Scorsese and the sickness of celebrity

Why "The King of Comedy", released 30 years ago this week, is the director's most disturbing work

 

Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy, a hushed horror film about the craving for celebrity, was released in America on February 18 1983 — 30 years ago almost to the day. Few films from that period turned out to be so prescient. In a sense, it didn’t go far enough: the lengths to which its anti-hero, Rupert Pupkin, will go for fame (or infamy) have been eclipsed easily by the phenomenon of reality television. But the movie is still a fascinating case study. It shows the rot setting in.

Scorsese had helped to bring to life some of the most fascinating monsters in modern movies — Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, Jimmy Doyle in New York, New York, Jake La Motta in Raging Bull. Each of these men (played, like Rupert, by Robert De Niro) use violence or bullying to express what they can’t articulate. But Rupert is their most disturbing character by a long chalk: a celebrity-obsessed would-be stand-up who lives with his mother and performs an imaginary chat-show in the basement alongside a cardboard cut-out of Liza Minnelli. Alongside Rupert, Travis looks like an upstanding member of society, Jimmy a hot date, Jake a happy little bunny.

De Niro first brought Paul Zimmerman’s screenplay for The King of Comedy to Scorsese’s attention shortly after they had finished their first collaboration, Mean Streets (1973), but the actor was always more enthusiastic about it than the director. In 1980, after the "kamikaze" experience of making Raging Bull, Scorsese was itching to plunge into another project, and De Niro finally persuaded him that the time was right for The King of Comedy. It’s true that the script, about Rupert’s obsession with the chat-show king Jerry Langford — which leads him eventually to kidnap Langford and demand a slot on his show by way of ransom — had ripened with the growth of celebrity culture in the US. But in retrospect, Scorsese wondered if he had been right to direct the picture: “I didn’t feel comfortable with it. The King of Comedy was something that De Niro liked and I had to be convinced to do. If I have to be convinced to do something, I shouldn’t do it. I realised that I only want to do pictures that come from me.”

It was conceived as a quick, guerilla-style shoot after the lengthy production of Raging Bull, as well as a pick-me-up for Scorsese after a bout of pneumonia. But it didn’t turn out that way. “I didn’t make the film fast enough,” he said. “I went on too long and I lost my energy. Every day I had to get myself back into why I wanted to make the picture.”

Odd to think that the movie was considered plum material for a breezy shoot: its defining characteristics include a painstakingly slow pace and an over-deliberate fixation on images that convey the emptiness of celebrities and those who stalk them. You can see that from the off, when Scorsese freeze-frames the image of a fan’s hands squashed against the window of Langford’s limousine. This tableau is made all the more bizarre by being caught in the lightning glare of paparazzi flashbulbs. We have to look at that image for so long as the credits play over it that we want to scream.

That’s the reaction Scorsese was going for. So many of the scenes here are protracted for maximum audience discomfort: for instance, Rupert taking his friend Rita to Langford’s country house for a lunch date that exists only in his own warped mind. The social embarrassment when Langford confronts his uninvited guests is agonising.

With his slicked hair, ingratiating manner and Huey Lewis dress sense, De Niro gives a grotesque performance devoid of vanity, but there’s sound work too from Jerry Lewis, impressively implacable as Langford. The celebrity resonance invoked in the casting of this giant of US showbusiness works to the film’s advantage. Scorsese had first approached Johnny Carson to play the part, but Carson turned it down. He even considered Frank Sinatra. But it’s unlikely that either of them would have been as game, or as glum, as Lewis. His performance is like one long Mexican stand-off with his co-stars, whether it’s De Niro weaseling his way into his limo, or real-life comic and former Friend Of Madonna Sandra Bernhard stripping for him after first mummifying him with parcel tape.

With its despairing worldview, dislikable characters and callous humour, The King of Comedy is not easy to warm to, though the film is widely admired (if not loved by the public at large: it grossed a measly $2.5m in its entire run). The 1980s were difficult for Scorsese: after Raging Bull, he took on a series of unambitious films not originated by him (After Hours, The Color of Money) before expending enormous energy on his troubled pet project The Last Temptation of Christ. But The King of Comedy endures, partly because it is an uncompromising movie and partly because its relevance only increased with each passing year and each new celebrity who becomes famous for being famous.

Martin Scorsese and Robert de Niro in 2008

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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Britain's diversity crisis starts with its writers. Here's why

What happens on the casting couch draws the headline, but the problem starts on the page, says James Graham. 

I’m a playwright and screenwriter, which – pertinent to the issues we’ll be discussing in this enquiry – still feels weird to say. I get embarrassed, still, saying that, in a taxi or hairdressers. I don’t know why I still carry that insecurity about saying I’m a writer, but I do, because it sounds like I’m lying, even in my own head.

Obviously I’m completely biased, and probably overstating the influence and importance of my own profession, but I think so many of the problems surrounding lack of representation in the performing arts start with writers.

If we aren’t encouraging and generating writers from certain communities, classes or backgrounds to tell their stories, to write those roles, then there’s not going to be a demand for actors from those communities to play them. For casting agents or drama schools to prioritise getting diverse actors on stage. We need to create those plays and TV dramas –like the ones that I grew up with. I didn’t have any access to much theatre until I was fifteen, but I did have Boys From the Black Stuff, and I did have Cracker, and I did have Band of Gold. I think the loss of those regional producing bodies – Central, Granada – now all completely centralised into London, means that we just tell less of those stories. I remember a TV show called Boon – anyone? – which was set in Nottingham, and I would see on the TV streets I’d walked down, and think, Oh my God, that actor is walking down a street I’ve walked down. That sounds like it’s insignificant. If you’re from a town that is deprived, that feels ignored, it isn’t.

I was very lucky that at my school (which was, at the time, the largest comprehensive school in the country), from the headmaster down to the drama teachers, everyone just believed that working class kids should do plays. Be in plays, read plays, perform plays to the community. Both inside the curriculum of the school day, and outside it – drama teachers dedicating their time to staying behind. Our head of drama identified a group of us who clearly had a passion for it. We weren’t likely thesps. One lad’s entire family were made unemployed when the pit closed. Many lived on the big council estate. My parents and step-parents worked respectively in warehouses, the local council, or as the local window cleaner (incidentally, my first real job. Which I was terrible at).

Our drama teacher was encouraged and determined enough to launch the first ever Drama A-Level in our school. Based on that, about 10 or 12 of us got the confidence – or arrogance – to take our own show to the Edinburgh Festival. We were 16 or 17, and the first people in our community to ever go to visit the festival. We did a play up there, and after that, a psychological unlocking happened, where I thought: maybe I could do a degree in drama (it was the first time I had ever thought to do so) at university (the first in my family to go. Well, joint-first. My twin sister went on the same day, but I walked into my digs first).

I enrolled in drama at Hull University. A high proportion of my peers were middle class. A higher proportion from London or the South East. They talked often about institutions I had never heard of. They were talking about the National Theatre: I didn’t know we had a national theatre that my parents had been paying tax for that I had never been to. Many had performed with the (again, apparently) ‘National’ Youth Theatre, also in London. Paul Roseby, also on this panel, has made such leaps forward in getting the NYT producing in regional venues, and making auditions possible for people across the UK, but unfortunately, at the time, that wasn’t the case for me – and I was the ideal candidate to be in the National Youth Theatre.

I started writing because I had the confidence after I read texts by people like Jim Cartwright, Alan Bennett, John Godber, Alan Ayckbourn: Northern writers, working class writers that made me think it wasn’t just something that other people do.

After returning home, and working at local theatres, I moved down to London. I had to. The major new writing producers are there. All the TV companies are there. The agents are there. I was lucky to find support in a pub fringe theatre – though the economics meant there was no money to commission, so I wrote plays for free for about four years, that would get produced, and reviewed in the national press, while I worked various jobs in the day and slept for a time on a mate's floor. The first person to ever pay to commission me to write a play was Paul Roseby of the National Youth Theatre. I’m now very lucky to be earning a living doing something I love. In a way, compared to actors, or directors, it’s easier for writers who don’t come from a background that can sustain them, financially, in those early years. Your hours can be more flexible. Yes, it was annoying to miss rehearsals because I had a shift in a call centre, but it was still possible to do it. If you’re an actor or director, you’re fully committed. And if you’re doing that for nothing, there starts to be cut-off point for those from backgrounds who can’t.

I’m sure that local and regional theatres are the key to drawing in talent from less privileged backgrounds. But the range of national arts journalism that cover work outside London has been so significantly reduced. In our little echo chamber a few weeks ago, we theatre types talked about Lyn Gardner at the Guardian. Her coverage has been cut, which is very directly going to affect her ability to cover theatre shows outside of London – and so the self-fulfilling cycle of artists leaving their communities to work exclusively in London takes another, inevitable, turn.

I am culpable in this cycle. I have never done a play at the Nottingham Playhouse, my local producing house growing up – why? Because I’ve never submitted one, because I know that it will get less national press attention. So I just open it in London instead. That’s terrible of me. And I should just bite the bullet and say it doesn’t matter about the attention it gets, I should just go and do a story for my community. And if I, and others, started doing that more, maybe they will come.

I also want to blame myself for not contributing back to the state schools that I come from. I really really enjoy going to do writing workshops with kids in schools, but I would say 90 per cent of those that I get invited to are private schools, or boarding schools, or in the South of England. Either because they’re the ones that ask me, because they’re the ones who come and see my shows in London and see me afterwards backstage, or because they have the confidence to email my agent, or they have the budget to pay for my train ticket. Either way, I should do more. It would have helped the younger me so much to meet a real person, from my background, doing what I wanted to do.

I don’t know how to facilitate that. I take inspiration from Act for Change, creating a grassroots organisation. I know that there is a wealth of industry professionals like me who would, if there was a joined-up structure in place that got us out there into less privileged communities, we would on a regular basis go to schools who don’t get to meet industry professionals and don’t unlock that cultural and psychological block that working class kids have that says, that is not for me, that is something that other people do, I would dedicate so much of my time to it. That’s just one idea of hopefully better ones from other people that might come out of this enquiry.

James Graham is a playwright and screenwriter. This piece is adapted from evidence given by James Graham at an inquiry, Acting Up – Breaking the Class Ceiling in the Performing Arts, looking into the problem of a lack of diversity and a class divide in acting in the UK, led by MPs Gloria De Piero and Tracy Brabin.