Is The King of Comedy Martin Scorsese’s ‘forgotten masterpiece’? Every successful director seems to have one of those, those films that get lost in the shuffle and are forgotten about, much to our detriment. Akira Kurosawa has Drunken Angel and Madadayo; Woody Allen has Zelig and Broadway Danny Rose. It’s a natural corollary of being good at what you do—eventually you release so much A-grade content that your audience can’t hope to catch up with it all. It seems that The King of Comedy is one of those abandoned films, and if you find the right critic—and there are a few of them—you might hear that it’s actually one of Scorsese’s best (perhaps even his absolute best) works. Yet three years later he unleashed The Color of Money upon the world, a formulaic and generally underwhelming picture which, given that it came from the hands of Scorsese, must be classed a disappointment. But then, almost no artist could be expected to bat 1.000%.
Given that The King of Comedy is such an unknown quantity to the mainstream audience, might we be justified in calling it secretly amazing? It is, as far as I am concerned, virtually flawless, with a gallingly dark yet funny narrative, plenty of creative directing, and terrific performances from the two leads, Robert De Niro (playing the wannabe-comedian Rupert Pupkin) and Jerry Lewis (playing the late night host Jerry Langford). What interested me most in watching it were the many parallels with Taxi Driver (see our discussion of that film here). The subject in both films is a mentally unstable individual; in both cases he is played by De Niro; both films conclude with the protagonist attaining unlikely fame; both protagonists must dabble in violence if they are to get anywhere. Anyone who claims The King of Comedy is a comedic reimagining of Taxi Driver probably isn’t too far off.
What Scorsese does here that he doesn’t do in Taxi Driver is play with reality. Laced between Pupkin’s interactions with his beloved Jerry are fantasy sequences, daydreams where Pupkin imagines how he’d like his encounters with others to turn out. He dreams an old high school crush is sweet for him; he imagines that Jerry wants to have him on the late night show. The duality between the two is well handled, and over the course of the film reality and fantasy bleed into each other. The scene where Pupkin turns up at Jerry’s house at first seems to be another flight of imagination, but only slowly is it revealed that it’s really taking place. By the film’s conclusion we’re left with the sense that what we’re seeing may not be the truth. It’s a brilliant method of forcing us into Pupkin’s shoes. He thinks everything he sees is real, and we as the sane ones are left with the unenviable task of uprooting the falsities. As with Taxi Driver, we might question if the ‘happy’ ending is valid. In fact, the two films finish in an almost identical fashion: the troubled protagonist becomes a public hero, embraced and advocated for by the media. It could be a dream—the mix of reality and fantasy here lends credence to that theory—but just as in the case of Taxi Driver, I’m content interpreting the end as a snide jab at the media. After all, Pupkin’s essentially a failure, but he exploits the media and goads them into making him a star.
That is perhaps the film’s most clear theme: Pupkin hunting for superficial fame and stardom. It makes sense for us today what with reality television (the now painful cliché of people who are “famous for being famous”), but Pupkin’s something of a pioneer in this respect. His entire life is dedicated to attaining fame; even his bedroom—the basement of his mother’s house—is made up like a talk show set, cardboard cut-outs of the hosts and all. Yes, Pupkin is troubled mentally (he’s essentially a sociopath), but that feeds into his greatest flaw, a flaw that Scorsese spends the entire film magnifying: he’s incredibly shallow. His whole endeavor is shallow. That’s what the hunt for fame is. It’s an empty goal; it’s meaningless. And look at what Pupkin ends up providing us with: a monolog that’s not bad but not good either, a monolog that is pretending to be a monolog. An article in The Guardian described it best when the author termed Pupkin’s act “maddeningly mediocre.”
It is, simply put, a terrific picture. And it arrived during Scorsese’s golden era, a ten-year period where he provided us with Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, and Raging Bull. Faced with those latter two, it’s no surprise that The King of Comedy got swallowed up and quickly forgotten. It was a commercial failure, and various publications pronounced it the year’s biggest flop. It shouldn’t have been. Terms of Endearment won Best Picture at the Academy Awards the next year; the four other nominees were The Big Chill, The Dresser, The Right Stuff, and Tender Mercies. The King of Comedy is better than all five of those films, and by some margin.
A final point to end on: Robert De Niro is magnificent here. He has incredible range—consider the tremendous differences between the roles of Johnny Boy (Mean Streets), Travis Bickle, Jake LaMotta, and Rupert Pupkin. And Jerry Lewis is just as good as De Niro. He is criminally underrated here. It would have been incredibly easy for him to overplay his character, but he doesn’t. He’s cool, collected, and he turns in what can only be termed as an immaculate performance.
B-side: The Color of Money
The Color of Money came at the tail of Scorsese’s aforementioned golden era. It is a bizarrely plain movie. Just after putting on a tremendous show of artistry, Scorsese provides us with something that is, in a word, low-rent. The Color of Money is the kind of movie you’d see late at night on basic cable. It’s straightforward and unadorned. Any director could have filmed it. Each scene involves some kind of tracking shot or pan; the dialogue is basic and utilitarian; the narrative arc is predictable—within the first twenty minutes I’d figured out where the film was going and what the ending would involve. This, as far as I’m concerned, could very well have been a Time-Life production. There is no artistry involved here, and that is not an understatement. Scorsese is utterly vacant. There is not even a trace of the man that made Taxi Driver and Raging Bull. There is literally no visual evidence (save for the title card) that this is a Martin Scorsese film. I would guarantee you that if you cut the opening and closing credits out, no one watching this—absolutely no one—would peg Scorsese as the director.
The remarkable thing is that it isn’t even a bad picture. Tom Cruise and Paul Newman star; Newman is predictably good, but Tom Cruise is out of this world. This is a career film for him; here he’s about the best I’ve ever seen him. And the film does a good job of establishing its setting. After watching it, I felt like I was still within the dirty streets and dingy bars in which the film was set. But aside from that, everything else is totally serviceable. If a no-name director had produced this, I would have been pleasantly surprised. But with Scorsese’s name attached, I left the film more than a little confused. It is almost impossible to believe that the same man responsible for Taxi Driver and Raging Bull and The King of Comedy also had a hand in this.
Next week: the classic Goodfellas!