Bickle’s Got Talent? The King Of Comedy




In this age of television wannabes and quick fix celebs, it is fitting to look back at The King Of Comedy, Martin Scorsese’s prescient examination of the modern age’s obsession with fame, and a film he himself acknowledges as a sequel of sorts to Taxi Driver, another classic misfit story.

Both have similar, oddly named protagonists (Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle, Comedy’s Rupert Pupkin, both played very differently by Robert De Niro) and both seek to make their mark on the world around them, to elevate themselves to greatness through their deeds. Whilst Travis is “God’s lonely man” and seeks redemption through a violent cathartic act, Rupert is seemingly more centred. He has an unswerving belief in his comedic “talent”, honed for years in his mother’s basement, recording gags and interviews with his creepy cut-out guests and audience. He also has a weird dysfunctional relationship with Masha (Sandra Bernhard), a fellow stalker at the doors of comedy idol Jerry Langford’s studio and office. Even with her, Rupert can’t be honest, not admitting he lives with his mother. Masha, according to Bernhard, is “Looking for something or someone to pull her out of her overcompensated, rich bitch insecurity.” The focus of her crazy attention is Langford, played by Jerry Lewis.

the king of comedy sandra bernhard

De Niro actually brought the script by Paul D. Zimmerman to Scorsese in 1974, two years before their collaboration on Taxi Driver, but he remained unconvinced until he looked at it again in the early eighties. Together they brought it to Jerry Lewis with a view to him playing Langford, and he got it immediately. Lewis brought many insights from his crazy long career in the spotlight to the film. The scene where he is stopped by an elderly lady on a payphone for an autograph, then rebuked for not talking to her nephew on the end of the line (” You should only get cancer!” she spits) was directed by him directly from his own experience.

What we did is we had long, long lenses so people didn’t know [we were filming]. People actually thought in the street this was happening. I was hiding, and observing you,” Scorsese remarked to Lewis in a recent conversation between the two for Film Comment.

The film is full of brilliant performances, and in the personas of Rupert and Jerry, very multi-layered. Jerry Lewis not only plays Langford in Rupert’s fantasies as a tired, overworked star in awe of his new friend and usurpers talent, he has to play the public real life star, and the brittle, paranoid, lonely man behind the facade. Sitting in his glass screened apartment, reflecting himself back many times, he fends off Masha’s intrusive phone call with a weary, guarded, “How did you get this number?” Check out this fascinating and perceptive 1983 interview with Lewis on making the film by Canadian broadcaster Brian Linehan (thanks to Paul Whitelaw and John Usher on Twitter):

As Rupert, De Niro is breathtaking. He never before played someone so goofy, yet creepy, dropping the alpha male swagger to reveal a monster in a tacky pastel suit, who won’t take no for an answer. Early on, he seeks out Rita ( Diahnne Abbott), a beautiful barmaid who he went to school with, to impress her with his supposed friendship with Jerry. He sees himself as “The King Of Comedy” and “every king needs his queen,” as he mugs to her. On the surface, he appears charming, if self-obsessed, but there is a sad, sinister creepiness to his overtures, even more off-putting than Travis’ shy chat-up of Betsy. Rupert tells Rita, as he shows her his treasured Marilyn Monroe autograph, “You know, she died alone, tragically, like so many beautiful women. I don’t want that to happen to you.”

After being politely told at Jerry’s office to return at a later date with material, Rupert imagines Jerry lapping it up and inviting him over to his country home for a weekend meeting. When fantasy construct Jerry asks him how he does it, Rupert, in a bizarrely honest moment, says “I think it’s that I look at my whole life, and I see the awful, terrible things in my life, and I turn it into something funny.”

New York itself and its inhabitants are characters as much as the main players. Scorsese shot guerilla style, New Yorkers looking on as Rupert and Masha bicker on the street. Joe Strummer and Mick Jones from the Clash cameo, jeering at Bernhard, who improvises straight back. In the film’s pre-mobile age, Rupert hangs on to a payphone for grim death, convinced Jerry’s people are going to call him back, eventually falling asleep wrapped around it. As is usual in a lot of Scorsese films, his mother plays a part, although we only hear her voice as Rupert’s mother, forever yelling down at him to keep the noise down in the basement. “Who are you talking to?” she calls. Who indeed? His one sided conversations are a creepy echo of Travis Bickle’s famous mirror “You talkin’ to me ?” speech.

For Scorsese, a key scene occurs as Rupert returns to the studio offices, when, after his material is rejected, Rupert asks assistant Shelly Hack ” Are you speaking for Jerry?” It is a very hostile question, Scorsese says, as if he’s saying, “You don’t know what goes on between Jerry and me. You’re just a lackey.” It is one of the few moments the mask slips and a vestige of Travis Bickle’s anger emerges.

Rupert is not even able to distinguish between fantasy and reality, taking Rita to Jerry’s country house as he imagined he was invited. After being embarrassed by Jerry’s understandable reaction (the anger underplayed in the presence of a woman – was Rupert being canny bringing her?) even Rita seeks a piece of his fame, stealing a trinket from the mantlepiece. Rupert and Masha then concoct a kidnap plan, holding Jerry hostage at Masha’s uptown apartment, while Rupert is given a spot on Jerry’s show that evening.

Jerry first makes a plea, explaining the craziness that surrounds him all the time. Promising Rupert a chance, he’s almost convincing, but Masha doesn’t buy it, so Rupert tapes him to a chair in a funny overhead trademark Scorsese shot, like a live action cartoon. Bernhard and Jerry’s scenes together here are brilliant, showcasing her weird adulation and star fixation. Scorsese called her character “a sexual terrorist, raw, method, impulsive.” She lights a million candles, cooks (or probably has delivered) a fancy meal. “I feel completely impulsive tonight ,” she coos, a total fruitcake. If Jerry doesn’t like the finest crystal glasses she got for him, then SMASH! she just flings one to the floor.

“Sometimes I’ll be doing the simplest things like taking a bath, and I’ll wonder to myself, “I wonder if Jerry’s taking a bath now?” And I just wonder, I hope you’re not drowning or something.” Jerry sits on, cocooned in duct tape, appealing to her attraction to him to get free. It is both hilarious and terrifying at the same time.

The maddening thing for Jerry is how middling Rupert’s routine on the show is, yet the audience lap it up (Lewis states in the above interview he had to teach De Niro to not be so spot on with his comic timing). It seems the public will watch the “new” anything, and for Rupert, the gamble was seemingly worth it: “Better to be king for a night, than schmuck for a lifetime.” Interestingly, the very end of the film is as open to interpretation as that of Taxi Driver. Is he king for only a night, or does his career really take off? Either way, in his own mind, Rupert has already made it, just like countless deluded souls on the cavalcade of reality shows clogging our screens.


Originally posted 2012-02-06 18:32:40. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

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