The big picture
- The collaboration between Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro has created a cinematic legacy of stone-cold murderers, vengeful convicts and crazy taxi drivers.
- The King of Comedy is an underrated film in Scorsese’s career, in which De Niro’s terrifying performance as Rupert Pupkin illuminates the nature of fame and celebrity.
- Reflecting on the increasing consumerism of the 1980s and the dangerous desire for spectacle, the film presents a sharp criticism and a desperate appeal to change course.
The long, fruitful collaboration between Martin Scorsese And Robert De Niro has produced many great films. However, a closer look at their work together reveals an interesting point about both men. Apparently, when Marty needs someone to skin you, he turns to De Niro. Conversely, De Niro only seems to take on these roles when he’s working with Marty, with a few exceptions (Tony Scott‘S The fan, Kenneth Branagh‘S Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein). The result is a cinematic legacy of stone-cold murderers, vengeful convicts and crazy taxi drivers.
The King of Comedy
Rupert Pupkin is a passionate but unsuccessful comedian who wants nothing more than to be in the spotlight. To achieve this, he stalks and kidnaps his idol to put himself in the spotlight.
- Release date
- December 18, 1982
- Martin Scorsese
- Robert De Niro, Jerry Lewis, Diahnne Abbott, Sandra Bernhard, Shelley Hack, Ed Herlihy
- Comedy, documentary, drama
His most recent role as King Hale in Flower Moon Killer illustrates what makes the De Niro/Scorsese battery so strong, with De Niro displaying a level of sadism we haven’t seen from him in quite some time. There is a connection not only to perhaps their most underrated film together, but also to the scariest character in a Scorsese film period, De Niro as Rupert Pupkin in the 1983s The King of Comedy. The film was made during what was initially seen as a lull in Scorsese’s career, but in recent years it has experienced an upswing and has almost been seen as a harbinger of doom. De Niro’s prescient performance as Pupkin illuminates the frightening nature of fame, celebrity and the rotting core of this new age.
The King of Comedy is Scorsese at his strangest
On a superficial level, The King of Comedy doesn’t really seem up to the level of menace we’ve seen from De Niro and Scorsese. When we compare Pupkin, we say Max Cady Cape Fear or Jimmy Conway from GoodfellasOn paper they are no match. Pupkin is a shitty comedian who lives in his mother’s basement. For him there is no physical presence at all. If you saw him in a dark alley, you would be afraid for him, not of him. The film opens with De Niro in a crowd of autograph collectors waiting for talk show host Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis in the best role of his career). After a frenzy, Pupkin leads Langford away from the crowd, and after a few fake jokes, Langford gives in and gives Pupkin his information so he can pass on his material to try to get booked on the show. That’s really the impetus for the whole film. Pupkin believes this is his big break, but the more we learn about him, the more unclear the whole thing becomes. Not only is he a crazy comedian, he’s apparently never performed in front of an audience before. When we see him putting together his tape (on a homemade Jerry Langford set complete with cardboard cutouts), he sings along to the noise of the crowd as if he were actually standing in front of an audience. His obsession is not with comedy but with appearing on Langford’s show, and he feels entitled to that. He is entitled to his 15 minutes.
This permission is new for a Scorsese character. If we look at his two major works before this work, Wild bull And taxi driver, both leads are certainly troubled, but there is a sense of struggle. Both Travis Bickle and Jake La Motta have things they’re working towards, but their inner demons are holding them back. The difference between Pupkin and the characters of the last two films can be explained in several ways. For one thing, the last two films were written by Paul Schraderwho is known for his very special protagonist style, “God’s lonely man,” as Travis himself says Taxi driver. Broadly speaking, it deals with themes of internal guilt/trauma and how these feelings manifest themselves towards society as a whole. You can trace this line from taxi driver To Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters To Autofocus to his latest film, Master Gardener. When you change a voice as idiosyncratic as Schrader, elements of your filmmaking style will change. This is inevitable. However, we also have to take into account the different conditions, namely in the USA, in New York and in Hollywood itself. The grit and grit of 70’s NY had begun to fade somewhat, the US had moved on from the shame of Nixon and Vietnam into the Reagan era, and the New Hollywood era was in its death throes The King of Comedy probably the last film of this time. Gone are the anger and shame of his early days, and we see a new Scorsese in this film.
With “The King of Comedy,” Scorsese builds on his earlier films
The King of Comedy reflects the rapidly growing consumer society of the 1980s, namely the beginning of a kind of parasocial relationship with entertainment and entertainers. As the film progresses, we see Rupert harboring these elaborate fantasies, not of worshiping crowds, but in some ways of Jerry Langford’s approval and need. He’s this larger-than-life figure who Rupert knows is his friend and an equal, even if they don’t know each other. The line between what he sees on TV and the real Langford is non-existent. How this manifests itself is what makes the film and Rupert himself so frightening. It’s not that Rupert is in trouble, it’s that what he believes is completely real and that no one else’s feelings or thoughts matter. Apparently there is no shame with him. He will get what he deserves and that is a life of fame and fortune.
There is a key scene where Rupert shows up at Langford’s house with a date and insists that he and Jerry are friends and that they were invited there. His butler lets him in, and when Langford returns and things are high, Rupert just carries on. He figured it out, but he doesn’t care. He still acts like he knows him, like they’re friends, and the scene just drags on with this routine. Let’s compare this with the oft-quoted sequence in taxi driver where Travis takes Betsy to the porn theater. Obviously both characters are doing something wrong, but you almost feel pity for Travis. He can’t help it, he doesn’t really want to be like that, but he doesn’t know any other way. Rupert sees nothing wrong with what he does and that’s what scares him so much. It’s scary because it feels real in a way that none of Scorsese’s characters have ever felt before or since.
“By the end of The King of Comedy, Rupert becomes truly terrifying.”
The final sequence of the film shows Scorsese at his most biting and surreal. Rupert kidnaps Jerry and uses the hostage situation to gain access to the show. He goes about his routine and is immediately arrested for his kidnapping. But Rupert’s reality now seems to have come true. His kidnapping of Jerry and his appearance on the show have made him rapidly famous, he has a book deal, a movie, his own show. He has achieved everything. He was right all along. Now there is much debate as to whether the ending of the film is real or another fantasy of Rupert’s. Personally, I think the former is a much more likely and, frankly, more interesting ending. It reflects the state of the media at the time. What you see on TV or in movies was no longer enough. We had seen real war on TV, so we needed something bigger. What could be greater than a man so determined to achieve his dreams that he kidnaps a talk show host to appear on the show? Instead of helping Rupert, his behavior is justified because that’s exactly what people want to watch. The cycle continues.
Many films from 1983 in particular deal with such a gap that needed to be filled. The answer in reality, of course, was consumption, but of what? A film like The great cold, for example, deals with that emptiness by creating people with the same emptiness you have, but making it a good and acceptable thing to have. With this film you consume your own life as entertainment. Another film that I think suits him very well The King of ComedyIs David Cronenberg‘S Videodrome. Both films show this insane desire for spectacle, with Rupert’s desire for fame and recognition and the increasingly violent images on television becoming more and more consumed Videodrome. The line between entertainment and reality has now disappeared in both films. Things have to keep getting bigger, and what we are left with is a dangerous path. The future is approaching dangerously quickly and we cannot cope with it through entertainment. Both films are harsh criticisms, but also desperate pleas for a change of course. We see that in some ways Marty is this close to making a horror film. It reveals this undertone of how things work that’s really frightening, both that someone like Rupert could really exist and also that he would most likely be rewarded for it.
The King of Comedy may not be the most fun you’ll have with a Scorsese film. It’s a decidedly uncomfortable film with some of the most unflattering characters it’s ever had. What you’re going to get is Scorsese at his sharpest, presenting audiences with a film that indicts them and forces them to confront the fact that we’re all becoming Rupert Pupkin. It was terrible then, and it has become even more terrible and relevant today. This film and this character are the most frightening work he has ever done, because we have never seen anything more real from him. The facade has been erased, and what remains is what was smoldering underneath. A frightening film and one of the best in the illustrious careers of Scorsese and De Niro.
The King of Comedy is available to stream on Plex in the US.