Monday, August 29, 2011

Film Analysis: Martin Scorsese's 1982 Film, The King of Comedy

This film was not a success financially for Scorsese, who has had groundbreaking success with films such as Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Good Fellas and many others. The budget was $20 million and the United States gross box office receipts equaled only $2.5 million. Nevertheless, this is a film I enjoyed greatly due to its spot on depiction of the pitfalls of celebrity and its themes of isolation and loneliness. Making the film was emotionally grueling for director Scorsese, and he an DeNiro would not work together again for seven years. For more information on the amazing career of Martin Scorsese, see my blog post from February, 2010 titled The Artistic Vision of Martin Scorsese. The top photo above shows Jerry Lewis with director Martin Scorsese. The second picture shows Robert DeNiro (Rupert Pupkin) on the left and Jerry Lewis (Jerry Langford) on the right.

Robert DeNiro----- Rupert Pupkin
Jerry Lewis----- Jerry Langford
Sandra Bernhard----- Masha
Fred DeCordova----- Bert Thomas
Diahnne Abbott----- Rita
Shelley Hack----- Cathy
Victor Borge----- Himself
Tony Randall----- Himself
Ed Herlihy----- Himself
Lou Brown----- Himself

The music production was by Robbie Robertson, from The Band. Scorsese did a documentary about that group called The Last Waltz.

The King of Comedy is about Rupert Pupkin, a man who is delusional when it comes to his goals of fame and his relationship with talk show host Jerry Langford. Langford is a Johnny Carson-like late night talk show host. He even has a sidekick/announcer named Ed. The producer of Jerry Langford's show is played by Fred DeCordova, who was Carson's producer for many years. Johnny Carson, Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin were considered for the role before Jerry Lewis was chosen. Rupert is a stalker, obsessed with Langford, and he will stop at nothing to get his shot as a stand up comedian. Rupert is not unlike Travis Bickle, the protagonist of Scorsese's brilliant drama, Taxi Driver. Both men are obsessive loners who struggle with an inner turmoil of hostility and frustration. Travis Bickle said "Loneliness has followed me my whole life. I'm God's lonely man." Rupert Pupkin could have spoken those words. He is 34 years old, living with his mother, and he talks to cardboard cutouts of celebrities, fantasizing that he is a talk show host.

Rupert and Masha (Bernhard), both are crazed stalkers, obsessed with Jerry and seeking his approval. Rupert confronts Jerry in the back of his limo and Jerry says to contact his office. Rupert does, and is told to submit a tape of his performance. Jerry's people listen to the tape and tell Rupert he is not ready to be on the show. Rupert and Masha turn to kidnapping Jerry and say that Rupert must be able to perform on the show before they will let him go. There is an especially uncomfortable scene where Rupert shows up unannounced, and uninvited at Jerry's residence. Rupert shows up with a woman from high school. He had a crush on her many years ago, and now is desperate to show her he has become friends with Jerry.

The movie ends with Rupert doing his standup act which ends with the line "Better to be king for a night than schmuck for a lifetime." He gets his picture on the cover of all of the top magazines including Time, Life, Newsweek, People and Rolling Stone. He gets one million dollars to write his autobiography. Just like in Taxi Driver, the primary character ends up an unlikely hero.

In the bonus footage Scorsese mentioned how the film has an underlying hostility throughout. Some scenes were improvised, especially the scene where Rupert shows up at Jerry's home. Scorsese's mother played the voice of Rupert's mother, who would yell down to the basement, telling Rupert to keep down the noise level as he practiced his monologues. As usual, Scorsese himself had a cameo role in the film, playing the director of the Jerry Langford show. Like Alfred Hitchcock, he would often do that. Entertainment Tonight called the film "the flop of the year". In his monologue on the Jerry Langford show, De Niro's character Rupert Pupkin says that he is from Clifton, New Jersey. This is possibly an allusion to Andy Kaufman's abusive comedian persona, Tony Clifton, whom Pupkin resembles with similar hair, moustache and cheap blue suits. When Jerry Langford is walking down the street, he is stopped by a woman talking on the telephone. When Jerry refuses to talk to someone on the phone, the lady says I hope you get cancer. This incident actually happened to Jerry Lewis. According to Scorsese, Lewis directed this segment himself. Martin Scorsese has stated that he "probably should not have made" the film.

* Some material from

Saturday, August 06, 2011

Film Analysis: New York Stories

This is an anthology film, broken into 3 segments. I recall liking it in college so I wanted to revisit the movie and write about it here. It was released in 1989 by Touchstone Pictures, and each segment was directed by an iconic filmmaker. It offers 3 unrelated tales with only one thing in common: the setting is The Big Apple. I have always had an obsession with New York, probably since it is the headquarters of so much that is iconic in the world of entertainment. It is the home base for Broadway, several TV networks and so many legendary films were shot in New York. Being a Woody Allen fan has made me a fan of New York also, since it is the setting for many of his films.

The first story is directed by Martin Scorsese, the genius behind Raging Bull, Taxi Driver, Casino, GoodFellas, and many more. His part of this anthology is called Life Lessons. Nick Nolte is a gruff New York City artist living in a loft apartment where he spends his days painting and listening to music. The soundtrack includes music such as "Whiter Shade of Pale" by Procol Harum and "Like a Rolling Stone" by Bob Dylan. Scorsese has used classic rock music skillfully in this film, just as he has done in many others. Nolte goes to the airport to pick up his assistant/on-and-off girlfriend played by Rosanna Arquette. Scorsese uses a slow motion technique with Nolte looking at Arquette that is reminiscent of the same shot from Taxi Driver when Robert DeNiro spots Cybill Shepherd. Nolte is obsessed with her. The alcohol, art and music are his only reliable companions. He leads a solitary life, much like the life of Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver. Nolte's character, Lionel Dobie is preparing for an art show where his work will be featured. He tells Paulette (Arquette) that he gives life lessons that are priceless to his assistants. She wants to move out but he pleads with her not to go. She wants to be an artist and asks Lionel if she is wasting her time. Scorsese takes us into the world of a painter with his close ups of the textured paint on the canvas, a paint-splattered cassette player and tight shots of the brushes. Scorsese's longtime film editor, Thelma Schoonmaker is pivotal to the visual elements of the film. A key visual scene is one where Lionel is painting frenetically, obsessed in his work, and the Bob Dylan song has the line "When you ain't got nothin', you got nothin' to lose". The shot is looking down at him, making him seem small, like he is battling against a mighty foe. Paulette's room is above the main level of the loft and there is a hole in the wall which overlooks the area where Lionel paints. She is up high, he is down low. He gazes up at her room longingly as she is up there, symbolizing that she is above him, in more ways than one. Lionel attacks Paulette's boyfriend (Steve Buscemi) in a bar. Arquette has had it and says she is moving out. She says she feels like a "human sacrifice". Dobie tells her he had been married 4 times before she was born. She has no idea how down he gets. The closing scene has Lionel at his art show where he meets another young woman who he recruits to be his assistant, just like Arquette. The cycle begins again.

The second story is the weakest by far. It's called Life without Zoe and it was directed by Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfather films, Apocalypse Now). It is about Zoe, a 12 year old rich girl who lives in the Sherry Netherland Hotel in New York. Her father is a professional flute player who performs around the world. She is cared for by the family butler Hector (Don Novello, best known for his character Father Guido Sarducci). Zoe and friends interview Abu, the new boy at school. He says he has no friends. The hotel is robbed and luckily a precious diamond earring is not stolen from Zoe's father. The earring turns out to belong to a princess who is the aunt of Abu. There is a lavish costume party for the kids and Zoe returns the earring to the princess. The story ends with Zoe and her mother watching the father perform his flute in Greece. The story and acting were poor in this portion of the film. I imagine that Coppola has regrets about releasing it. The first and third stories are so much stronger.

The third story is directed by Woody Allen (Annie Hall, Manhattan, Hannah and Her Sisters, Vicky Christina Barcelona and many more). It is called Oedipus Wrecks since it involves a son's relationship with his mother. Woody plays a 50 year old lawyer at a Manhattan firm. He is often criticized and embarrassed by his demanding mother. He tells a therapist about a dream. His mother is in a coffin and Woody is driving the hearse. Still, she is telling him how to drive. He wishes she would disappear and quit bothering him. In the film, Woody is dating Mia Farrow. They take his mother to a magic show. The magician takes her on stage for a trick. He puts her in a box and puts swords through the box. Woody watches from the audience with a sense of glee. The magician then opens the box and she is gone. He does not know where she went. Her disappearing permanently is not part of the trick. Larry David has a small role backstage as the theatre manager. Woody's mother is missing for a week and he tells his therapist he feels great. One day, Sheldon's (Allen's) mother appears in the sky over Manhattan as an apparition. Everyone can see her and she tells Sheldon what to do, embarrassing him as always. She even takes out baby pictures of him to show everyone. The mother, Sadie, tells Sheldon to not get married. She is even interviewed on the news and the press also hounds Sheldon. He wants to kill himself he is so tormented. The therapist recommends a psychic, Treva, played by Julie Kavner (voice of Marge Simpson). Woody gets discouraged with the psychic's antics. He thinks she is a fraud. She makes him dinner and he finds that he likes her. Lisa (Mia Farrow) leaves a note for Sheldon, saying she is leaving him. Sheldon goes back to Treva, gets engaged and introduces her to his mother. She likes her, and says she will come down. The motherly apparition disappears from the sky and she sits on Sheldon's couch. The story ends with the mother showing Sheldon's baby pictures to Treva.

This was a good showcase for 3 legendary directors to strut their stuff. 2 out of 3 of them were successful.