Martin Scorsese, “The King of Comedy” (1982)
I suppose most directors worth their salt who have amassed a considerable body of work have a sleeper film in there somewhere that initially bombed at the box office but which over the years has become a cult masterpiece. For US director Martin Scorsese, “The King of Comedy” lays good claim to being that film: in spite of its title and the presence of actors like Jerry Lewis and Tony Randall, this is a dark and often bitter and cynical work on the cult of fame and celebrity, and how notoriety, infamy and ignominy are its dark twin sister. Viewers are invited to sympathise with the film’s lead character Rupert Pupkin (Robert de Niro) who pursues purpose and meaning in his otherwise empty life, and who is unwilling (perhaps justifiably) to join the long queue of wannabe celebrity stand-up comedians doing time in clubs before indifferent audiences, telling the same jokes over and over, in the hope of breaking into showbiz, hobnobbing with other rich and famous actors and directors, earning millions and living a luxurious material (and just as spiritually empty) life, even as his fantasies combined with his lack of self-awareness lead him into carrying out desperate acts that end up pointing in one direction … to a maximum high-security prison for six years on charges of kidnapping.
Appropriately the film opens in an already disturbing way with late-night TV talk-show host Jerry Langford (Lewis in restrained form) being mobbed by autograph hounds and a deranged woman (Sandra Bernhard) who believes herself to be in love with Langford and he with her. Pupkin uses the commotion she creates to ask Langford if he can appear on his show; Langford tells Pupkin to contact his secretary. Pupkin does so the next day and the secretary (Shelley Hack) asks him to produce a tape of his work. Pupkin obliges and after hearing the tape, Langford’s staff advise him to get some work experience and polish his act. All through Pupkin’s encounters with Langford and his staff, viewers see that Pupkin is at once naive and deranged, and detached from the reality around him. The truth is that Pupkin is a mediocre talent with no social life and no connections that could get him a gig in a club.
As Pupkin becomes more demented, convinced that Langford has befriended him and is willing to be his mentor, the aspiring comedian begins to stalk his office and his home, and it is here that viewers see something of Langford’s personal life and the heavy price he has had to pay on the road to fame and fortune. While Pupkin aspires to become famous to escape the hell of poverty, loneliness and anonymity, Langford is a bitter and paranoid character insulated from the outside world by layers of lawyers, advisors and various hangers-on, all of them necessary to protect him from stalkers and fans who regard him as public property; there are occasions in the film where Langford escapes from his various cocoons to mingle with the crowds and feel anonymous. It is appropriate that the two men’s paths should cross repeatedly in the film to the extent that they exchange places and for one brief moment Pupkin achieves the fame he desires and Langford the anonymity he craves; in one scene where Langford sees Pupkin on TV, the grim and knowing expression on his face as he watches Pupkin is priceless.
The supporting cast is good to excellent: Sandra Bernhard as the equally deranged and lovelorn fashion designer Masha nearly steals every scene she shares with de Niro; other actors hold up their own without appearing to be overwhelmed working with Lewis or de Niro.
The blend of reality and Pupkin’s fantasy, to the extent where audiences are not sure whether the film’s denouement is one or the other, is smooth and just as disturbing as Pupkin’s own fragile grip on sanity. This suggests that the society in which Pupkin and others like him and Masha are able, sometimes even encouraged, to indulge their fantasies and resort to desperate actions is itself highly disturbed and also unable to distinguish between reality and fantasy. In a world where Western mainstream news media has become little more than a global public relations outfit for governments, corporations and the people behind them pursuing their own agendas and dreams of grandeur and self-importance, and the public is fed so-called news that bears no connection to real events, “The King of Comedy”, despite its ageing look – it was made over 35 years ago after all – still has something relevant to say to modern audiences.