The irony of being a great admirer of Martin Scorsese’s work over the years, and having never before seen The King of Comedy, doesn’t escape me, and it’s a tragedy in itself. Made all the more unforgivable, as this is probably one of his most rounded pictures, and probably the best of De Niro’s performances for the great filmmaker, and one of the most nuanced of his whole career.
It tells the story of Rupert Pupkin, played by Robert De Niro, whose name, everybody around him, seems to misspell, or not even remember. Pupkin is an aspiring stand up comedian, who is a great admirer of popular TV show host and comedian, Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis playing a very down, bitter, and irritable version of himself) . One night, after one of Jerry’s shows, and after successfully saving him from a stalker named Masha, played by Sandra Bernhard, he gets in Jerry’s car with him. Rupert asks Jerry for his help to start in the showbiz. Jerry reluctantly accepts to help him, and tell him to come by his office the next day. Rupert does, but is deflected by Jerry’s personal assistant, who after numerous visits by Rupert, finally gives in and accepts a tape with Rupert’s recorded material in order to get rid of him. After more unsuccessful attempts by Rupert to gain Jerry’s attention, he decides to kidnap Jerry with the help of Masha, and threatens to kill him unless he’s allowed to appear on Live TV as a special guest of Jerry’s show, and prove what he can do in front of the whole world.
It may seem a simple and straightforward story, but it’s got more wrinkles and nuances that it may appear at first sight. Don’t be fooled. Rupert’s attempts to become a stand up comedy star, are nothing more than an effort to escape the day to day drab that his life has become; and as we later on learn; a way of overcoming a tragically difficult upbringing, with bouts of alcoholism and child abuse. As he clearly states at the end of his Live monologue; “It’s best to be king for a day than a schmuck for life”. In other words; he rather go to prison for his crime than face a life of mediocrity, in the off chance of having his 15 min of fame.
In spite of the absurd amount of curb balls that life throws at him, Rupert remains an upbeat character for most of the movie. That is, until after an impromptu visit to Jerry’s country estate, he realizes that he’s not really respected or appreciated by anyone around him, least of all, Jerry. He realizes that he’s been given the run around by most everyone, and finally decides to take matters into his own hands, and do something about it. It is easy to see the references, and how director Todd Phillips took more than one page out of Scorsese’s book for his highly successful Joker (2019). Both Arthur and Rupert are aspiring stand up comedians, and they also want to escape the mediocrity of their daily struggles, and being acknowledged and respected as artists, but especially human beings. They both resort to violence to solve their problems, but in the case of Rupert, the results are strikingly different. Rupert is a softer, less morally damaged person than both Arthur Fleck or his counterpart in Taxi Driver, Travis Bickle, whose way of dealing with an equally afflicting problem as prostitution and human degradation, is to shoot his way out of it. The end result for both Rupert and Travis is surprisingly the same. In the end, it all works out for them. One way or another. Not so much for Arthur. And therein lies the difference.
As is the case with Taxi Driver (1976), and Raging Bull ( 1980), Robert De Niro delivers yet another amazing performance, arguably his best under Scorsese’s direction, and one of the finest of his career. His character can be both likable and irritable at the same time, which is something quite difficult to achieve, but a test that De Niro passes with flying colours. Another standout performance would be Sandra Bernhard’s turn as a wealthy, but highly unbalanced psycho fan, who is willing to do anything just to get close to the object of her desire, Jerry Langford.
This movie is Scorsese at his finest. No one can portray the dirty, gritty, but amazingly good looking urban landscape of New York quite the way he or Woody Allen do. It is, at the same time, an apt social comment on how uncaring life in the big city, and especially in Show business, can be. Helped by a very solid script, solid performances, and very nice Cinematography by Fred Schuler, this is one of Scorsese’s best. I’m just sorry it took me this long to see it.
Thanks for reading.