The King of Comedy (1983)

“What about things that I did for you that no money can buy, no money can buy? What about the time I gave you my spot! You came over there, I gave you my spot! You stood there and I let you get right next to Jerry. I waited for 8 hours for him and you went right next to him cause you were crying to me cause you wanted to get next to Jerry and you got next to him. And what about the time I gave you my last album of the Best of Jerry, what about that? It wasn’t anybody else it was me and I didn’t even ask you for money and I can’t even pay my rent! What are talking about? I live in a hovel! And you live in a townhouse! I can’t believe this girl!”

‘The King of Comedy’, directed by Martin Scorsese in 1983, is an American black comedy starring Robert De Niro, Jerry Lewis and Sandra Bernhard. De Niro plays Rupert Pupkin, an aspiring stand-up comedian who has developed a fixation on talk show host Jerry Langford, played by Lewis. After failing to get his attention, Pupkin turns to fellow stalker Masha and audaciously kidnaps Langford, forcing his producers to give him a slot on the television. It’s a social commentary along the lines of Sidney Lumet’s ‘Network’, another movie about how the media, in particular television, can distort reality. In this case there’s a double distortion: the obsession of Pupkin and Masha and the fact that once Pupkin is on stage in front of cameras, he turns out to be successful. The film is a mixture of fantasy scenes in Pupkin’s head – giving the whole thing a sense of dislocation. Usually these are clearly delineated, but the final scene, in which Pupkin freshly released from prison and now a star is invited onto the television. This ambiguous ending raises the film to a different level – all the satire of ‘Network’ but operating on a psychological level. The performances by De Niro and Bernhard are great: intense and utterly awkward, but the real star is Lewis’s understated and seething Langford. This performance cements the film together allowing the two stalkers to apparently take over and revolve around him. In many ways it is this performance that allows De Niro and Bernhard to shine. It’s an unusual movie, especially for Scorsese, but contains the same feeling of heightened tension as his earlier films.

Would I recommend it? Yes – watching with ‘Network’ would be a great way of getting a rounded view of the quirks and eccentricities of US television and the nature of celebrity. So do that.

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