The King of Comedy Reviews
All great performances ...excellent screenplay . Here was Jerry's chance to win an oscar. But ....no.
Since Jerry Lewis died on August 20, it seemed only fitting to rewatch the 35th Anniversary screening of THE KING OF COMEDY on Labor Day. Having been raised watching him on the Muscular Dystrophy Telethons every year on that holiday, I thought it fitting to honor him by revisiting what I feel is his greatest acting achievement.
Initially a box office bomb and largely ignored by critics, this prescient film directed by Martin Scorsese and written by the late Paul D. Zimmerman, a former NEWSWEEK film critic, is right up there with NETWORK and A FACE IN THE CROWD in predicting the onslaught of crazy or untalented people achieving fame and power. Sound familiar in this age of social media stars and Presidents? I also think it's Scorsese's best film and Robert DeNiro's greatest performance to date. It also brought us a blazing, unforgettable performance by Sandra Bernhard in her debut. Did I also mention it's one of my favorite, squirm-inducing, funcomfortable, funny/sad anti-comedy comedies of all time? Since I wasn't in the game of writing movie reviews when it was first released, I thought it appropriate to take a stab at it now.
DeNiro plays Rupert Pupkin, an aspiring standup comic who lives with his mother and makes money as a messenger in NYC. He idolizes Jerry Langford (Lewis), a Johnny Carson-esque late night talk show host, and dreams of a slot on his show as a ticket to instant stardom. God forbid Rupert should pay his dues and go to every open mic night available. Instead, he practices his appearances on the show in his basement, complete with cardboard cutouts of Langford and guest Liza Minnelli. Every now and then, his daydreams get interrupted by the voice of his mother (a hilarious cameo by Scorsese's own mother), instantly reminding us of Rupert's place in the world. We don't know yet if Rupert is talented or not, in fact we won't know until a scene near the end, but his corner-cutting entitlement predated so many Hiltons, Kardashians and Trumps.
When we first meet Rupert, he's outside Langford's studio along with a throng of autograph hounds. When Jerry enters his limo, a crazed fan jumps in after him. That would be Masha (Bernhard). Langford, adept at clocking a stalker when he sees one, immediately gets out and comes face to face with Rupert. From inside the limo, the frame freezes on Masha's hands pressing against the window, aching to make contact with Jerry. Ray Charles' "Come Rain Or Come Shine" plays on the soundtrack: "I'm gonna love you, like nobody's loved you/
Come rain or come shine" - so eery in this context. It's such an indelible image of obsession and one in which I knew we were in for a masterful filmgoing experience.
Seizing the moment, Rupert parts the crowd, shepherds Jerry to safety and then climbs into the limo himself. He uses him time just long enough to convince Jerry to listen to a tape of his material. Never mind that he hasn't recorded it yet, Rupert takes Jerry's condescending brush-off and uses it as invitation to much more subversive actions.
Scene after scene shows Rupert trying to infiltrate Jerry's offices, but he comes across the expert deflection of a knowing receptionist or Cathy Long (Shelley Hack in a cunning, astute performance), Jerry's Development Rep. Masha also schemes to get a love letter to Jerry, but also gets the cold shoulder. In one amazing sequence, Masha chases Jerry down the street, but gets turned away at his revolving office door. Eventually, Rupert and Masha team up to kidnap Jerry, allowing Rupert to appear on his show and for Masha to have some personal time with her prey.
What works so well in this fairly straightforward, simple story is the tone. It's meant to keep you in a constant state of queasiness. Scorsese, with his cinematographer Fred Schuler, locks the camera down most of the time so that we're forced to sit still with our main characters...the better to make you squirm. Things only get zippy when we're out in the New York streets. Lewis himself directed one of those scenes in which we watch Jerry walk to work. With calls out from construction workers and cab drivers, Jerry has a little spring in his step. A woman at a phone booth stops him to praise him. Jerry thanks her but demures when she asks him to talk to her nephew on the other end of the line. Turning on him instantly, she yells, "You should only get cancer! I hope you get cancer!" And that, in a nutshell, is the brilliance of this film. The journey from top to bottom, and vice versa, can be very short.
At one point, Rupert reunites with his high school crush Rita (Diahnne Abbott). She sees him for what he is, but can't resist an offer to go to Jerry's with him for the weekend. Unbeknownst to her, they weren't invited. Jerry's dead-inside reaction to this home invasion speaks volumes. In scene after scene, Lewis plays against type. Gone is the wacky clown, replaced by years of knowledge of the exact toll celebrity can have on a person. It's an astonishing, scary, unforgettable performance. A prisoner of his own fame, Jerry can do nothing but be numb to the atrocities on display.
Rupert is a delusional, entitled, lazy dreamer. He was decades ahead of social media stars who made fortunes by posting a picture of their breakfasts. DeNiro has never given a performance that's anything like this. He's constantly gesticulating and unwilling to take no for an answer. He's dangerous. Who would have imagined that 35 years later, a Rupert would become the leader of the free world?
When we finally get to see Rupert's act, done in one incredible single take, it's mediocre at best. Sometimes mediocrity is celebrated. Oh what the hell am I saying? This country has a history of putting mediocrity on a pedestal. It explains Twenty One Pilots.
I look at THE KING OF COMEDY as TAXI DRIVER's funnier but just-as-ugly little brother. Two delusional men find fame by committing crimes. They both go after ideal but disinterested women. One does it to save an innocent soul while the other is completely self-serving. On second thought, which one is the darker film?
There's too much to unpack, but I want to point out some details that get me every time:
-Rupert eyes the ceiling of Jerry's waiting room. It makes the weary receptionist look up. He notices and then asks her, "Is that cork?" Probably the best use of insipid small talk in a film since NASHVILLE.
-Masha's entire head shaking wildly when she goes on one of her tirades
-Rupert standing in front of a giant audience photo as he fantasizes about his big debut
-The guy imitating Rupert behind his back, sending a signal to Rita that she's having dinner with a schmuck.
-The never-ending mispronunciation of Rupert's last name (Pipkin, Pumpkin, Pupnik)
-Members of The Clash in the scene where Masha yells at everyone, calling them "street trash"
-Masha's reprise of "Come Rain Or Come Shine". Funny how Bernhard's career after this film always included a little comedy and a little singing.
-Masha casually tossing the wine glass away.
-Masha clearing the candlelit table as everything comes crashing down. They threw in cat noises just to make it even funnier.
-Masha's one-sided conversation with Jerry, telling him, "I want to be black" and then doing an adorable yet frightening Tina Turner imitation.
-Rupert asking Cathy, "Are you speaking for Jerry?" Makes my skin crawl.
-Editor Thelma Schoonmaker, a legend, smash cutting to the Jerry Langford show logo right after Masha strips down to her underwear and says that she and Jerry are gonna have "Good old-fashioned, all-American fun!"
-Masha hauntingly blowing a kiss to Jerry. She's crazy scary.
-Rita proves she's just as susceptible to the glow of fame when she steals a little box from Jerry's house. She's supposed to be the saint of the story, yet even she can be bought.
-The announcer cheerily chimes, "Rupert Pupkin, everybody! Rupert Pupkin!"
-The line: "Better to be king for a night than schmuck for a lifetime."
I kept thinking about NETWORK and A FACE IN THE CROWD when watching THE KING OF COMEDY this time. How ahead of their time these films were, and what would a prescient film made today look like? Would we be predicting the end of fame? The end of mediocrity? A return to hard work and talent? If only.
-Better to be king for a night than schmuck for a lifetime
One of Scorsese's more overlooked movies, 'The King of Comedy' boasts an incredibly engaging and bizarre concept that supports a captivating performance by Robert De Niro as an unconventional aspiring comic.
And when I say versatile I really mean it. DeNiro is playing the farthest departure from a gangster imaginable, and Scorsese has managed to make a film with nearly no action feel incredibly frantic and exciting.
The character of Rupert Pupkin is what every writer should strive for when attempting to create a sympathetic psychopath. I know how awful these things he's doing are, and by that I mean both his comedy material and his criminal activity, but I still really (and kind of sadistically) wanted him to succeed.
The fantasy/dream sequences were a superb idea. When the first one hit I didn't know if it was real or imagined, and this works perfectly in the plot. This added element makes it so each time we see another sequence we have to question whether it was really happening. In fact, I still don't know for sure if the epilogue was intended as an actual glimpse into the future or not.
Robert De Niro is great as Rupert Pupkin. He plays him as a sympathetic character, so you feel sorry for him instead of being annoyed or disgusted by him. Sandra Bernhard is a good counterpoint to show what he could be if his obsession is taken to the extreme. But I think the best acting in The King of Comedy came from Jerry Lewis. He is everything you'd expect from a popular TV talk show host, and delivers some of the most subtle and funny jokes in the movie.
The humor was something I never expected. I don't know why but, despite the title, I thought Scorsese was taking this down a more serious path. But the film is darkly comedic throughout and I was chuckling a lot. Scorsese makes a few choices that I don't understand, but most of the time I think it's a very good movie. I was even impressed by the costuming because Rupert's suits looked exactly like someone trying to dress up as his favorite talk show host. Maybe not one of my favorite films of all time, but definitely a treat, and proof that Scorsese has more range than I thought.