Had the good fortune to see again The King of Comedy at the First Annual Wayne Federman International Film Festival, and was in awe of how well it stood up. This was the first time I have seen it on the big screen since it came out in 1983 when I was in ninth grade. At the time, thanks to the tutelage of our high school teacher, America’s premiere film scholar Jim Hosney, I was an annoying young fledgling film student diving in head first at anything that seemed appropriately dark and deep. This was a period, in the early 80’s before the advent of the independent film movement and when most of the great directors of the previous decade were busy dramatically flaming out - Coppola with One From the Heart, Altman with Popeye, etc.. Most of the films that I loved from that I loved from that era have not lived to be classics, and when I see them now I am usually cringing recalling my schoolboy enthusiasm. Blade Runner and Once Upon a Time in America stand out as the two major exceptions, and the former, seeing it now, is clearly a flawed masterpiece, with its Big Philosophical Themes laid on, to adult ears, with a cement mixer.
And then there is The King of Comedy, which probably made it to more senior pages of my peers than any other film of our day. It’s been over a decade since I even watched it and I think I was avoiding doing so for fear that another great memory of youth would be destroyed. But not only was it as good as I recall it was better. It was the rare movie that instead of wondering what I liked about it at the time, I wonder how much of what is going on in it I was even able to pick up on at age 14.
It’s almost impossible to picture a time when one talk show host ruled over America, with a rotating crowd of latter day borscht belters and there was nothing ironic or self-reflexive about it. Carson was not a talk show about a talk show. He was Carson. And across the culture, he wasn’t mocked, he wasn’t parodied; he simply reigned. This was before Letterman, before Larry Sanders…The only things I can even think of that poked fun of this form of our national living room were the very great Fernwood 2night and SCTV..both of which existed in the most obscure reaches of entertainment…Airing at 1 AM… Nowadays there is no talk show which is not ironic about itself; even Leno parodies talk show conventions. But pre-Letterman, that was unthinkable. SNL certainly never even tried to lay a pinkie on Carson in that era.
The King of Comedy alone, went deep inside these conventions and paints this picture of an entirely corrupt, artificial world that is just as brutal today as it was in 1983 (or even 1973 when the script was written). It also, decades before the Paris Hilton era, fortells the coming conflation of fame and infamy and how the bright spotlight of entertainment warps our values. De Niro’s performance as Rupert Pupkin, the obsessed sociopathic aspiring comic is so good and unflinching, that thirty years later it is still hard to believe that De Niro is acting there, that Pupkin is not who he really is. Even more than with Travis Bickle or Jake LaMotta, he disappears into this role without a trace. The film was a massive flop when it came out and one really can see why. De Niro’s performance does not give you an inch to feel for or empathize with Pupkin. If you really stay with what he is about, Pupkin may be the most unnerving psychotic ever to grace the screen. Although for the first time watching it now, I caught how much his infamous comedy routine is, in fact, Pupkin telling the story of his horrible abused life in the only grotesque fashion he can find that allows him to deal with it - the language of entertainment.
Jerry Lewis’ performance as the talk show host, likewise, is incredible, almost unbelievable that he would commit so deeply to such a at once powerful and loathsome character, with no soft moment to redeem him at all.
In that American Masters documentary about Woody Allen, Scorsese remarks that Allen’s pristine and precious New York is so different from the New York he knows - the New York of Mean Streets - that it might as well be another planet. King of Comedy marks the only time in his career when Scorsese ventured uptown to contemporary Manhattan, and his vision of it remains very interesting. The cinematic elements are very restrained in King; there are no montages, the camera is relatively unobtrusive as if imitating the style of a talk show. But I noticed something in how he shot this world on this viewing. In almost every frame of the film - from the titles on - appears a flash of a bright almost scarlet red somewhere on the screen. In Rupert’s tie, in curtains on the walls the color shows up over and over.
The red was the color of power ties - and suspenders - of the day, but appearing over and over it takes on the character of Satan’s face appearing in the shadows in The Exorcist - it is like the flames of hell lapping at the cold, sterile world of midtown Manhattan. Particularly, as Rupert favors it, it is as though he - the demented product of modern media is a representative of Satan. When he kidnaps Jerry, the metaphor is made more specific as he is clad in a Hawaiian shirt (above -middle row, right) decorated with what literally appears to be the flames of hell on it.
The metaphor reaches its pinnacle when redheaded Masha makes the kidnapped Jerry wear a sweater she has knitted for him in that particular shade of red.
After sneaking in and lapping at the edges of the world throughout the film, in the final shot, when Rupert takes the stage triumphant, the stage is bathed in a bright red light and Rupert emerges clad from head to toe in a bright red suit, Satan ascendant.
If anyone has not seen this film - do whatever you have to do to find it immediately. We are bombarded these days with statements about media. Every Goddamn thing now is a statement about media. But this is really the only one you need. On reviewing, it’s probably my favorite Scorsese film and rests forever in my all time top ten. See it! Now!