King of Comedy, The (1983) A-
Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro form one of the most creative and productive director/actor teams in American film history, having made half a dozen landmark works together, including “Taxi Driver” and “Raging Bull.”
In 1983, the duo collaborated again, in a further switch of genres but in line with his continuing preoccupation with the darker side of urban life, on “The King of Comedy,” an incisive black comedy-drama about an obsessively ambitious fan Rupert Pupkin (De Niro) who wreaks freaky havoc while stalking a comic celebrity (Jerry Lewis in a comeback performance) with the help of a zany accomplice (played with great panache by Sandra Bernhard).
As written by Paul Zimmerman and directed by Scorsese, “King of Comedy” was misinterpreted by many film critics. At heart, the movie is a pungent black comedy about a showbiz hanger-on and loser who idolizes America’s top TV comedian/talk show host and figures out a bizarre scheme to get on the program. Though timely and relevant, for some reason, the film was considered too mordant and “sick” by some viewers at the time, disregarding the tale’s rather accurate (and scary) portrayal of what’s the bestand quickest–way to achieve celebrity status in American society today.
After kidnapping Jerry, as ransom, Rupert Pupkin demands a monologue on his show and his wish is granted. He delivers a grotesque routine (about parents and throwing up), goes to prison, writes a book about his experience, and becomes a celeb, when the book becomes a best-seller.
The film contains a sort of romantic subplot in the relationship that evolves between Pupkin and the sexy bartender Rita. However, characteristically of Sorsese’s imagery of women, Rita first appears behind a bar, thus her figure is fractured. Later on, she wears a wedding gown and stands on the top of some steps (a pedestal of sorts) during Pupkin’s fantasy scene. Pupkin asks her to be his “queen,” connoting an individual who sits on a platform or throne.
“King of Comedy” is anchored by strong acting from its three leads: De Niro, Jerry Lewis (in a performance that some saw as self-referential), and particularly Sandra Bernhardt, in her first and most impressive big-screen debut
Scorsese doesn’t direct a single scene for a payoff, and he doesn’t go for comic relief or catharsis effect. As one critic pointed out, the whole movie is an exercise in “cinema interrupus.” Even a big scene in a bar, where Rupert triumphantly turns on the TV set to reveal himself on television, is deliberately edited to leave out the customary payoff shots, namely, reaction shots of the amazed audience.
The scholar Robert Kolker has pointed out, that because the film is about the world of TV (the small screen), it’s shot in an analogous style to the flat, neutral TV style. Indeed, the lighting is evenly spread and high-key, the camera almost always at eye level and steady (unlike Scorsese’s more common restless and dynamic camera), the editing is standard too, composed of the shot-reverse shot (or angle-reverse angle). The film offers commentary of the inability of the disturbed characters to get any kind of positive response to their bids for recognition, which pushes them to desperation and to the edge of sanity (or is it insanity). A montage of magazines and book covers presents the sequence of events, and at the end, the individual disappears beneath the signs of his fame, signaling that for Scorsese, the larger phenomenon (and social problem) is more important than the subject.
Who is sane and insane It seems that American society is now dominated by a single desire to be famous and grabs the spotlight for fifteen minutes. The whole TV culture is implicated in “King of Comedy,” a culture that desperately seeks images to celebrate and to sell to the mass public. Indeed, the critic Greil Marcus sees “King of Comedy” as a horror movie, in which Rupert is the creepiest character to be the center of a film, since the movie is about the colonization of everyday life by shallow entertainment.
Needless to say, “King of Comedy” was a flop at the box-office, motivating Scorsese to choose a smaller, independently made film as his next project, the brilliant “After Hours.”
Leave a Reply
- Jimmy P. (Psychotherapy of Plains Indian)
- Fast & Furious 6: Thrilling Joyride
- Angelina Jolie Double Mastectomy–Talk of Cannes Film Fest
- Bling Ring, The
- Before Midnight: Hawke and Delpie at Mid-Age
- Stories We Tell
- Great Gatsby: Luhrmann’s Jazzy Spectacle
- Star Trek into Darkness: Solid Sequel
- Love Is All You Need: From Denmark Via Italy
- Kiss of the Damned: Oversexed Vampires
- Murphy’s Romance (1986): James Garner’s Only Oscar Nomination