The King of Comedy is Scorcese‘s downbeat, cynical showbiz take on Walter Mitty. It flips between gloating black comedy and a deep sadness for people so divorced from reality that they shut out real life and spend endless time living out their own dreams. Unlike Mitty, it has depth and feeling, not to mention an uneasy deep-seated fear factor.
In this version, the Mitty character is embodied by sad hopeless talentless fantasist Rupert Pupkin (Bob De Niro), a man obsessed to the very core of his being with becoming the next King of Comedy, would-be protege of Jerry Lewis‘s soulless star of the Jerry Langford show.
I TKoC is ultimately a movie about the cult of celebrity, both the indefatigable desire to acquire it, or in the case of Sandra Bernhardt‘s stalking groupie, Masha, to be associated with it. And, of course, it also depicts the flipside, the curse of celebrity once you have made it to the top. This characteristic is superbly portrayed by Lewis, as brilliant a piece of casting as I’ve ever seen – an actor whose real life has mimicked the character, almost to the letter.
Pupkin blags his way into Langford’s car by throwing out Masha, but ignores the advice to start at the bottom, instead indulging in the dreams of using Langford’s show as a springboard to his own mega-stardom, partly as a means of winning the heart of Diahnne Abbott‘s barmaid Rita (she being one-time wife of de Niro.) He and Masha share an uneasy common goal to use Langford for their own purposes, though each think the other a time waster, though neither can see the folly of their own ways.
Here, the common obsession of Pupkin and Masha gets the better of them, to the extent that they kidnap Langford. Pupkin gets what he wants – a brief moment in the spotlight and with no thought of the consequences, being so convinced that as soon as the public see him he will be loved for who he is.
Throughout the movie, Pupkin is delusional in the extreme, will never take no for an answer and would in reality have been thrown in prison along while before his amateurish kidnap stunt – and even then, there is no way on this earth he would be allowed to perform on prime time under those circumstances.
But then, this is a fantasy about a fantasist, so here he does get his way. He serves a jail term but upon release he has become a megastar, with autobiography selling in droves, plus his own prime time TV slot. Yes, only in America, or rather not even in America – this is one fantasy even Walter Mitty would not have dared dream.
I’ve heard the early works of Scorcese described as “dangerously brilliant”, and it’s not difficult to see why. This movie is hard to watch, and certainly achieves the difficult act of being made in spite of pricking the Hollywood balloon, the one where fantasy is rewarded by the little guy, the ingenue, making it to the top against insurmountable odds. This is the 99% movie, the one where people fail and either accept that they are not good enough to succeed or do something radical for their 15 minutes of fame.
Showbiz has a black heart, yet one in a million people who do have talent happen to be in the right place at the right time and do find themselves bypassing the queue and gaining entry to the top joints with the A-listers. Why else would talent shows like X-Factor be so popular from wannabes?
You could argue that this movie is the supremely talented de Niro, Lewis and Scorcese paying homage to those who don’t make the grade, their acknowledgement that the gap between success and failure can be wafer thin, but even those with no hope, the people to whom everyone is kind to avoid hurting their feelings, still believe in themselves and don’t give up.
Sad then that some people with genuine talent do give up and don’t get the fame they deserve. Worse still, if that moment comes but nerves take over and the attention is grabbed by someone with the greater chutzpah.
A Rotten Tomatoes reviewer sums this up beautifully:
Misunderstood by critics in 1983, this is one of the most incisive (and scary) movies about the desperate desire to achieve fame in American society, and the shallow nature of pop culture; De Niro and Jerry Lewis are terrific.
Maybe it was misunderstood because the whole point of American culture is that it is measured solely by success, not by those who fail to make it to the top. Many simply don’t want to hear the flipside of that particular coin.
The point is well-made, but if you aspire to seeing the greats of the movie firmament, and indeed two of the greatest depictions of showbiz with the glitz and glamour scraped off, uncomfortable though it might be, you simply must see de Niro and Lewis here. Cult classic maybe, but verging on authentic classic.