* * *
HUSBAND (ominously): Have you ever heard of Russian roulette?
WIFE (blithely): Certainly, I used to play it all the time with my father.
My mother was an alcoholic. Her alcohol was two percent blood.
—The King of Comedy
With Sturges, comedy is a dialogue, and a joke is purifying, even when it introduces a new uneasiness (as does the Freudian punch line above). Many people say Sturges makes them feel anxious; they must be unnerved by the quick mood swings, which to me seem actively healthy, like the perpetual adjustments of a mind or body to ward off disease—nothing like the locked indecision of anxiety.
Martin Scorsese’s new movie, The King of Comedy, harks back to Sturges in its talkative scale, vivid bit-part characters, and story of a nebbishy failure on a collision course with success (like Hail the Conquering Hero or The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek). But Scorsese is attracted to ritualized obsession, and The King of Comedy is an anxious monologue. It has Sturges’s speed, but with the transitions blurred to a sustained tremor.
The central character is Rupert Pupkin (Robert De Niro), an office messenger and autograph hound who idolizes Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis), the comedian-host of a TV talk show (modeled on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show). When Jerry is assaulted by fans at the stage door one night, Rupert helps him into a limo and then jumps in too. Claiming to be an aspiring stand-up comic, he plays on Jerry’s apprehensive exhaustion, extracting a hollow “Call my office” about an audition. Naive, deluded, egged on by fantasies of intimacy with stars (he talks casually to life-sized cardboard cutouts of Jerry and Liza Minelli in his room in his mother’s house in New Jersey), Rupert becomes an obnoxiously cocky supplicant at Jerry’s office and even at his country house, sure he was invited for the week-end. Here a cold rebuff sinks in—so the next day Rupert and an accomplice, a lusting female fan of Jerry’s, abduct him on the street with a fake gun and extort a deal. Rupert goes on TV while she holds Jerry hostage.
The movie enters Rupert’s head, dramatizing his fantasies to show his belief in them. But Rupert doesn’t weight the movie at its center, the way Travis Bickle did in Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. (Bickle was an evil center, but at least you knew where you were.) Rupert is as lightweight and synthetic as the cardboard dummies in his room. A dupe in both senses of the word, he’s the product of childhood trauma plugged directly into a TV set. His only value is celebrity glory; even alone, his behavior is audience-oriented shtick, broken only by primitive yelling when somebody ruins his timing.
Robert De Niro seems to have thought out (and overthought) his performance as a process of subtraction. In his first big scene, in the limo with Jerry, he pours on the charm as seductively as a make-out artist with a woman in the back seat; going through his paces for Jerry, working a set of dimples I never noticed before, he’s likable and funny. Bit by bit, De Niro pares him down; by the end, at the TV show, he’s a robot whose answer to “You’re under arrest” is “I think I should get made up.”
In Scorsese’s New York, New York, with the richly motivated and detailed character of a macho jazz musician, even De Niro’s windiest comic improvisations had a Sid Caesar-like virility; they used rambling circumlocution as a male prerogative. With Rupert, a figure both hollow and schematic, De Niro is thrown back upon the resources of comedy-sketch acting but denied the freedom to explore them. With a silly mustache and facetious delivery (what Johnny Carson calls a “sketch voice”), he does tight obsequiousness and effeminate “show biz” mannerisms—things that sketch actors like Dan Aykroyd and John Candy do more enjoyably because they’re not nursing a secret plan.
Hampered by his—and the movie’s—concept of Rupert, De Niro often looks as if he misjudged the level of comic reality that the other actors were on. Sandra Bernhard (a stand-up comic, in her acting debut) as Rupert’s accomplice, Masha, is a rangy, thicklipped figure of erotic fury—a streetcrazy bacchante voracious for her Orpheus Jerry’s flesh—who grows steadily more believable. Masha’s swings from rage to gentleness are no more authentic than Rupert’s sitcom drone, but they free the actress’s improvisational skills to suggest the pained person inside Masha, and to shape comedy in patterns that the audience can readily appreciate. Once she and Rupert have Jerry in their clutches, she turns bizarrely maternal, dressing Jerry in a sweater she knitted and wondering if the color is right for him. Rupert has no reaction, just a task: making Jerry phone his office and read the hostage demands off prepared cue cards (a sketch writer’s idea). And even that task loses its shape, cluttered by De Niro’s big sunglasses, funny hat, and gags with mixed-up cue cards.
De Niro’s performance is a calculated gamble that only works in one way: as a reminder that we can be excited by watching some kinds of crazy people, like Masha (or Travis Bickle), but not the affectless ones, like Rupert. At the center of this movie is a vacuum—which puts heavy demands on Scorsese’s directorial presence to supply meaning and feeling.
Scorsese has always commanded a powerfully emotional expressive technique. Most lavishly, for Raging Bull, he masterminded stunning work by his cinematographer, sound experts, and editor, to express not only the physical passions of De Niro’s Jake La Motta but the soul that Jake couldn’t confront in himself. Scorsese answered the yearning in De Niro’s eyes for that spiritual dimension. With Rupert Pupkin, a shell of comic tics, the De Niro-Scorsese collaboration looks punishing: De Niro supplies the body—a hunched, submissive body—and Scorsese supplies pain.
The King of Comedy is the director’s anxious monologue. Its quicksilver ambivalence is like an anxiety attack being monitored by a precision instrument. Throughout, you can almost hear Scorsese’s staccato voice saying, “Is this funny?”
Working in an edgy, spare style, he plots Rupert’s tunnel vision in variations on a single image: a corridor with an audience at the far end. The funniest of these is a scene in a long, narrow Chinese restaurant, where Rupert, flush with success at having met Jerry, is emboldened to woo a former high-school classmate. He tries to impress her by boasting about the signatures in his autograph book, while the “audience,” the only other customer, a man at a distant table behind his back, laughingly mimics his gestures.
Rupert is being a smug showoff. (“Mel Brooks,” he says tutorially, “he’s an ‘on’ comic.”) But he’s also struggling through an unfamiliar mating ritual, and the laughing man in the background is like a hyena. Outside of Rupert’s fantasy, New York is a jungle. In Times Square, he fights a mob for the only working telephone in a row of them, and stands at it for hours in a contorted position (to conceal that he’s just expecting a call): an animal defensively hogging the only waterhole. When Jerry Langford takes a midtown stroll, he moves like a loping show animal uncaged for exercise; Masha picks up his trail and he senses her presence, quickens his pace, then breaks into a desperate run from the predator: an episode from Wild Kingdom. (Sturges did something of the kind, in his 1956 The French They Are a Funny Race, about an Englishman’s anthropologically detached view of French behavior.)
The glimpses of sweetness are so few that they are piercing. A single shot of Rupert’s New Jersey neighborhood—a sunny street with a river view—is a sudden shaft of normal beauty that declares its irrelevance to his airless life in reception areas and fantasies. It’s so poignant that it need only be shown once. On Rupert’s ill-fated visit to Jerry’s house, the camera catches for a moment—moving in almost imperceptibly—a framed mantel photo of Jerry as a child. The boy’s open face, now hardened into the celebrity’s fixed, self-protective mask, silently completes Jerry Lewis’s spartan, mordant performance, shaping a whole life.
The apparently sweet side to Rupert’s obsession is its dream of interracial love. Rita, the woman he now has the courage to court, is a beautiful black former cheerleader, played by Diahnne Abbott (who sang “Honeysuckle Rose” with a gardenia in her hair in the Harlem nightclub in New York, New York). Abbott has a honeysuckle naturalness, and her Rita is the only character toward whom it’s possible to feel purely tender. She senses that Rupert’s urgency really has nothing to do with her; her satin eyes fill up when she says, “What do you want from me, Rupert?” He visualizes their wedding on the Jerry Langford Show, with Rita in white tulle and Victor Borge at the piano.
The sweet dream mixed in with Rupert’s ambition sours when he brings Rita along to Jerry’s country house. She thinks they were invited, and in a peach polyester cocktail dress and straighthaired wig, she looks tacky and defenseless. When Jerry returns from golf to find them cavorting through his immaculate mansion to a Ray Charles record, “Ain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do,” it could be that his horror is increased by her being black. That puts you on Rupert’s side for an instant before you turn against him: his fantasy hurt Rita. Humiliated, she steals a tiny ornamental box from the coffee table, and then apologizes for the intrusion. Rupert turns on her: “Don’t listen to her. She’s a girl who works in a bar. She wants to spoil everything.” This cutting, dynamic sequence destroys not just Rupert’s illusions about Jerry but the audience’s illusions about Rupert, whose racial fantasy blows hot or cold with the Nielsen rating. It’s only an exaggeration when, in answer to Rupert’s “I made a mistake,” Jerry snarls, “So did Hitler.”
“I want to, just, put on some Shirelles. I want to be black. I wish I was Tina Turner,” intones Masha, alone at last with a bound and gagged Jerry in the dining room of her parents’ townhouse, a corridor of amber gloom flickering with hundreds of votive candles. In a one-way conversation brilliantly shaped by Sandra Bernhard, Masha’s insanely controlled dinner-party patter lurches, as she sweeps all the dishes off the table, into a sort of cannibalistic ritual.
The King of Comedy has inescapable undertones of Scorsese’s 1976 Taxi Driver, which drew abuse for its central figure’s deranged view of blacks and, later (while Scorsese was still working on The King of Comedy), for an alleged influence on John Hinckley’s shooting of President Reagan. The King of Comedy was written back in 1972 by Paul Zimmerman, a former Newsweek film critic; as directed by Scorsese, it tempts the Taxi Driver thoughts to surface—perhaps so he can defuse them.
Unfortunately, they are indulged at the end of the movie, in an ambiguous coda (devised by Zimmerman and Scorsese during the filming), set two years after Rupert’s arrest for abduction. He either is, or imagines being, paroled and catapulted to fame by an autobiography and a blitz of magazine cover stories about his felonious TV debut. In a shiny red suit, he’s last seen pinned in the studio lights of another, unspecified TV show—a glassy-eyed star. Bloating a taut little movie with this fancy bummer that fills your head with clichés about Media Mythmaking is a ghastly mistake. It doesn’t share a joke with the audience, like Sturges’s “miracle endings”; it makes the audience into dupes: if you laughed at Rupert’s jokes, you made a criminal a star. And in raising the specter of the controversial Taxi Driver ending, it courts more anxiety, and more press maunderings about movie violence, with a self-destructive irony: the actor whom John Hinckley mimicked is wearing, in Rupert’s apotheosis, the queasy smirk of the former Bedtime for Bonzo actor in the White House.
The King of Comedy expresses anxious doubt about the social impact of celebrity—and of comedy. Preston Sturges tackled a similar doubt when he sent Sullivan, the famous director of Hey, Hey in the Hayloft, on his travels through a nation haunted by poverty and racial injustice. Sturges claimed that the doubt was Sullivan’s: “I am not Sullivan. He is a younger man than I, and a better one—a composite of some of my friends who tried preaching from the screen.” Sullivan’s Travels is a defense of comedy, but a confident one. Whatever doubt Sturges felt survives only in his style of dealing with it: taking it apart and hurling the components at each other. In such a way, he arrived at overall common sense.
Eventually Sullivan finds himself, unable to prove his identity, on a brutal Southern prison farm. One night the prisoners are taken to a church, where the black congregation will charitably treat them to a movie. Sturges shows the blacks, oppressed yet in dignified control of their own sphere, admonished by their minister not to shrink away from the lowly prisoners: “We’re gonna share our pleasure with some neighbors less fortunate than ourselves.” Movingly, they sing “Let My People Go”; then they and the prisoners view a Disney cartoon about Pluto trapped in flypaper. Sullivan looks around at the laughing faces, and he breaks up too. “Hey,” he says, “am I laughing?”
“It’s very funny,” says Martin Scorsese, himself playing the TV director of the Jerry Langford Show when Rupert makes his debut. What’s “funny” is a joke that Rupert has written (about the show’s writers having all been executed by a firing squad). Up to this point, Scorsese’s intense concentration has held two values in suspension: violence and comedy. The world he has shown is much narrower and meaner than Sturges’s. Its reflexes are those of predators and sitcoms, its jokes hostile and full of pain, its beauties few and isolated (Rita trapped behind a bar, a child from the past, a sunny street, an old Samuel Fuller movie shrunk to a small TV screen behind Jerry’s back). Sturges, enjoying his fictional world, populated it with a stock company of eccentric actors; in The King of Comedy, many striking faces and voices in bit parts register as “real” (among them, in fact, are Scorsese’s parents, friends, and business associates)—as if actors’ warmth, like Shelley Hack’s performance as Jerry’s assistant, wasn’t enough to comfort the director.
Even so, Scorsese manages to deliver the line that okays laughter. It’s a nervous OK (he rattles it off and walks away)—no more than a nudging dispensation to laugh at Rupert’s comedy act. If we can, the anxiety cracks into its two components. Scorsese leaves the other half, violence, in the hands of justice: an FBI man who takes Rupert away, after his minutes of televised glory, with the advice to get down on his hands and knees before the judge and plead for mercy for his terrible comedy material. With that, the true ending, Scorsese’s acute, fretful artistry finds a wonderful release—for the audience and for him.