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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Moss Side Public Laundry, 1979

A new poem by Pippa Little.

Childless I arrive with a rucksack,
own no Silver Cross steered topple-high
by the bare-legged women in check coats
and bulging shoes who load and unload
ropes of wet sheets, wring them out
to rams’ horns while heat-slap of steam
dries to tinsel in our hair, frizzles our lips
gritty with Daz sherbert dabs and the mangle,
wide as a room-size remnant, never stops groaning
one slip and you’re done for…

In the boom and echo of it, their calls swoop
over Cross-your-Hearts, Man. City socks,
crimplene pinks and snagged underskirts,
Maggie Maggie Maggie Out Out Out! blasts
from across the park, whole streets
get knocked out like teeth,
in a back alley on the way a man
jumped me, shocked as I was
by the fuck off! I didn’t know was in me

but which I try out now to make them laugh, these women
who scrub blood and beer and come
with red-brick soap, quick-starch a party dress
while dryers flop and roar
before their kids fly out of school,
flock outside for a smoke’s sweet rest
from the future bearing down of four walls and one man.

Pippa Little’s collection Overwintering (Carcanet) was shortlisted for the Seamus Heaney Centre Award. Her new book, Twist, was published in March by Arc. 

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder