Weekend Movie Picks is a segment at Shoton35.com, where every 2 weeks on Friday I will pick a movie that’s shot on 35mm film and tell you something about it.
| Aspiring comic Rupert Pupkin attempts to achieve success in show business by stalking his idol, a late night talk-show host who craves his own privacy.
In honor of Scorsese’s birthday this week I picked- in what I think- is Scorsese’s most underrated movie. Contrary to popular opinion, this brilliant show-biz satire really is a comedy, albeit not one for every taste: it offers plenty of laughs, but it’s the uneasy laughter that comes after recognizing ourselves in not very flattering portraits. The film was by no means a commercial success, it was the first commercial fiasco Scorsese had since he first reached major recognition with ‘Mean Streets’. The story of Rupert Pupkin’s deleterious quest for fame is one that the New York maestro still has issues with, avoiding discussion of it in interviews.
Far from being a minor film, this is in fact amongst Scorsese’s best. Its subject matter about people obsessed with celebrity culture and the shallow pursuit of their fifteen minutes of fame is a very prescient one. In the years that followed the release of this film the reality of stalkers and people dangerously obsessed with celebrities has become more and more well known.
‘The King of Comedy’ is an acting masterclass. Robert De Niro gives another example of his versatility as a method actor. This was a character different to all other characters that he had played prior to this film and he again completely became the character of Rupert. I saw Rupert Pupkin in the film and not De Niro. Instead of the machismo and tough guy mannerisms, we see De Niro play a character with an awkwardness which exuded humour as well as a disturbing aftertaste in the mouth. Jerry Lewis is absolutely brilliant. He is known for the exaggerated, slapstick humour. But in this film he plays the character of Jerry Langford in a very understated manner and makes the character very believable.
Another actor that deserves extreme admiration is Sandra Bernhard. The character of Masha like Rupert is infinitely delusional and mentally unstable. She is an outsider and thinks the best way to get society’s approval and counter her lack of self esteem is to attract and seduce celebrities. Sandra is absolutely dynamic and like De Niro is funny, but still very disturbing. Even minor characters in the film are funny and memorable like the receptionist in Langford’s office or the Asian butler.
Scorsese had encountered countless of problems before and during the shooting of this movie. First the shooting schedule was moved forward, and Scorsese who just made three movies close together, was in serious health problems, suffering from exhaustion and pneumonia. He also encountered many problems during filming on the streets of New York City, as unions and city officials of the city gave him difficult demands.
In one interview the director confessed:
“It was a very strange movie. The scene when Rupert Pupkin turns up uninvited at Jerry’s house was extremely difficult for everyone. It took two weeks and it was just so painful because the scene itself was so excruciating….what improvisation there was came mainly from Sandra Bernhard in the sequence in which she tries to seduce Jerry. Sandra is a stand-up comedienne and I used a lot of her stage performance in that scene. The sexual threat to Jerry was very important, but he used to crack up laughing. Then it became difficult to deal with, and his comments and jokes became edgier, throwing Sandra off for a little while. Finally he worked it all out and helped her with the scene. People in America were confused by The King of Comedy and saw Bob as some kind of mannequin. But I felt it was De Niro’s best performance ever. The King of Comedy was right on the edge for us; we couldn’t go any further at that time.”
On a technical side of things The King Of Comedy still shines. It’s expertly edited, but also incredibly well shot. Like most Scorsese movies it makes use of a combination of tight, extremely precise shots, with loose handheld camera shots to give you a little variety. While it may sound uneven, it’s done well. Scorsese’s direction is just amazing as always. It’s nothing near the revolutionary, gritty style of Mean Streets & Taxi Driver or the technical wizardry of Raging Bull. But since this is a character driven movie he does what he should and he does that so well that all of the actors shine on the screen.
All in all The King Of Comedy is Scorsese’s cult classic. It’s a brilliant black comedy that is more relevant than ever and should be considered essential viewing for fans of Scorsese, DeNiro, or Lewis, and just anyone who likes damn good movies, but can appreciate a little weirdness.
Also check out this short, in what I think is the best Hitchcock homage that’s ever been done. Only Scorsese could pull this off.