Friday, October 2, 2009

The King of Comedy (1982)

The King of Comedy
Director: Martin Scorsese
USA 1982
109 min
Starring: Jerry Lewis, Robert De Niro and Sandra Bernhard, among others.

See it on YouTube here.

This must be one of the most painfully embarrassing and depressing films I've ever seen, but also one of the best satires on the twisted media world in the history of moving pictures. It was a flop when it was released for some reason, but has later been praised as one of Martin Scorsese's works and Robert De Niro's best performance. Some films just need to grow on the public, obviously.

After the earlier Scorsese-De Niro cooperations Taxi Driver (1976) and Raging Bull (1980), this turn of character study might have been surprising to the public when it came. And even though Robert De Niro in The King of Comedy is a pathetic loser with a disturbed obsession of making it big as a comedian, quite different from his other macho roles, there are a lot of similarities between for instance Taxi Driver and this film. It is dark, cynical and bizarre. It's hilarious, but you have trouble laughing because of it's feeling of realism. Reality is intertwined with fantasy, but the fantasies are those telling more about the truth than the reality. Are you following? ("Well, stop following me, or I'll have you arrested!", Groucho would probably have said.)

Anyway, my guess to it's bad reception at the initial release is that it probably wasn't 1980 enough for the 1980's. There are no dark rainy back streets and neon signs, but instead the photography is bright and colorful - I would have guessed the film was made in the 1970's. The cinematography is unscrupulous, and the sets feel very post modern. That's why I have included so many screenshots in this post - some movies just can't be described without the use of pictures. And we all know how much more pictures say vs. words, right?

Now, over to the film itself!

Even before the title of the film is shown on the screen, we have been introduced to our three main characters:
A New York nobody named Rupert Pupkin (De Niro) is standing outside the studio where the popular comedian and TV show host Jerry Langford (Lewis) airs his show. When Langford opens the back door after the show, a fanatic crowd cause a stampede trying to get to their idol. Langford reaches his car with some effort and gets inside, not having the time for a sigh of relief before a crazy groupie who has sneaked in to the car throws herself at him. (She is hereafter referred to as Masha, played by Bernhard.) Langford quickly gets out of the car, while Pupkin sensibly helps him holding the masses back and get safely into his car while Masha is being dragged out of it by bodyguards.

Pupkin jumps into the backseat of the car in the last second and manages to get a few minutes of conversation with his guru. He explains himself to be a struggling 35 year old comedian, feeling ready to take the big step towards television. In order to get rid of Pupkin, Langford gives him some uninspired pep talk and advices him to call his secretary. Pupkin of course thinks that he now is in the game.

It doesn't take long before we realize that Pupkin isn't just an ambitious wanna-be-comedian - he is totally deranged. As the plot moves forward we witness several fantasy sequences with Pupkin being a friendly co-worker with Langford. They laugh, Langford admires and envies him, Pupkin humbly explains why he is such a brilliant comedian - and then the dream is interrupted by Pupkin's mother yelling at him in his basement, asking him who he is talking to. (That voice, by the way, is Scorsese's own mother.)

These fantasies are mixed up by by painful "real" scenes with Pupkin waiting around Langford's office for a meeting with him, or "Jer" as he calls him. Langfords secretaries gets familiar with his face (although calling him everything from "Pipkin" to "Pumpkin"), and start off as supporting and encourage his energy - but ends up by having to call security to get him out of the building.

Now, Langford is an interesting character. Jerry Lewis caused quite a shock when showing this torn out, arrogant and tired version of his famous comic self. He more or less plays himself, and some sequences in the movies when Langford meets fans in the street is taken from real incidents Lewis encountered.

I a painfully embarrassing side plot Rupert Pupkin tries to reunite with a high school crush, Rita (Diahnne Abbott). Pupkin has gone up in his fantasies to the degree that he convinces Rita that they are invited to Jerry Langford's summer house to spend the weekend. Excited over meeting Pupkin's celebrity friend she dresses up in fine clothes and follows him there.

They find the house currently empty on Langford presence, so they enter the living room, pour up a drink and start playing records while waiting for him to come back. The worried servant (played by Kim Chan) phones Langford on the golf course and tells him about the visitors. He is not too happy finding Pupkin, whom he hasn't seen since the night in the car, vandalizing his home and threatens by calling the cops.

Pupkin: Well, I'm sorry. I made a mistake.
Langford: So did Hitler!

A lot is happening in this scene. Not only Rita, but we also, realize the extent of Pupkin's insanity. Even if we knew that his fantasy sequences had little to do with reality, we did not know if they were entirely made up or not. After this scene the Pupkin character feels threatening - he is so out of touch with reality that he can do almost anything to reach his goal. And there is the main likeness between The King of Comedy and for instance Taxi Driver.

Funny trivia about the scene: De Niro consequently insulted Lewis with anti-semitic remarks to make him look convincingly angry in the scene. Lewis, not being familiar with De Niro's method acting, was furious. And it sure shows.

After a while Pupkin realizes that Langford isn't going to invite him to be on his TV show willingly, so he teams up Masha to kidnap him. With a gun pointed to his head makes some arrangements over the phone to get Pupkin on the show. This is another one of those ambivalent scenes: it's embarrassing, funny, scary and uncomfortable at the same time. It must be difficult to manage such a combination of feelings to work in a film, but Scorsese handles it beautifully. Ingenious.

Both De Niro and Lewis make possibly their greatest performances in this film, but the one stealing the show is Sandra Bernhard as Masha. She is a dangerously insane and lonesome character, obsessed with the idea she has created about Jerry Langford. We get a horrific (and humorous, of course) insight in her character in the scene where she takes care of Langford while Pupkin is away to tape his performance.

The room is lit up with hundreds of candles. Masha talks about the crystal wine glasses she bought specifically for him. She goes on about how she thinks about him all the time. "Sometimes when I have a bath, I can say to myself: Wonder if Jerry's taking a bath right now?" The bizarre humor in this being Jerry tied up with several inches thick layers of tape, looking very unamused. Masha goes on. "I feel very spontaneous tonight. It feels like anything could happen." Freaky, I say.

Cut scene with Jerry Lewis.

The film does not hide it's purpose. It is quite obvious right from the beginning that this is a spoof on celebrity hysteria, that anyone can get famous if they are ready to do anything, that everything is possible in America. And it's good. I don't like hidden messages. It does of course not have to go to the extent of having a narrator telling us to be good to people, it's naughty to steal money and kill people etc. (whatever those messages often are about), but a nice clear message feels refreshing.

The last thing I want to point out is the frozen picture (below) before the movie title and the actors' names are shown. Masha furiously bangs on the windows of the car after Jerry has jumped out again, one of Pupkin's eyes is visible between her fingers.

Why did they choose this picture for us to study while the credits roll? What does it say? I'm not into over analyzing things, but this obviously means something. And I will take a shot at it. (Feel free to add your own theories in the comment section.) I think it symbolizes the unreachable dreams of people like Pupkin and Masha. Masha's hand reaching for the light behind the glass. We know that it's complete chaos outside that glass window, but doesn't this still look peaceful? It's all about trying to reach a dream, that you think is reality.

One can also look on it this way: Masha is reaching out to Jerry. She want's to be with Jerry. Pupkin is looking in to Jerry's car. He wants to be Jerry.

Ah, this makes me tired. Trying to put my winding thoughts into understandable sentences. I'll have a cigarette and forget about this. Last words: The King of Comedy is a masterpiece in my opinion, meaning much when it comes from someone who hates the 1980's (except the fact that she was born during the decade). Ta-taa!


Bill Stankus said...

Having lived through and mostly ignoring 80s entertainment I seem to recall that at that time Jerry Lewis was held in rather low esteem (I mean, in some circles he was a joke - and I don't mean the funny kind) and De Niro being cheesy, well that didn't fit his image. Also, Sandra Bernhard was someone that viewers somewhat liked, tolerated or hated. The combo of her and Lewis didn't appeal to me at all.

You're right, it was more of a 70s type movie in many ways. The late 60s and through the 70s was the time of the "New Hollywood", Beginning w/Bonnie and Clyde, through Paper Moon, Dog Day Afternoon and Taxi Driver and more or less ending with the mega movies (Star Wars 1977).

The King of Comedy was just out of synch in 1982.

Lolita said...

Bill Stankus:
Thanks for the comment! Sorry that you didn't appreciate the film, though. But it really is that kind of film you either hate or love.

Yes, the out of synch thing seemed to be the major reason to why it wasn't successful from what I've read about it. I'm just glad I didn't have to suffer through the whole 1980's - just the last two years of it! :)

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

As a diehard Scorsese find I find it reprehensible that I have not seen this and much of his 80s stuff.

Lolita said...

I haven't seen much Scorsese myself, but this is an underrated gem. It's cheap on DVD, I advise you to buy it immediately! Or at least, watch it if you get the chance :)

Anonymous said...

Is not simply an underrated gem. It's the most underrated Scorsese's film. I like it too much, the way that he drive th story and the sarcastic background, for sure it's better from all his last films.
And with the great talent of Jerry Lewis inside.

Lolita said...

Don Michael Corleone:
Sounds like we're on the same level, you and I! Thanks for leaving a comment!