If you were around 30 years ago, in February, 1983, one of the things you probably weren’t doing was going to see The King of Comedy, Martin Scorsese’s highly anticipated follow-up to 1980’s Raging Bull.
For years, Scorsese couldn’t bring himself to watch the film, which opened to almost immediate and total lack of interest. “I haven’t seen it since I made it,” he told Richard Schickel in the 2011 volume Conversations With Scorsese. “It’s too embarrassing.” While Scorsese clarified that the movie made him cringe, he said it wasn’t because it was bad – although it did receive some of the more savage reviews of the year – but because it hit too close to home. He saw too much of himself in too much of it.
The King of Comedy had its origins in the early 1970s, a fact that becomes more remarkable when you consider that its depiction of celebrity culture gone psycho-pathological – in the figure of Rupert Pupkin (Robert De Niro), a fan so driven to fame he kidnaps a talk-show host (Jerry Lewis) with a plan to ransom him for a standup spot – is now thought to be one of the more eerily prescient movies of its day. Today, the condition of fame-at-any-cost-Pupkinism is so ubiquitous as to be ambient, as common as YouTube, Facebook and reality TV.
To have imagined such a character in the early ’70s, as Newsweek staff writer and movie critic Paul Zimmerman did when he managed to get his script into the hands of Scorsese’s buddy De Niro, was an act of divine precognition. The walls between the famous and the rest of us were still more or less intact in those days, but Zimmerman saw the writing on them – and how, inevitably, they would be breached. Celebrity is all about desire, fantasy, projection and consumption, and it was only a matter of time before somebody like Pupkin saw no walls – and blew right through them.
Pupkin’s defining characteristic is deluded grandiosity: He believes he should be as famous as his idol Jerry Langford (a wonderfully subdued and self-knowing Lewis), and his conviction is nothing short of a total eclipse of reason. Nothing will stop Rupert from getting what he wants; no amount of reason or abundant evidence to the contrary will compel him to see himself as he really is: an untalented thirty-something who lives in his mother’s New Jersey basement with full-sized cutouts of Liza Minnelli and Jerry Langford as his imaginary talk-show guests.
When De Niro read the script, his own fame was in almost vertical ascendance: Movies such as Bang the Drum Slowly, Godfather Part II and Scorsese’s Mean Streets had spread the word of a new Brando in town. The otherwise fiercely private Method-oriented actor was quickly becoming a public sensation, so when he read the script, he saw something close to home, something looming every time he stepped outside.
Not so much Scorsese, who just didn’t get it. As he told Schickel: “I thought the movie was just a one-line gag. You won’t let me go on the show, so I’ll kidnap you and you’ll put me on the show. Hmm.”
The director’s relationship with the material changed as time passed and his own fame was established, giving him deeper appreciation of the Rupert phenomenon from both sides of the wall. Remembering his own obsession with movie stars and directors, and now meeting people who were obsessed with him, Scorsese knew what it was like to be both Jerry Langford and Rupert Pupkin, and while that prepped him to make The King of Comedy, it didn’t make it easy.
“By the time I got around to shoot it,” Scorsese told Schickel, “I found that I didn’t like dealing with the story; it was so unpleasant and disturbing, it crossed so many lines that normally divide private and public lives.”
Watched today, The King of Comedy electrifies on multiple currents. First, there is its unrestrained conviction that celebrity worship is a form of self-obliterating neurosis – no surprise to anyone who has watched an episode of Real Housewives or felt depressed by how few Twitter followers they have. Second, there is its technique, a simultaneously TV-drab and nightmare-daring mode of filmmaking Scorsese hasn’t indulged in since.
Then there is De Niro, the man who not only pushed Rupert Pupkin into big-screen being, but who possibly gave one of the most uncompromising and completely committed performances of an already formidable career: His Rupert is a miracle of unbridled sociopathic entitlement, a needy, unrelenting monster of unchecked narcissism – the kind of guy who is that much more frightening today only because he doesn’t stick out so much.
The King of Comedy would mark something of an end for the director and the actor, who did not work together for a another seven years (Goodfellas), and separately would never venture quite as far out on the edge as they did here. In a sense they didn’t need to, considering how quickly the world caught up – and passed them.