Everyone knows Scorcese and think they have a grasp on what he is about, however for such a well-regarded and widely known filmmaker he still has some hidden gems. The King of Comedy is definitely one of these and should not be overlooked. The film came to our screens just after Scorsese had directed his second true masterpiece Raging Bull and is shot through with the same level of cynicism and contempt for its main character as he showed in his other masterwork Taxi Driver (1976).
Rupert Pupkin is an autograph hunter when we first meet him, joining the throngs of fans waiting to meet a Johnny Carson style talk show host. However, Pupkin has other plans, he wishes to be a comedian guest on his show more than anything and this film tracks the lengths he will go to, to get onto the show at almost any cost. Pupkin is played by prime era Robert de Niro in a truly rabid performance. The levels of desperation and pure cringe inducing hunger for fame that De Niro gives the character at times are as hard to watch as even the most violent of Scorsese moments. He follows and pry’s his way into Jerry Langford, the talk show host’s life in such a relentless fashion that at points it’s hard to watch the screen for the lack of foresight shown. This is a man who will play talk show in his basement with cut-outs of Jerry Lewis’ Langford and Liza Minelli, believing that all he needs is one appearance to become a national star who will suddenly be a household name who everyone will know and love.
In a sense this is one of Scorsese’s saddest films purely because it is so centred around such a deeply troubled and desperate man. We are never really given room to breathe because De Niro is always there, always clawing at the man he believes will give him his big break. Jerry Lewis is also not the most sympathetic of characters, a man hounded by everyone of whom he meets, a household name and yet a snob at heart not able to live any kind of normal life. He is not shown to be a funny guy, his show is never shown and so what we’re left with is what Pupkin see’s, an unhappy man who has got to the upper echelons of American entertainment and is not any better for it.
I fear that by saying how rough this film can be I’m making it seem like a slog, however this is Scorsese we are talking about. The film is funny, at points in a ‘The Office’ style cringe inducing way but at other points just through the sheer charisma of the performers on-screen. De Niro is shown to be a truly incredible actor once again in a role obviously tailor-made for him, he injects human pathos and some level of sympathy into what could appear as just a completely unlikable slightly psychopathic man. He is also flanked by Sandra Bernhard’s Masha, a similarly fame hungry groupie of Jerry Langford whose similar levels of desperation similarly lends her character a humanity, just through the way she seems completely unaware of how unacceptable her actions are.
Scorsese at this point truly is at the peak of his powers and this film should really be as widely seen as any of his best. This is at its heart a satire of celebrity and what the promise of fame can do to people, and yet he is able to bring so much more into it. From the nouvelle vague way the street scenes are filmed to the unflinching look at Pupkin as he waits and waits and waits to see Jerry Langford, Scorsese shows himself as one of the true greats of American cinema. Don’t let this be an oversight in your watchlist, this is essential viewing.
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