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
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