Criterion Prediction #84: The King of Comedy, by Alexander Miller
Title: The King of Comedy
Director: Martin Scorsese
Cast: Robert De Niro, Sandra Bernhard, Jerry Lewis, Diahnne Abbott, Shelly Hack, Catherine Scorsese
Synopsis: Rupert Pupkin (De Niro) is an unhinged aspiring comedian who ends up stalking and kidnapping his idol, Jerry Langford (Lewis), a late night talk show host. His motive? Pupkin needs to have an opening spot to try out his material on The Jerry Langford Show.
Critique: By 1983, Martin Scorsese had arrived and established his status as a filmmaker, laying out his specific yet varied trademarks both thematic and stylistic. While the New Hollywood was a veritable harvest of robust imagination, Scorsese broke form with his raw, but expressive brand of directing: deeply personal, yet unafraid of declarative homage informing audiences he’s just as much a cineaste as he is an artist.
The King of Comedy follows Scorsese and De Niro’s thread of staggering success–Mean Streets, Taxi Driver and Raging Bull–the only exception being the commercial failure of New York, New York. This ascension of Scorsese and De Niro’s collaboration is unique in that the director and actor venture into comedic territory, maintaining a recurring air of misanthropy. In some ways, this echoes the tone of Taxi Driver in that it feels like Pupkin is Travis Bickle’s estranged brother. Or are we seeing an alternate fate for Bickle, where he was spared the horrors of Vietnam? Giving his psychosis an alternative path–diverging from the self-appointed role of a righteous avenger–here his self-delusion is emblematic of the residual fallout from the me generation as it was veering into the yuppie era.
Rupert Pupkin is an unforgettable character whose thorough realization by De Niro is some of his bravest work. What gives the film such a keen sensibility in its satirical reach lies in De Niro’s psychological devotion to the character; he could have played Pupkin lightly, making him a farcical mark. But there’s a coarse, fully exposed charge in his performance, at times childish but emotionally volatile.
De Niro is juxtaposed with Lewis’ astute realization of the slightly disaffected talk show host Jerry Langford. It’s hard to ignore the symbolic value of the passing of the old guard to the new; Lewis, a stalwart of the studio system has the old school swagger is that of a show business veteran. Langford feels a little tired, he likes what he used to love doing, the master of goofy faces and slapstick comes off as hard and moody, and his contribution is oft overlooked.
The two leads were already household names but the discovery of Sandra Bernhard is something special. Her screen presence is hypnotizing, carrying a spirited zeal to each scene she’s in; Masha and Rupert spit fire at each other, and she holds her own each time.
This time around, Scorsese knows the values of restraint; the kinetic energy typified in Taxi Driver, and Raging Bull is so identifiable, it’s as if we’re seeing the director’s own nervy and excited vocal inflections come to life on screen. However, his busy sensibilities retreat when he’s operating on varying creative planes; evidenced (at this point in time with Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore) The King of Comedy isn’t accentuated with erratic cuts, musical cues, but with a scathingly smart and swift script that’s %110 more prophetic than we’d like it to be. The obligatory nod to the permeating societal overtones informing the script at the time, (Hearst kidnapping, Lennon shooting, Tate/La Bianca murders) is in order and falls in with the forecastable poignancy of Altman’s finale in Nashville. Both filmmakers seem to recognize something in, and of our collective social miasma and unfortunately, they’ve both been right.
Scorsese said “The King of Comedy was right on the edge for us; we couldn’t go any further at the time.” and luckily for our sakes, they went as far they did.
Why it Belongs in the Collection: When it comes to Scorsese, I feel like The King of Comedy is like a secret handshake or sign of recognition among movie fans. We all know and love Goodfellas, Mean Streets and The Departed but The King of Comedy is by default overshadowed. It’s something of social currency among cinephiles, movie buffs, or whatever the preferable term is. Criterion’s catalog is getting bigger in size and scope but one of the fun aspects is seeing lesser seen or comparatively overlooked films from major directors. Surely some of this is a result of availability and distribution rights, with early spine numbers such as David Lean’s Summertime, Brief Encounter, Roman Polanski’s Knife in the Water, and of course Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ being among them. Distribution patterns aside, the headline reason for The King of Comedy getting the Criterion treatment is that it’s an excellent Scorsese movie and it would be a delight to see more of his work in the collection.