Monday, May 4, 2009

The Films of Martin Scorsese Part XII: The King of Comedy

The King of Comedy (1983) ****
Directed By: Martin Scorsese.
Written By: Paul D. Zimmerman.
Starring: Robert De Niro (Rupert Pupkin), Jerry Lewis (Jerry Langford), Diahnne Abbott (Rita Keane), Sandra Bernhard (Masha), Shelley Hack (Cathy Long), Ed Herlihy (Ed Herlihy), Catherine Scorsese (Rupert's Mom), Cathy Scorsese (Dolores), Tony Randal (Himself), Martin Scorsese (TV Director).

Remember that scene in Taxi Driver where DeNiro is on the phone getting rejected by Cybil Shepherd, and the camera slowly pans away because the rejection is too painful to watch. Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy is like the scene played out over the course of an entire feature, except this time his camera never looks away. Adding to the pain is the fact that Rupert Pupkin (Robert DeNiro) in The King of Comedy doesn’t seem to realize that he’s being continually rejected. He keeps thinking that there must be some sort of mistake or misunderstanding.

Pupkin is a 34 year guy who tells people he works in “communications”, but what that really means is that he delivers packages to people. He lives at home with his mother, and spends most of his time in the basement. He fancies himself the next “King of Comedy”, and wants to be just like Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis), a late night talk show host on TV. So convinced Pupkin is of his genius, that he doesn’t feel the need to actually work on his material in front of a live audience. He doesn’t attend open night mike nights at comedy clubs, and or anything like that. He wants to be on TV.

One night, Pupkin is actually able to talk to Langford. A crazed fan, Masha (Sandra Bernhard) is able to sneak into Langford’s limo, and while security is dragging her out, Langford is stuck on the sidewalk being swarmed by fans. Pupkin helps to hold the crowd back, and when Langford jumps into the limo, Pupkin follows. While in the car, the two talk, and Pupkin tries to convince Langford to put him on the show as a comedian. It is immediately apparent to the audience that Langford is simply humoring Pupkin, telling him what he wants to hear in order to get rid of him, but to Pupkin this is a bonding moment between these them. He imagines himself and Jerry as “friends” now. Langford tells him to stop by the office to see his assistant Cathy Long (Shelley Hack) to see about getting on the show.

So that’s exactly what Pupkin does. He keeps phoning the studio and asking for Langford, and then he continues to stop by to try and see him. Cathy is nice to him – a lot nicer than perhaps she should be – and humors him when he drops off a tape. When she says that he’s not ready for the show yet, he gets angry, but unlike most Scorsese characters, he doesn’t explode into rage, but rather just sits down and waits to Langford to come see him. His escorted out of the building by security, heads make in, and then is thrown out by security. He keeps thinking that everyone has made a mistake, and if only he could talk to Jerry, everything would be fine. He’s wrong.

In high school, Pupkin had a crush on Rita (Diahanne Abbott) and after he and Jerry become “friends”, he tracks her and down and brags to her about it. That is something flattering to Rita, now working in a dingy bar, that this guy from high school, even if he was a loser, still remembers her and still likes her. She agrees to go out with him, but on their date, again it becomes clear that she thinks he is pathetic. She flirts with a guy sitting behind Rupert, who sits their mocks him without him knowing it. But when Pupkin insists that he and Jerry are friends, and to prove it, invites her to come along with him for a weekend at Jerry’s beach house, she agrees. The scene that follows is perhaps the most painful in all of Scorsese’s films.

Pupkin and Rita arrive at Jerry’s beach house, even though, of course they have not been invited (except during one of Pupkin’s fantasy sequences. At different times, he imagine Jerry begging him to take over the show for him, while a beautiful young girl asks Pupkin for an autograph and ignores Jerry, being on Jerry’s show, where Jerry has arranged for Pupkin’s old high school principal to marry him and Rita and apologize on behalf of the school for treating him so poorly, and of course Jerry praising Rupert as a genius, and telling him to come out that weekend so the two of them can work on the material). Jerry’s butler doesn’t know what to do, and tracks Jerry down on the golf course to tell he must come home right away. Jerry does, and he’s none too pleased with Rupert. He remembers him from the limo, and undoubtedly heard about what he did at the office, and he wants Rupert out as soon as possible. This scene marks the change in the movie – the rejection is now so painfully clear, that even Pupkin realizes it (although he fights it for a long time). Pupkin now realizes what he has to do – kidnap Jerry and force his producers to let him on the show. That he does, with the help of his Masha, the crazed fan from the opening scene, who is similar to Pupkin, but much more outgoing. She is love with Jerry – not because he is physically attractive (this is, after all, Jerry Lewis), but because if she was with him, she would be someone – instead of a nobody, which is what she is.

That is essentially how Pupkin feels as well. Neither of these characters really “loves” Jerry, as they claim to. They want to use Jerry for their own gain. In fact, Pupkin doesn’t really want to be Jerry’s friend, or even be Jerry – he wants to be better than Jerry. He wants to bury Jerry and become even more famous than he is. Jerry is simply a means to an end for him – and when he can’t get what he wants one way, he resorts to another.

Pupkin in his way, is just as deranged and violent as Travis Bickle is in Taxi Driver. But unlike Bickle, he doesn’t direct his rage outward, but keeps it bottled up inside. Every line DeNiro delivers in the film is full of hostility and hatred, even when h seems to be outwardly polite. Watch how he talks to Cathy Long, Jerry’s assistant, when she tells him he won’t be on the show. “Do you speak for Jerry?” he asks, which of course is a nice way of saying “Who the fuck are you to tell me I can’t be on the show?”. Like Bickle, Pupkin spends most of his time by himself in his house, lost in his own fantasy world. He has life sized cutouts of Jerry and Liza Minelli set up on chairs there and he conducts his own talk show from there. He’s scenes there are disturbing, as he sits there and laughs at the jokes that Jerry tells that no one, other than Pupkin, can hear.

Scorsese has said that this is DeNiro’s finest performance, and it is easy to see why he feels that way. This is not a performance where DeNiro gets to let out his rage – like in Taxi Driver or Raging Bull – but has to keep it locked inside. He is not a wounded, masculine character, but rather a geek, and DeNiro fully embraces the character, and makes Pupkin disturbingly real. I don’t think Jerry Lewis has ever been better in a film – in a role not that far from himself, and one he must have instantly indentified with. When you’re famous, you meet people on the street, who profess to love you, but you got to be always thinking what they really want from you. Watch a scene where a woman on the street tells Jerry he’s a national treasure, but when he refuses to take the phone to talk to her sick nephew because he’s running late, she yells at him that she hopes he gets cancer. It can turn that quickly. Bernhard is scarily intense as Masha – and seems completely deranged. You are never sure just what she is going to do next. And Diahanne Abbott has a hard role as a woman who feels sorry for Pupkin, but gets humiliated by him. Much like Cybil Shepherd in Taxi Driver, she is the object of the hero’s affection, even after she no longer wants to be.

Scorsese has admitted that he was depressed while making The King of Comedy, and at times, he didn’t really want to be on set. Whether or not this explains the difference between the visual style of this film compared to his others, what I will say is that the style works for this movie. Normally, Scorsese’s camera is restless and alive, while here it rarely moves. The effect of this is twofold – one it mirrors the visual look of TV, where the camera seldom moves, and two it traps the characters inside the frame of the film, much as they are each trapped in their lives in a real way. Pupkin is very much like other Scorsese characters, except he never gets to have a cathartic explosion like Bickle or LaMotta do. By not giving us this catharsis, Scorsese forces us to simply sit back and observe, and it makes us uncomfortable. In a way, this makes the film all the more impressive, if a little bit less satisfying than some of his other films. The audience, much like the characters, crave that catharsis, and when it doesn’t come, we get uneasy.

Upon its release in 1983, The King of Comedy was viewed as a bomb by most critics and audiences stayed away. But in the years since, it has become a cult classic. It’s influence can be seen everywhere, most recently in Observe and Report, about a delusional mall security guard. The film has also become rather prophetic about the age of celebrity we now find ourselves in. Like Sidney Lumet’s Network (1976), what was once seen as a satire, or perhaps even a paranoid fantasy, has now become all too real. In 1983, people questioned whether the end of the film was real, or just another one of Pupkin’s wild fantasies. In 2009, I doubt very much that audiences would find the end of the movie a stretch at all. It’s now something we see every day.

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