Tuesday, October 5, 2010
The Final Irony Of Life
And just like that, several weeks ago became one of those stretches where I found myself thinking about Martin Scorsese films even more than usual. For one thing, there was the premiere of the new HBO series BOARDWALK EMPIRE, which he directed the pilot of and I wound up entranced by just the feeling of true Scorsese that was in every frame of that hour and fifteen minutes. It got to the point where if I was flipping by it during one of HBO’s countless reairings over the next several days I had to keep going otherwise I knew I was just going to sit there and watch the whole thing (at this point, I feel less excited about subsequent episodes of the series). And then in the middle of that week was the twentieth anniversary of GOODFELLAS and just thinking about that meant that I had to stop everything and watch the entire movie once again. So I did. And thinking about it reminded me how I’ve been stalling for a while on writing a piece about THE KING OF COMEDY, keeping the DVD sitting up on top of a pile, taunting me, daring me to put it in to absorb its punishments and think about it some more. But what is there really left to say about THE KING OF COMEDY? Connections to TAXI DRIVER, prescience for where media was going, improv, dark comedy, discomfort, Larry David and CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM, reality TV. What else is there? The film was made at an interesting point in pop culture when the intimate talk shows of the 70s (the period where the script by Paul D. Zimmerman originated) turned into what the cult of celebrity began to become during the flashier 80s with both Entertainment Tonight and Late Night With David Letterman going on the air right around that time. Its reputation has undoubtedly grown since its unsuccessful release in early 1983 but I could believe that it would be thought of even more highly by people if they actually wanted to see it. Sometimes I’m not sure I want to see it. Until I realize that I can’t help myself anymore and I’m simultaneously loving it and desperately hoping for certain scenes to end. And what does all this mean? What does THE KING OF COMEDY really mean?
Part of this interest is personal due to the long ago memory of being downtown with my family in New York City one weekend day long ago and stumbling across a film shoot which was for THE KING OF COMEDY. Naturally, I was most excited to see Jerry Lewis who we spotted walking to his trailer. Maybe I’d somehow heard of Robert De Niro but I only cared about Jerry Lewis. Memories are kind of vague, but I remember seeing from a distance a scene being shot between De Niro and Sandra Bernhard in the Mercedes that they apprehend Jerry Langford in but it doesn’t appear in the film and of course there’s no way I could really say where it would occur in the story but I imagine it taking place possibly during a longer buildup to the kidnapping (This wasn’t the only Scorsese film I ever saw being shot—several years later up in Westchester I spent much of a day for an upcoming mob movie which at the time was going by the rather bland title MADE MEN. That title was later changed). I didn’t see it in the theater during first run—even though it’s rated PG it really isn’t a film for kids at all—and I think when I finally got a look at it on cable for the first time I probably barely even understood what it was. But I’ve always remembered that day and it’s really only one of many reasons why this film remains so fascinating to me, so unnerving and, in its own way, very funny. And there are times when I still can’t bring myself to watch it.
Autograph hound and aspiring stand-up comic Rupert Pupkin (Robert De Niro) takes advantage of a chance encounter he has with the great talk show host Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis) to use it as an in to do is act on the show. Though he is able to get his tape to Jerry’s staff he is eventually rebuffed by being told that he isn’t quite ready yet and further attempts to contact Jerry, including showing up at his weekend house unannounced with hopeful lady love Rita (Diahnne Abbott) result in his getting thrown out. As a result Rupert, together with fellow Langford obsessive Masha (Sandra Bernhard) decide to use their knowledge of Langford’s movements through New York to kidnap him in order for Rupert to achieve exactly the sort of fame that he wants.
It’s very much an eerily prescient look at the direction that what we know as entertainment was going to head down, crashing into a brick wall of where it now is in Reality TV and TMZ hell, taking what might be expected to be a comedy at first glance and turning it into something else. What that something else is turns out to be much darker and nastier, somehow able to get under the viewer’s skin, almost as if it’s trying to get at what’s lying underneath every stupid comedy ever made in which there’s some kind of wacky stalking or kidnapping going on. There’s a pain in THE KING OF COMEDY that comes from what’s constantly simmering beneath the characters’ skins that never quite gets released and one thing which always sticks out for me is the static nature of those medium shots that makes up many of the compositions, holding these powerful players and bizarre non-entitles desperately clinging onto the rungs of showbiz in the frame with no one ever breaking out of them, breaking out of this fixed form. It constricts any sense of actual human feeling and adds immeasurably to the tension, wrapping around each scene like a coil. Working off the brilliantly cutting script by Zimmerman (a former Newsweek critic who died in 1993), whether Scorsese had any specific plan in dialing back the expected flamboyance in his direction (visually speaking, that tilt downward on two separate establishing shots of the theater might be the most blatant Scorsese touch in the film) that we know and love him for, even with several fantasy sequences that are never quite announced as such right away, doesn’t really matter. Keeping the camera as still as he does, sometimes seemingly refusing to cut away in order to give us some relief, adds immeasurably throughout to our discomfort and feelings of total constriction as if we’re tied up to a chair like Jerry Langford ultimately is.
Nothing in THE KING OF COMEDY gives the audience the kind of relief that might be expected. When are we supposed to laugh? How are we supposed to laugh? How can we spend time any amount of time watching the character of Rupert Pupkin, either in a movie theater or at home, with that haircut and mustache of his that would make anyone wonder ‘who the hell is this guy’ without feeling the urge to flee the room? In his own way he’s even creepier, more threatening than Travis Bickle who could at least express enough oddball charm to get Cybill Shepherd’s Betsy interested in him for a few minutes. Even when his ranting comes with all delusion stripped away, like when he lets loose on Masha out on the street, there’s still no way to know quite how to read him beyond how it’s clear that to him achieving what he wants, whatever that ‘fame’ is, is a form of revenge against everyone he has ever met. Much of what we ever learn about Rupert, whose last name no one ever seems to get right, has to be taken from bits we see and hear—from Rita’s response as she remembers him from high school (“Mr. Romance”), his behavior amidst the cardboard cutouts of celebrities in the ‘hovel’ he lives in as he deals with his mother who is, presumably, no longer alive but he still engages in shouting matches with her (voice provided by Scorsese’s mother, of course) in the next room anyway and the self-hatred born in his childhood that emerges from the hostility in the act that we finally hear, that the world finally hears. Actually, his routine is a remarkable piece of writing in how the rhythms of comedy are all correct and yet while it’s not only tremendously unfunny it’s also somehow just totally wrong. What Shelley Hack’s formal but curt Cathy Long tells him about his timing doesn’t seem to be at all incorrect, clearly gleamed from hours of Pupkin watching stand-up comics on variety shows through the years. It’s what is contained within that timing that’s the problem but by a certain point that doesn’t matter since the audience is laughing anyway, exactly as they’ve been conditioned to. In applauding his proclamation of how he’s made it on to the show it’s clear—the audience loves Rupert Pupkin because ultimately there isn’t any difference between what he’s saying and any act that does have one liners that work—he’s on TV, he’s been introduced by Tony Randall and everything he’s saying sounds like jokes so it has to be hysterically funny. And, to him, he’s become exactly what they want to be.
And casting Jerry Lewis as Langford still plays now as a stroke of genius—really, he doesn’t need to act at all—and that alone allows the film to sell the reality of this alternate universe Carson figure doing his show out of New York. It plays as if Jerry Langford is the version of Jerry Lewis who never met Dean Martin yet made it big anyway, working totally alone, with any joy gotten from performing having seeped out long ago. We barely see anything of the actual Jerry Langford Show but with Lewis carrying the authority of his fame we really don’t need to (just as well maybe—an actual attempt by Lewis to do such a show a few years later didn’t last long). Mixed in with the vibrancy of the New York location shooting (maybe incidental to the film’s themes but integral to the feel it gives off) and Pupkin’s own blandly realistic fantasies of total celebrity is a world of mirrors (just as Rupert Pupkin is some sort of unexplainable mirror image of Travis Bickle), indicated throughout by touches such as the entryway Langford walks through as he enters his tasteful, totally bland luxury apartment, what is seen behind them in Masha’s townhouse as well as the Chinese restaurant scene featuring Rupert gesticulating wildly in an attempt to impress Rita, yet behind him is a man (played by Chuck Low, best known as Maury in GOODFELLAS) who spends a few moments in the middle of the scene totally imitating his wild gesticulations, something that never gets explained or paid off in any way. And from those mirrors small pieces get reflected onto the characters—the very first time we see Rupert in the film the audio is overlapping from the clip of The Jerry Langford Show as the host is saying, “I shall adhere to your request, sir.” It’s if such a phrase coming from Langford is always reverberating through Rupert’s head as he pursues what he believes fame is, right through to the film’s final moment when it feels like nothing but the blank reflection that is Rupert Pupkin staring right back at us.
A troubled production for its director that went considerably overbudget, the film flopped upon first release and looking up the numbers, I’m surprised to see how little it actually made as if people really were scared away by it. Deep down it is a comedy but it’s a Scorsese comedy, with nothing about it ever amped up to a ‘wacky’ farcical nature and certainly never fully telling us when the laughs are coming (“You don’t say folks here’s the punchline, you just do the punchline.”). When they do come—particularly around the time the kidnapping happens—the ridiculousness of those cue cards that haven’t been arranged quite right (“It’s not grammatically correct but I think you get the idea.”) are mixed with Langford’s deadly seriousness at his plight. Rarely has there ever been as odd a combo seen in a film as De Niro, Bernhard and Jerry Lewis playing a scene together, lending things a genuine sense of danger to it that anything could happen coming from any of them. Maybe it’s just my own response but as Sandra Bernhard strips down to bra and panties in front of Jerry saying, “Never had this much fun before. Good, old-fashioned all-American fun,” immediately followed by a hard cut to the opening of the Langford show Rupert is about to appear on (well, that’s stating a theme right there) the way the edit happens somehow feels as violent, as furious as any moment during one of Jake LaMotta’s fights. It’s impossible not to wonder what was going through Jerry Lewis’s head while shooting some of this as he was faced with the heavily improv style of Scorsese and De Niro who apparently tossed anti-Semetic remarks at Lewis from off-camera while shooting the agonizingly awkward sequence at the country home, so the anger Langford displays here reads as absolutely genuine (“I made a mistake.” “So did Hitler!”).
The absolute fearlessness of De Niro’s performance, playing a character truly determined in all of his own clueless insanity while coming off as less appealing than Travis Bickle and Jake LaMotta combined, remains much of the reason why the film can be so difficult to watch. With the fantasy sequences merging right into what is presumed to be the reality, he always seems to be performing for a camera that isn’t there, maybe like how Kurt Russell approached the character of Stuntman Mike in DEATH PROOF and he just doesn’t stop, with seemingly no clue whatsoever of what the people he deals with probably think of him. Sandra Bernhard’s own form of danger coming from her comedy matches up with him ideally, with her own apparent madness mixed in with a total cluelessness like Masha couldn’t possibly comprehend the nature of what she’s really involved with. But it’s the anger in Jerry Lewis’s presence that stands out more than anything and it’s remarkable to watch both in the context of our own awareness of his place in showbiz lore and just as a performance. The way he stays still, brooding, steaming whenever Rupert won’t stop talking, the way he calls him ‘pal’ right after asking him his name but most of all in that unforgettable scene where Jerry Langford, in the most patient, reasonable way possible tries to explain his own mindset to his kidnappers. With sweat dripping down his face due to this ordeal yet somehow remaining totally calm as he tries to explain to his kidnappers that ‘he’s just a human being’, earnestly contrasting with Rupert’s earlier declaration how he knows that Jerry is ‘just as human as the rest of us, if not more so’. It may be the closest we’ve ever seen to the real Jerry Lewis and it may not be but it all feels totally genuine as an expression of the insecurities that even somebody like him can have in his life, as close as we ever get to understanding Jerry, or ‘Jerry’, as a human being. This one speech aside, the movie manages to keep Jerry Langford and his innate unpleasantness somewhat inscrutable right up to the end because, after all, the average person watching this can never fully relate to him. In some ways that’s what makes the expression on his face the last time we see him so fascinating.
Placed up against her costars, Diahnne Abbott probably has never gotten as much recognition for her performance as Rita as she should have. Married at the time to De Niro (as well as being the concession girl in TAXI DRIVER) her presence here is somewhat fascinating, with so much to her character never explained. She’s clearly become jaded in whatever her life has been and she’s not an innocent at all, but finds herself wanting to believe what Rupert says about Jerry almost against her better judgment probably because she understandably doesn’t want to be stuck in that bar forever. And the blandly formal officiousness of Shelley Hack as Cathy Long, herself a mirror image of Cybill Shepherd’s Betsy from TAXI DRIVER, in her various dealings with Rupert Pupkin may be one of the most unsung supporting roles in all of Scorsese. In addition to the numerous real-life figures who are either playing themselves or a close approximation of to correctly add to the verisimilitude (particularly Fred de Cordova who was Carson’s actual producer in the role of Langford’s producer, playing things as naturally as possible) one surprising appearance would have to be future star Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio who can be seen standing next to De Niro as the crowd waits for Jerry Langford to emerge from the stage door—check it out at 2:35, she’s there plain as day and I still can’t believe I never noticed her until relatively recently. The Clash can even be spotted out there on the street as Rupert walks away from Masha, credited as “Street Scum”.
It seems somehow significant to me that on the very day last December when I was laid off from the job at the Entertainment-related news program where I worked the cast members of Jersey Shore, which had just premiered, were coming in for an interview. I couldn’t have cared less about it then and now months later as that show is huge it’s almost like the timing of what happened made sense. I actually saw a few of the more famous cast members at Fred 62 a few months back. I still don’t care. There isn’t anything that’s ever going to get me to care about any of that crap. It’s all just people getting famous for no reason. Jersey Shore will run its course, like these things always do, and another piece of crap will take its place but we’ll be left with these bogus celebrities in pop culture forever, all of them talentless Rupert Pupkins, as they continue to appear on other bullshit reality shows or whatever. We won’t be able to get rid of them. The film may have flopped back in ’83, leading De Niro and Scorsese to not work together for another seven years as the director regrouped in his career, beginning with the low budget AFTER HOURS but once the name Rupert Pupkin has entered your brain you can never get rid of it either and there are plenty of people out there who justifiably love the movie. One certainly imagines Larry David seeing it in an empty theater back then and a light bulb going off over his head about the possibilities of its tone (well, the director did appear on CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM a few times) and I also remember how when Scorsese appeared on Conan O’Brien’s show back in the mid 90’s it was one of the main things Conan wanted to talk about saying, “It was about a nobody who goes on television and becomes famous. I relate to this movie!” Jerry Lewis told Peter Bogdanovich in an interview years later that “it was a wonderful movie” except that he felt it didn’t have a finish and, yes, there is a kind of ‘what now?’ to the final moments. We can’t even be certain of the literal reality of what we’re seeing in how we’re deliberately removed from any sort of point of view, keeping that lack of release going right until the instant the credits roll. As it turned out, they didn’t really need a finish. By now, real life has provided it anyway.