With Todd Phillips’ Joker proving both critically divisive, yet a box office success, I felt it was time to reappraise a film which runs parallel to it, Martin Scorsese’s masterful King Of Comedy from 1982.
It’s a remarkably prescient film, anticipating the rise of celebrity culture through desperation, the mental health issues of stalkers, and the underdog’s sad back-story taking the place of raw talent in the public eye. Think ‘X Factor’, albeit with deep, psychological scars.
Robert De Niro excels as the delusional Rupert Pupkin, the guy with stand-up routines which aren’t funny, so much as heartbreaking, and suits that would make Pee Wee Herman say, “That’s a bit much”.
Together with his equally unstable best friend and adversary/little sister, Masha, chillingly portrayed by Sandra Bernhard, the pair hatch a plan to kidnap their mutual idol, veteran talk show comic Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis).
Both have different outcomes in mind: Pupkin plans to take over a TV station where Langford presents his nightly monologue, a la David Letterman or Johnny Carson; Masha simply wants to seduce Jerry, with whom she’s dangerously besotted.
Pupkin has his own love interest, beautiful, fed-up bar worker Rita (his real life wife at the time, Diahnne Abott) and sets about a plan to impress her by claiming he’s had dealings with the top Hollywood stars and is a personal friend of Jerry. She gets some solid one-liners herself, riddled with scorn but a hesitant affection for her own school friend. She likes him in spite of herself… or rather, tolerates him.
Of course, it’s a disastrous failure, but Pupkin does get his fifteen minutes, of sorts. The cast are incredible, the script both dazzling satire and sheer horror story on the corrosive nature of fame, and those who seek it.
There are many exquisite scenes: Pupkin and his run-ins with Cathy (Shelley Hack) the studio executive; Masha and her unique rendition of ‘Come Rain or Come Shine’ (what a gorgeous voice, in spite of the terror); the scenes in Pupkin’s house where he ‘rehearses’ his best routines, the moment Pupkin and Rita go to Langford’s holiday home… There’s not a lazy or wasted moment in it.
It’s all perfectly pitched, and gets richer with every view. A timeless classic that always delights, in spite of a dark, incredibly sad undercurrent of demons, narcissism, and loneliness.