Robert De Niro, Jerry Lewis, Sandra Bernhard
Directed by Martin Scorsese
Rupert Pupkin (Robert De Niro) really, really wants to be a professional comedian. He's convinced he has what it takes to make it big in the business. And for a comedian, there's no gig sweeter than a spot on The Jerry Langford Show. So Rupert goes to great lengths to convince Langford's talent bookers that he deserves the big break. Strangely, they reject him, based on nothing more than his total inexperience and lack of talent. Rebuffed, Rupert does the only logical thing: He kidnaps Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis) and threatens to hold him hostage unless he agrees to invite Rupert on his show.
The King of Comedy is itself a comedy, make no mistake, but it is a comedy as black as night and as ruthless as the Mongol hordes. In other hands the sheer nihilism might make the film unwatchable, but director Martin Scorsese and the three leads successfully walk the fine line between humor and pathos. The film pulls the ol' switcheroo on the viewer by making De Niro the comedic lead and Lewis the straight man, and indeed De Niro is side-splittingly funny, though not at all in the way Rupert Pupkin thinks. Rupert, resplendent in his bad suit and cheesy mustache, is truly, appallingly untalented, to the point of being uncomfortable to watch, yet his near-total delusion and cheerful determination to forge ahead despite any rational motivation to do so leads one to secretly root for him despite oneself. Jerry Lewis is superb as Langford, popular and witty on the outside, burned-out and cynical underneath (think Krusty the Clown). And Sandra Bernhard... well, I don't even know where to begin.
Martin Scorsese is rightfully considered one of the best directors in film history. Three of his films (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and Goodfellas) are on the American Film Institute's list of the top 100 films of the 20th century. For the first Scorsese film in this series, though, I've chosen an obscure movie that bombed at the box office and isn't out on DVD... and yet is probably my favorite of his many films. And I for one think it's long overdue for a reappraisal.
Some points to ponder:
- I would not dream of revealing the ending, but it strikes me as being, if anything, more relevant now than it was in 1983. See if you agree.
- On March 30, 1981, a little less than two years before The King of Comedy was released, John Hinckley Jr. shot President Reagan several times in the chest. Hinckley was obsessed with Martin Scorsese's movie Taxi Driver, in which Robert De Niro's character attempts to assassinate a presidential candidate, and famously wanted to impress Jodie Foster, who played a 12-year-old prostitute in that picture. Scorsese received some heat for his unintentional connection to the affair, and The King of Comedy was the first movie he filmed after the assassination attempt. In what ways is The King of Comedy a reflection of those events and an answer to Scorsese's critics?
- If you've seen Taxi Driver (and if you haven't, don't worry, we'll get to it eventually), how is De Niro's Rupert Pupkin a version of Travis Bickle, his character from that film?