At a time when the commercial cinema's chief concern is playing things safe, Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro persist in taking bigger risks than ever before in The King of Comedy. Neither a sequel to a previous box-office success, nor an intergalactic hardware epic, nor a trip down a memory lane that never was, this tale of a would-be comic's obsession with a Johnny Carson-styled talk show host is every inch a movie of the Here and Now. The trouble is The King of Comedy's Here and Now cuts too close to the bone for either large-scale mass audience approval or unanimous mainstream critical acclaim.
Sounding for all the world like Ronald Reagan, former Scorsese/De Niro booster Pauline Kael bewails, in her unfavourable review of the film, the passing of "a time when there were idealistic heroes and heroines in movies, a time when there was the promise of sexual fulfilment." The King of Comedy is not devoid of idealism, it's simply that the ideals of its hero — to kidnap the talk show host and take his place on the air — are base. As for sexual fulfilment, it's there in the person of the hero's equally deranged female accomplice. But it's a sexuality that's clearly more threat than promise.
Appearing as it does in the glucose-encrusted era of Gandhi and On Golden Pond, one would think certain leading lights within the critical community, such as Kael, would embrace The King of Comedy as a welcome corrective. But just as it has with ordinary movie-goers, the film has split critical cadres right down the middle. This, perhaps, more than any other reason, is why Scorsese and De Niro's film is so deserving of serious attention. Love it or loathe it, The King of Comedy must be dealt with.
On the surface, The King of Comedy would appear to present fewer problems than the other works of the actor-director team. There's no bloodshed in it (save for a small cut the talk show host suffers at the hands of a crowd of fans), and little in the way of overt physical violence (the threat of violence is a constant). Yet this relative outward calm belies an inner turmoil neither resolved nor fully explained. The basic problem is that the film's leading characters are unlikeable — deliberately so. And more than any other factor, the unwillingness of the film-makers to create "sympathetic" characters with which the viewer can "identify" has been taken by many as a failure of talent, rather than the challenge to ordinary preconceptions that it actually is.
The behaviour of Jake La Motta in Raging Bull and Jimmy Doyle in New York New York, may have rankled many sensibilities, but it wasn't difficult to comprehend these characters' feelings of alienation and insecurity. Johnny Boy in Mean Streets and Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver were self-destructive and borderline-schizophrenic in the extreme, yet their passion and sense of self-awareness were so strong as to make their madness palpable. In The King of Comedy however De Niro's Rupert Pupkin remains something of an enigma from start to finish. His lolling puppy-dog head, wavering toothpick arms, loud polyester suits and simpering sing-song voice suggest a state of almost transcendental nerd-dom. But the specifics of his personal make-up remain largely submerged.
We learn, in the course of the action, that Pupkin lives with his mother (heard only as an off-screen voice in the film) and works for a delivery service, but we know nothing of the forces that turned him into a celebrity-crazed, success-obsessed megalomaniac. Consequently we have no way (as we did with Jake La Motta for example) of anticipating his actions from one moment to the next. Rita (Diahnne Abbott), the barmaid with whom Rupert claims to be smitten (we can't be sure of this either, as every word that comes out of his mouth drips with honeyed insincerity), went to high school with him. But we can only guess at what their relationship was like back then, or why such a bright attractive girl would give a creep like Rupert the time of day. All we learn of Rupert's accomplice Marsha (Sandra Bernhard) is one or two asides about rich unloving parents and time spent in clinics. Even Rupert's victim Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis) is veiled from view. We see him at one point eating dinner alone in his huge glass and steel apartment, but we discover nothing else about his private life. All the film makes us privy to is the spectacle of Pupkin's invasion of Langford's work space and his inversion of its values.
Everything about The King of Comedy is honed to an edge that will produce a precise effect. The action is centred entirely on the characters and their conflict with no room for the niceties of fancy camera angles or movements, or complex editing tricks. It's a film of voices, faces, and physical gestures. But while lacking the obvious visual richness of Raging Bull or New York New York, The King of Comedy's Spartan mise en scene is quite deceptive. Things haven't been pared down to essences (Dreyer, Bresson) so much as they've been concentrated for maximum impact (Fuller, Lang). The airless offices, bland bar rooms, and nondescript city streets featured in the film are as starkly utilitarian as those of Lang's Beyond a Reasonable Doubt — and just as terrifying.
Take the waiting-room of Langford's office for example. Like Langford's own apartment it's an enormous affair, glassy and bright. Yet it's clear from the first moment we're inside it why it's been designed that way. It's supposedly a resting spot for people waiting for appointments. Its real purpose is to intimidate potential interlopers. No one waits for an appointment except Pupkin. It's clear from the way his figure appears in the office that the room does not want him there. But Pupkin remains fiercely oblivious to his obvious incongruity. He'd gladly sit waiting for hours provided he'd get what he wants — a chance to meet his idol and try out his stand-up routine. The tension between this irresistible force (Pupkin) and this immovable object (the room) is the very heart of the film's theme. Only the thinnest barrier of manners and protocol separates the fan from the star. The desire to cross it has been built into show business itself — especially television. The slick patter, the easy in-the-know manner are open invitations. Why shouldn't Pupkin take the system at its word?
"I find comedians fascinating," wrote Scorsese in his "Guilty Pleasures" article for Film Comment, "there's so much pain and fear that goes into the trade." The "Guilty Pleasure" in question was Always Leave Them Laughing, a 1949 release of no particular distinction save for Milton Berle's performance of (in Scorsese's words) "the archetype of the comedian who's really tough and nasty." This toughness, this nastiness is on view in every foot of The King of Comedy, sticking out like a sore thumb from an atmosphere supposedly rife with generosity and goodwill. It's part of Langford's nature, and it's part of the persona of the performer who plays Langford — Jerry Lewis. Critic after critic — even those hostile to the film as a whole — has remarked on the excellence of Lewis's performance. On an immediate level it's easy to see why. It's an assured, solid piece of craftsmanship — quite unlike anything he has ever done before. And there's the rub. Jerry Lewis — showbusiness legend for over a quarter of a century, loved by the public, ignored by the critics, praised by French highbrows, damned by the American pseudo-elite — suddenly stands before us in a new guise. But is it really all that new? Instead of the irrepressible adolescent, the over-active bundle of sound and fury, Le Roi du Crazy, we see a becalmed Jerry. But it's a Jerry not all that removed from the off-screen/stage Jerry — the abrasive showbusinessman so often the target of critical barbs. Lewis's appearance as Langford is in no way out of character for a film-maker/performer who, more than anyone other than Fassbinder, has consistently presented himself before the public, warts and all. What really gives Lewis's performance its special kick is the contrast it presents with De Niro. For it's De Niro — the actor's actor, the heir apparent to Brando — who has taken up the slack for the Jerry of yore.
When Lewis looks at De Niro what he sees isn't a simple reflection, but rather a distorted funhouse mirror image of himself. Rupert Pupkin. It's a name Lewis might have chosen for one of his own sublime idiot/innocents. But there's nothing innocent about Rupert. All the Lewis lunatics ever wanted was love and understanding — and therefore success. In The King of Comedy, the object of desire is fame and fortune now — love's an optional extra.
At a time when the film world piles on simple-minded sentiment in thick gooey gobs, a picture like The King of Comedy appears a frontal assault. The triumph of the "little guy" is revealed to be nothing more than lumpen neo-Fascist blood lust. But Scorsese and De Niro stop short of the sort of across-the-board condemnation Nathanael West provided in The Day of the Locust. There's a residue of grandeur — glory even — in Pupkin's designs, corrupt and worthless as they may be. At the film's climax, after he's kidnapped Langford and forced the talk showman's associates to tape his (Pupkin's) monologue instead, we see a scene that may contain the film's real pay-off. Pupkin returns to the bar where Rita works and turns on its television set — just in time for his pre-taped image to flash up on the screen. Her look of amazement at the sight of his triumph is perhaps what Pupkin was aiming for all along. It's a scene which reminds one of the climax of Lewis's The Patsy where Lewis, as the clumsy bellboy Stanley Belt, scores an inadvertent success on the Ed Sullivan Show. The difference between the two scenes is underscored by what follows them. In The Patsy Lewis steps forward, out of character and into his real self, exposing what went before as mere illusion. In The King of Comedy, there's no such escape. The film ends with an image of Pupkin on a television screen on his very own show. He has won — but he's as trapped as Langford now. It's par for the course of showbiz, and as Scorsese and De Niro show in The King of Comedy, part of the toughness and nastiness of America today.
Copyright © David Ehrenstein, 1983.
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Images used appeared in the original publication. © Embassy International/Fox 1983