Friday, September 20, 2013

Director Spotlight #15.8: Martin Scorsese's The King of Comedy

Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. This edition’s director is the eternally enthusiastic Martin Scorsese.

NOTE: Look, I’m tired of typing it out for pretty much every entry, so here it is in the opening: there’s going to be spoilers in this thing, and in almost every entry of Director Spotlight. There’s a lot more to a film than the basic plotting, which is only a small part of the enjoyment as far as I’m concerned. Still, if it’s going to bother you, I’d highly suggest not reading ahead until you’ve seen the film in question.

Grade: 96/A

Martin Scorsese thought Raging Bull might end up being his final film, but the film’s critical success saved his career as a filmmaker. Scorsese wanted to move on to his pet project, The Last Temptation of Christ, but Robert De Niro was not interested, and he pushed Scorsese to direct The King of Comedy, an odd little script about an aspiring comedian’s love-hate relationship with fame. Scorsese didn’t know what to make of the script, and has admitted that he had to push himself to be interested during the shoot. When the film bombed on its release, it looked like it might end Scorsese’s film career.  But a funny thing happened over the past thirty years, as The King of Comedy developed a fervent cult following. It’s well-deserved: Scorsese’s odd, deeply uncomfortable (yet hilarious) black comedy is one of Scorsese’s very best films.

Rupert Pupkin (De Niro) is a nobody. An aspiring comedian, Rupert is an obsessive autograph hound, and an encounter with the Johnny Carson-like Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis) gives him hope that if he can just get a tape of his act to Jerry, he’ll hit the big time. Jerry, who’s sacrificed privacy for fame, isn’t terribly keen on having his life invaded by some schlub. But Rupert is a desperate man willing to do whatever it takes to hit the top, and with the help of his equally unhinged and Jerry-obsessed friend Masha (Sandra Bernhard), that willingness extends to kidnapping.

The King of Comedy is one of Scorsese’s most unconventional films- it boasts little of the gritty realism of Kazan or Scorsese’s Italian neorealist influences, and the more formalistic elements feel removed from his usual wheelhouse as well. But Scorsese’s willingness to experiment is what keeps the film fresh in spite of the filmmaker’s waning interest. The film pays tribute to the heightened fantasy worlds of Michael Powell and Max Ophuls, as well as the precise compositions and sets of Jacques Tati (not to mention Jerry Lewis’s directorial works). Scorsese combines these formal elements with his Cassavetes-influenced gift for improv. The results are as striking as they are odd- a film that combines the meticulously planned comedy of Lewis and Tati with the uncomfortable soul baring of Cassavetes.

Of course, Scorsese needs performers who are adept at this kind of riffing. Sandra Bernhard hadn’t acted much before, but she takes to Scorsese’s style perfectly, playing an obsessive whose unpredictability makes her every move deeply unnerving. The last third of the film has a long sequence in which Jerry Langford sits silently, tied to a chair with a hilarious amount of masking tape, as Bernhard comes on to him like the worst psychotic fan imaginable- throwing a wine-glass because she thinks he might dislike the glass, babbling about thinking about him while she’s in the bath, singing “Come Rain or Come Shine” in an ostensibly seductive but actually quite creepy way. It’s a shame Bernhard hasn’t had much of a career since.

I’m more of a Jerry Lewis fan than some (he’s an acquired taste, to say the least), but even his most ardent admirers would admit that there’s a boyish desperation for attention to his comedic performances. But Lewis had a reputation for being a controlling, self-absorbed prick behind the scenes, and his performance here is a welcome bit of self-parody that’s simultaneously empathetic, however difficult. Sure, Jerry’s a pompous asshole much of the time- he treats his staff badly, and he barely hides his contempt for Rupert the first time he meets him, bullshitting him in a way only a truly oblivious man like Rupert wouldn’t pick up on. But he’s also a man who’s clearly had his normality eaten away at by fame, who can’t walk down the street without being hounded (or give an autograph without being told “I hope you get cancer!” when he can’t give more), and who’s lonely in the big bubble fame has made for him.

Scorsese has said that he believes Rupert Pupkin is Robert De Niro’s very best performance. It’s hard to put it above Jake La Motta and Travis Bickle, but it’s certainly rank as one of De Niro’s most offbeat and uncharacteristic performances. De Niro had shown vulnerability within inarticulate, ultra-masculine men before, but here he plays one of the most pathetic characters in the history of cinema. De Niro plays Rupert as an obnoxiously unctuous wannabe in a tacky suit, a man who seemingly has no idea that he doesn’t have a shot in hell (his dates with Diahnne Abbott, then De Niro’s real wife, are brutal).

But De Niro also empathizes with the poor schmuck, which keeps the film from falling into a mean-spirited chuckle at some poor bastard. A key line that shows just how sad Rupert’s existence is: “I see the awful, terrible things in my life, and turn it into something funny.” Rupert’s delusions of grandeur clash with his unremarkable life, not to mention with his obliviousness to his lack of talent or connection with others.  There are at least five or six scenes of Pupkin rushing into an office (or Jerry’s home) to see his hero, only to fail to pick up on signals that Jerry is never going to see him (“I’ll wait.” “It’d be a waste of your time.” “Oh, no it wouldn’t, I’d be happy to do it”).

It’s incredibly painful to watch, made more so by the way Scorsese frames De Niro to look either diminutive (as when he’s framed in distant doorways) or like he’s isolated in the center of the room. Even more painful- the overlit fantasy sequences in Rupert’s head, where the world is candy-colored and he’s a calm man in the face of Jerry’s fawning. And then there’s a great shot in which Pupkin records his act for Jerry to listen to, and the sound of prerecorded laughter drowns him out as the camera pull back through an impossibly long, white space, the pictures of a laughing crowd serving as Rupert’s fantasy audience. The notion is clear: the world is laughing at Rupert, not with him (we, meanwhile, don’t laugh so much as we wince).

The film has been called a blackly comic version of Taxi Driver: where Travis Bickle is rejected by society and decides to violently turn on it, Rupert Pupkin is rejected by the famous man he worships and decides to become infamous. But there’s a deeper connection to Taxi Driver, which is likely Scorsese’s connection to the film. Where De Niro and Lewis knew the price of fame, Scorsese at this point wasn’t recognizable on the street. But when John Hinckley shot President Ronald Reagan and said he was influenced by Taxi Driver, Scorsese knew the price of having an insane fan take art way too seriously, and that discomfort translates perfectly to The King of Comedy.

There’s a lot of great comedic material in the kidnapping business, including De Niro dropping his gun when he first gets out a car to kidnap Jerry, or a hilarious scene in which Jerry is forced to read off of cue cards that have been mixed up (*heavy sigh* “You’ve got it upside down”). But De Niro’s real tour de force is when he does get a chance to go on Jerry’s show (sans Jerry, who’s being held at Masha’s place) and deliver his terrible stand-up material. Scorsese shot these segments on video, both for realism and because it gives us a long, unblinking gaze at Rupert’s uncomfortably bad work. But Rupert’s made it, even if he had to kidnap his idol to do it.

There’s debate over whether the final sequence, in which Rupert becomes a sensation while in jail, releases an autobiography (that’s getting movie deals!), and gets his own show. Given how much the sequence resembles the overlit, heightened worlds of Rupert’s other fantasies (complete with an announcer fawning over his entrance) and Scorsese’s pronounced influence by Michael Powell’s Black Narcissus, I’m willing to bet that it’s fantasy. On the other hand, does it matter? The whole world is laughing at Rupert on primetime now, as a freakshow rather than as a loser (or perhaps both), and he either doesn’t get it or doesn’t care. He’s made it big. “Better to be king for a night than schmuck for a lifetime!”

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