Re-Watchterpiece Theater is a series that explores the organic way that attitudes about films change after you watch them a second time, a third time, or more, further down the line than the original viewing.
It was only through dumb luck that I found out that yesterday was Martin Scorsese’s birthday. If you’re a regular reader here, then you know that I think the world of Scorsese. He’s a perfect embodiment of America as a melting pot, translated to the big screen. And he accomplishes all of it- all of his subtle winks and nods to foreign film movements gone past- without once sacrificing the entertainment value of his films. In that way, you could argue that he’s like Hitchcock- his films are equal parts artful and engaging. All of this discussion of Scorsese appreciation is pointed towards one end. Namely, I honored his birthday by re-watching The King of Comedy (1983).
The First Viewing
The funny thing is, there was a time- not even that long ago- where I knew next to nothing about Martin Scorsese. When I first joined Netflix about seven years ago, I had only seen Goodefllas, The Departed, The Aviator, Casino, and Gangs of New York. And I had only seen most of those in passing. Joining Netflix inspired me to tackle his films with zeal. One of the first selections was The King of Comedy.
At the time, I really had no clue where to place it in his catalogue, nor did I understand where his life was at the time that he made it. I also didn’t have a feel for most of the recurring themes of his films. What I DID know, however, is that Jerry Lewis, Robert DeNiro, and Sandra Bernhard had hit grand slams in their respective roles. I also realized that the film’s title was anything but direct.
What strikes me the most on the re-watch is just how much of a companion piece The King of Comedy is to 1976’s Taxi Driver. Both are about delusional, isolated, socially awkward characters who are heroes only in their own minds. Swap out Travis Bickle’s twisted sense of right and wrong for Rupert Pupkin’s dreams of fame, and presto change-o- you have twin brothers in the Scorsese realm. In the case of both films, for both Pupkin and Bickle, Scorsese sets up the scenery and employs his camera in ways that emphasize his character’s loneliness and awkwardness. And in the end, both characters end up accidental heroes, acquiring their one true desire (Bickle’s justice, Pupkin’s fame).
Along with Rupert’s dreams of fame, we get the flip side of that coin from his mirror image character, Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis). Jerry is everything that Rupert is not. He’s not nervous around people. He doesn’t stammer over his words. He has a way with the ladies, even if he openly loathes their adulation. Everyone knows his name, and he returns their warmth with his own unique chill. Rupert, on the other hand, is universally unknown, referred to at various times as Pumpkin, Puffer, and Potkin. And yet, he returns it all with his own unique brand of (extraordinarily stalkery) warmth. He’s a buffoon around his female companions and he stumbles around for the right words at the wrong times. He is Jerry’s exact opposite.
Scorsese’s dark comedy dabbles in the realm of jilted reality, from the beginning all the way to the bitter end. Many of the scenes are obviously Rupert’s delusions, typically interrupted by his mother’s loud voice. But even towards the end, even when Rupert attains his one goal- a monologue on TV- it’s a twisted reality. He even makes light of it in his stand-up routine, pointing out that all it took for him to get on screen was to take Jerry hostage. Through the fuzzy, lowered resolution of TV, the audience doesn’t know the difference. The abduction isn’t REALITY. It’s TV reality, sort of a fun summation of 20th and 21st century existence. By the time we reach the end, and we see Rupert on his own show, we (the audience) are left only to guess if it’s merely in his head or something that’s actually happening after his release from prison.
Pupkin’s behavior is so socially awkward that it’s downright painful at times, so much so that the film is a dark comedy where you can’t really tell if you’re supposed to laugh. At best, the laughter is a grudging, uneasy laughter. That’s a point in the film’s favor. It makes Rupert’s isolation and inability to relate very palpable and real. The whole thing plays out like a precursor to the best of the Coen brothers, with bungling, inept characters executing absurd crimes humorously.
Even Rupert’s triumphant monologue, which is greeted warmly by the studio audience, is full of cringe-worthy commentary on his own life. He claims that he was bullied, that he has no father figure to speak of, that he’s an autograph-seeking loser, and he literally confesses his crime. The only choice the viewer has is to wince. And just as Rupert
Pumpkin Potkin Pupkin uses the deepest, darkest parts of his soul to create art, so too did Scorsese. He saw it as a film about rejection in a time of his life in which he experienced his own rejection. It was a personal film for Scorsese, and it shows.
The beauty of Scorsese, by my estimation, is that he has never made a truly bad film. Common wisdom dictates that Taxi Driver, Goodfellas, and Raging Bull are his masterpieces. But below that is a lifetime of very good-to-great other films. Linked together, they make up Scorsese’s legacy of sustained excellence. The King of Comedy is undeniably one of those links.