the fame divide: Pupkin’s delusions of grandeur and bizarre fantasy world, and Jerry Langford’s interactions with the general New York public in the street – sometimes pleasant, sometimes abusive. Pupkin wants to enter this apparently glamourous, mysterious world, while at times Langford seems to want to escape it. As is so often Scorsese’s trademark, New York is at the centre of this; Langford at the top of inpenetrable ivory towers, Pupkin and his co-conspirator Masha down at street level with the ‘street scum’.
What was Scorsese’s intent in making the film? I see it as a direct companion piece to Taxi Driver, but as that film’s evil alter-ego. Both films’ protagonists are loners, wanting to find meaning in their lives. But while Travis Bickle is confused and not sure how to go about finding his raison d’etre, eventually comitting a violent act which leads to his ‘redemption’, Rupert Pupkin is motivated by hate and revenge, but achieves his success by other means. It is commonly thought that the film’s creation was inspired by the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan in 1981, by John Hinckley, Jr. He was said to have been obsessed by Jodie Foster, and ‘inspired’ to into his act by Taxi Driver. His fascination for fame and celebrity may well have provoked Scorsese into making a sarcastic comment about the increasingly volatile nature of this culture.
The film’s lead and support performances are superb. Jerry Lewis is great as the ageing, weary talkshow host Jerry Langford. Sandra Bernhard is wonderfully unhinged as the obsessive Masha; one memorable scene where the two have a dinner ‘date’, after the latter has kidnapped and tied up the former, is simultaneously hilarious and disturbing (two words which often apply to Bernhard). There are excellent supports from Shelley Hack and Diahnne Abbott, and numerous cameos including Tony Randall, Joyce Brothers, Scorsese himself and various members of his family, as well as a cardboard Liza Minelli. Pay close attention and you can also spot members of The Clash in the background to one scene.
But the film belongs to Robert De Niro. His transformation into the pathetic, creepy Rupert Pupkin is simply breathtaking. Consider his previous roles: Jake La Motta, Vito Corleone, Johnny Boy, Travis Bickle; none bear any resemblance to what is on show here. In one early, brief shot we see Pupkin push at a ‘pull’ door, before realising his error and pulling it. Amazingly, in what is a seemingly simple gesture, we see De Niro invest in his character a lifetime of pain – watch carefully how he reacts physically, his body exhibiting a depressed but predictable resignation. Easily missed, but simply amazing. Later in the film, there is an extended one-take scene where he performs a long stand-up comedy routine, in character; ever the Method actor, there is the rumour that he researched the role by closely studying other stand-up comedians, and eventually performing his own routines onstage himself. The brilliance of his performance, though, is not that he is a fantastic comedian; it is that he is terrible. The old adage goes that a great actor can play a bad actor well. By the same logic, it takes a great performer to play a bad one. De Niro does this.
The King of Comedy was a flop on its release, grossing only $2.5million on a budget of $20million. It simply did not find an audience, probably arising from the problem that it was a film with ‘comedy’ in the title, yet it wasn’t actually that funny. However, it is slowly beginning to be recognised as a true classic, and more and more viewers are seeing it for what it actually is: a sharp, savage satire on fame and the dislikable misfits who seek to gain it at any cost. It is more relevant than ever given today’s obsession with the culture of celebrity.