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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From Loving to Gold, the films gripped by homebuilding in America

In all three films, capitalism, landowning and homemaking are inexorably linked.

If you’ve been to the movies in the last couple of weeks, you might have seen a film set in a Southern US state. In it, a man drives out into the countryside, and finds a square of untouched land. Maybe he brings his wife with him. He stands on the land and imagines a future in which he has built his own tiny empire on this patch of earth.

Gold, Loving and The Founder, all released in the UK in the last fortnight, are all twentieth century-set films that touch on ideas of the American Dream, and all contain variations of this scene.

Loving would be the story of a typical all-American couple living out their white picket fence dreams, if it weren’t for the regressive laws that invalidate their interracial marriage and see them banned from their home state.

We first catch a glimpse of the domestic life they long for when Richard Loving drives his girlfriend, Mildred, out into a field near where she grew up. “Whatcha think?” he asks her. “Do you like it?”

“You mean this field?” she replies. “This field not a mile from my house that I’ve been knowin’ all my life?”

“I want to put the kitchen right back here,” he says, before beginning to explain. “I bought it. This whole acre. I’m gonna build you a house right here. Our house.” The violins swell suggestively, and Richard proposes.

The scene functions as a way to both paint a picture of the idyllic life that Mildred and Richard were well on track to attain: only a few scenes later we’re abruptly reminded that the deception of the American Dream, perhaps particularly in this period, is that it’s open to all, “regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position”.

In Gold, Kenny Wells (Matthew McConaughey) begins to make his fortune when he builds a successful gold mine in Indonesia. Shortly after his discovery, he drives his girlfriend Kay into a field at Maggie’s Creek.

She steps out of the car with her hands over her eyes. When she opens them, Kenny announces, “It’s gonna be our place, away from it all, above it all, just like we always wanted. You like it?”

When she breathlessly says she does, he begins planning: “Ok, look. The house, right here, alright? The kitchen, facing there, the great room over here, two fireplaces…”

“Can we afford this?” Kay asks.

“Almost, baby, almost,” Kenny says. “We’re almost there. Now look at this, a couple of bedrooms on this end, couple on that end. Look at this playground for the kids! How many kids do you wanna have?”

Kenny’s financial success working the land in Indonesia and the domestic bliss he could achieve building his own home back in the States are intrinsinctly linked in one upward movement, dreams achieved through persistance, self-belief and the ability to visualise a perfect future.

In The Founder, we veer slightly from these familial images. We see the McDonald brothers lovingly sketch out the floor plans for their fast food restaurants over and over again with chalk on tennis courts.

“What if the fryer goes here?” they mutter, trying to find the perfect organisation of stations to maximise productivity and efficiency. Meanwhile, Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton), the man whose vision will ultimately eclipse theirs, drives out to a patch of land and grasps the earth in his hand, whispering to it.

We’ve seen tropes like this before: take the abandoned home trope, for example. In films like It’s A Wonderful LifeThe Notebook and Up, male protagonists adopt abandoned buildings their wives and girlfriends have romanticised in some way, and with physical, rather than financial, effort, transform these crumbling structures into a family house. There’s an idealistic quality to these scenes that suggest any American can stumble across the perfect home and move in, and present a communal attitude to landowning like something out of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land”.

But the scenes in these recent three films suggest something rather different - capitalism, landowning and homemaking are inexorably linked. The success of Richard’s construction business and mechanic work allows him to buy the land where he can build Mildred’s home, while Kenny’s goldmine enables him to purchase a shiny new estate for Kay. Ray’s emotional connection with the ground comes after he realises that he’s “not in the fast food business,” he’s “in the real estate business”. The McDonald brothers put the love, care and attention into the floorplans of their restaurants usually reserved for domestic homebuilding. There are tonal and contextual differences in these scenes, but they all see familial and commercial spheres merge over floorplans. 

But these movies also suggest that there is a lie inherent in the idea that rampant capitalism can lead to domestic bliss. Mildred and Richard are told that the life they have built together means nothing by a Virgina courtroom. Kay and Kenny’s relationship breaks down as his financial success becomes more and more impossible. And as for the McDonald brothers? Both they, and Kenny in Gold, must later face the gut-churning realisation that as their businesses are built on land owned by somebody else, they can be taken away from them, with little to no financial compensation.

There’s a nostalgia to these films – in the blissful life Richard and Loving begin to glimpse towards the end of Loving, after their court case has been won; in the pioneering, take-life-by-the-horns spirit of Kenny Wells and Ray Kroc that secures them their fortunes.

But the Woody Guthrie spirit of “This Land is our Land” has changed its meaning over time: written while Guthrie was paying rent to Donald Trump’s father, it’s now been adopted by protesters at anti-Trump marches. And all these films also cast a retrospectively sceptical eye over the social and economic contexts in which their stories are set.

In an America helmed by the ultimate real estate capitalist with his own regressive views, there is an eerily well-timed hint of cynicism at play. The ideals of the American Dream – that you can prosper regardless of your heritage or background if you just work hard – are fragile. And you can be locked out of your home, however hard you worked in building it. 

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.