With Silence getting the critics salivating, Sean Wilson examines what is possibly Martin Scorsese’s greatest – and almost certainly most underrated – film, The King of Comedy…
Do portrayals of celebrity culture and fan worship get more lacerating and acute than 1983’s masterpiece The King of Comedy? Martin Scorsese’s follow-up to Raging Bull is quite brilliantly perceptive, taking the hatchet to narcissistic wannabes in the form of Robert De Niro’s seminal Rupert Pupkin whilst also taking us behind the curtain and depicting the loneliness that comes with those who’ve made a success of themselves. The latter is personified by Jerry Lewis’ alienated comic star Jerry Langford, one who can barely leave his New York apartment without vitriolic ‘fans’ wishing he gets cancer. In Scorsese’s utterly damning depiction of fame, there are no winners: neither aspiring stars nor established A-listers come out of this one clean.
On the surface The King of Comedy appears to be a departure for Scorsese. Devoid of the violence, swearing and macho energy of his trendsetting classics Mean Streets, Taxi Driver and the aforementioned Raging Bull, it could be mistaken for being seen as a relatively more sedate, even gentle Scorsese entry. But, as the director said of his corseted, buttoned down Edith Wharton adaptation The Age of Innocence: “It’s the most violent picture I’ve ever made”, referring to the emotional upset suffered by its repressed characters.
The same principle applies here: although outwardly not as visceral as the director’s gangster pictures, the laser-guided precision of the film’s satire is as bleak and uncomfortable as they come. In fact, De Niro’s hapless Pupkin has more in common with Travis Bickle’s sociopathic nature than it initially appears, utterly deluded in his drive to stalk and then usurp his comic idol Langford, blinkered in his quest to get in front of a crowd and share his routine, regardless of how awful it is. If anything he’s scarier than Bickle, masking his tendencies behind a naive exterior and an apparent air of bonhomie, his seeming love of Langford a routine that’s as affected as any stand-up show.
Neglected on its initial release, the years have been kinder to this Scorsese gem, particularly in this era of instant gratification and instantaneous celebrity status granted by empty-headed talent shows and Twitter attention. Pupkin’s craving for fame and attention is everything, manifesting in his alienation from domestic life (practicing his routine at all hours to the irritation of his mother, played offscreen by Catherine Scorsese) and also his ludicrously self-absorbed daydreams in which the fictional Langford’s air of sycophancy pierces right to the heart of the movie: Pupkin isn’t in this to develop his skills as a comic so much as he wants to be adored and loved by millions.
The kicker of course is that this ultimately happens: having kidnapped Langford with help from his deranged accomplice Masha (Sandra Bernhard), Pupkin is able to blackmail his way onto the show and perform like he always wanted. The ambiguity of Scorsese’s lensing during this final scene, held in one masterful take as a career-best De Niro reels off Pupkin’s jokes, is never glib enough to stress whether the routine is a success or not. Indeed, the viewer is forced to look into the heart of darkness, into the character’s very soul, forcing us to assess whether Pupkin’s off-screen audience are laughing with or at him. It’s uncomfortable viewing, a tale of a rampaging ego that is seemingly entirely devoid of talent; need the modern-day social media parallels be further stressed? Even during a squirm-inducing dinner date with Rita (played by De Niro’s eventual ex-wife Diahnne Abbott), Pupkin is unable to prevent the conversation revolving around himself and his aspirations.
Yet where the film secures masterpiece status is in the casting of the legendary Lewis. Through Langford we’re privy to ‘ordinary’ people’s reactions to his celebrity status, best demonstrated in the aforementioned ‘cancer’ scene where he is harangued by a woman for not speaking on a public pay phone to her friend (Lewis in fact directed the sequence and guided the actress for maximum timing). The price Langford has paid for his fame is that everyone feels entitled to a piece of it, Pupkin included, and any semblance of himself as a man has almost been entirely swallowed up. The movie may not be an explicitly spiritual odyssey in the manner of Scorsese’s later The Last Temptation of Christ, Kundun or this year’s Silence, but one can feel Langford is bearing his own cross, his own sense of self crucified for a shot at the top spot.
The story takes its darkest turn when the unhinged Masha fixates on the bound and gagged Langford, no longer seeing him as a man but using him as a soundboard for her own perverted desires. This is the moment where we tip from fan culture into the realms of psychosis, forcing us to question where the line is drawn between mania and danger. As a performer Lewis brings years of world-weary baggage to the role, a sense of authenticity that no doubt arose from weeks of pre-film rehearsal with both De Niro and Scorsese. Famed as one of comedy’s most physical performers it’s Lewis’ very restraint that resonates powerfully, inverting our expectations of him in order so that we’ll better understand the character he’s playing. If his recent, infamously grumpy Hollywood Reporter interview made anything clear, it’s that Lewis still finds fame something of an endurance test.
Scorsese is a director who has continually reinvented himself, from the Catholic guilt of Mean Streets to the street-level, anti-Godfather enforcers of Goodfellas and the whimsical, family friendly frolics of Hugo. Very little in his filmography has dimmed over time, but few of his films have gained in stature like The King of Comedy has. It’s wonderful to see how the times have finally caught up with this brilliantly prescient movie: only now in 2017 can we begin to see what audiences in 1983 were so perplexed and alienated by. Much like Taxi Driver it’s a stark warning about the worst impulses lurking within us, only with cue cards in place of a Magnum, a stage in place of a grubby cab. The impressive Silence may have taken in excess of 20 years to emerge as Scorsese’s most personal passion project, but it doesn’t have a fraction of the vitality of this masterpiece.
Sean Wilson is a writer, soundtrack enthusiast and avid tea drinker. If all three can be combined, all is good with the world.