Recently, an anecdote was relayed regarding Lana Wood holding court at a local convention.A fan – dressed in what has become the emblematic uniform (black t-shirt, jeans, baseball cap) – wandered up to Ms. Wood's table and began surveying the stacks of 8 x 10s for sale, one of which featured the actress with her late sister, Natalie. The star indulged the admirer, and the two chatted about how Lana played the younger version of Natalie's character in the early scenes of The Searchers. Following less than zero intimate segue, the man leaned in and asked the very well manicured actress: “So whaddaya think really happened on the night she died?"
Without missing a beat, Wood replied: “Bob Wagner killed her.”
Now – since Natalie’s mysterious death aboard the “Splendour” in 1981, Lana has been beating a fairly public drum regarding who she thinks is responsible for the girl’s tragic drowning (a beat she recently resurrected this year), so the former Bond Girl may be expecting some uninvited inquiry into the matter from the casual observer. But that doesn’t make the misfit’s questions any less socially unacceptable. After all – in what other context would you be able to ask a complete stranger about their sibling’s murder, apropos of nothing at all?
This psychic dissolution of the invisible societal membrane that separates fans from the ones they idolize is the fuel for Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy. Ostensibly a Taxi Driver riff featuring a soft-chinned Robert De Niro, shedding his tough guy posturing in favor of a bumbling forcefulness as comedy fanatic Rupert Pupkin, Scorsese’s eighth narrative feature is focused on how the most unstable members of our society not only fill a void in their soul with the entertainments they become enamored with, but also how they assume these pieces of pop culture as their own identity. While not as profane or brutal as his previous profiles of NYC crazies, The King of Comedy is nevertheless just as violent, both literally and emotionally. Yet perhaps the film’s most fascinating element is how pertinent its probing into the very nature of fandom has remained, thirty-three years following its theatrical release.
Martin Scorsese originally didn’t want to make The King of Comedy upon first receiving Paul Zimmerman’s script from De Niro in 1974, despite having been interviewed by the former Newsweek critic. It wasn’t that the director didn’t like the material; he just couldn’t emotionally connect to it during that period in his career. He wasn’t an actor. He didn’t live in the public eye. His every move wasn’t being scrutinized. To the still up-and-coming auteur, it was an intellectual exercise he simply couldn’t engage with. Sure, Mean Streets had earned him a champion in Pauline Kael, and Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore would go on to win Ellen Burstyn an Academy Award later that year. But Scorsese wasn’t quite a household name like his other New Hollywood “movie brat pack” pals, Francis Ford Coppola and Steven Spielberg, both of who would soon be battling for the title of “most bankable filmmaker of their time.”
Then Taxi Driver happened. To put it more accurately – then Martin Scorsese’s masterpiece catapulted him to heights of critical superstardom the Little Italy cinephile never thought possible. From the time Travis Bickle helped win the picture the Palm D’Or at the 1976 Cannes Film Festival, up until 1980 (when Raging Bull saved the filmmaker from nearly killing himself via cocaine), Scorsese experienced the highs and lows of being on top of the world. New York, New York – Scorsese’s insane, tediously improv’d big budget musical experiment with De Niro and Liza Minelli – flopped at the box office in 1977; a disaster saved only by a profit sharing deal United Artists made, tying the movie to Rocky (which unexpectedly went on to become an underdog smash). Depression and drug abuse plagued the director for the next three years, resulting in only one produced project (his 1978 documentation of The Band’s final performance in The Last Waltz). All the while, the press hounded Scorsese, convinced he’d never make another picture again.
In this way, The King of Comedy is just as much a summation of Scorsese’s own self-perception of his fame as it is a broad satire of insanity bred by the public eye. The filmmaker could finally relate to what Zimmerman was saying with his menacingly funny script, and returned to the material as his follow-up to the black and white masculine opera of Raging Bull. Staying true to himself, Scorsese drew on his cinephilia to seek out the perfect avatar for comedic fame, Jerry Lewis; a performer who had struggled with his own image in the United States, while countries abroad lauded him as a God. Brilliantly channeling an entire generation that preceded the picture with a combination of schtick and pathos, Lewis absolutely kills as Jerry Langford, the prime time object of Pupkin’s deranged affections. It’s a performance that only helps to deepen the movie’s inward gaze – a thematic strengthening via a genius casting decision.
While Lewis undoubtedly remains a master of the physical gesture (something as simple as Langford crossing his arms while being bombarded by Pupkin is transformed into a tell-all), it’s the star’s candid interaction with the city that really helps bolster the movie’s case concerning entertainers and how their adoring public approaches them. At one point, Langford is stopped on the street and begged by an anonymous woman in a phone booth to “just say something to her nephew” upon recognizing the TV personality. Scorsese has often said that the scene echoed an actual instance in Lewis’ own life, and the director was so taken by its truthful nature that he insisted the legendary comedian direct the scene himself.
During this moment, Scorsese again recognizes that NYC during the '80s was an incredible urban symbol for America; only in this land (unlike, say…Kansas), you could potentially run into your idols at any time on the street (a fact further illustrated by two members of The Clash spontaneously appearing later in the film). But it’s the reaction that counts more than the interaction. We are a nation of fanatics, star struck into a stupor should we ever come across these superhumans. Yet God forbid they reject our indulgent requests, as we will wish cancer upon them and their loved ones for such an astounding affront.
If a murky miasma of mania best represents how superstars view society as a collective (and make no mistake, The King of Comedy is certainly staring through the orbs of an omnipotent star), then De Niro and Sandra Bernhard (playing Masha, Pupkin’s sexual terrorist of a partner in crime) are the foaming-at-the-mouth monsters they fear the most. Funnily enough, De Niro doesn’t so much create a liege as he does an awkward predator; desperately yearning to escape the set he’s built for himself in his mother’s home and graduate to the big time alongside his obsession. In his heart, Pupkin thinks he’s got the talent to ascend past his status as a mere mortal, and all he wants is a chance to prove it to Langford. Masha, on the other hand, is a little less rational, coveting anything outside the claustrophobic confines of “her own head,” all while hankering to jump into bed with the old school talk show host. The only way to ensure both Rupert and Masha can achieve their converging goals? Through kidnapping, of course.
On its surface, The King of Comedy seems like another overt fantasy, made by one of America’s premiere chroniclers of troubled individuals. But it’d be foolish to not point out that the movie was made shortly after John Hinckley, Jr., a man obsessed with Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, shot President Ronald Reagan. So while Rupert and Masha are certainly heightened caricatures, they are also fictional descendants of real life maniacs, infected with the same fanatic disease. However, beyond mirroring the acts of a man who found an obsession in the director’s work (leading Hinckley to stalk Jodie Foster), Scorsese is also commenting on the nature of talent, and the misconception that everyone is born with it.
Rupert is a man who wants to believe he has that special something necessary to rise and sit alongside Langford, but we as an audience aren’t so sure by the movie’s final reel. While he certainly “kills” during his climactic “set,” we’re still left reflecting on the moments where it seems like Rupert also hates Langford for his own set of skills. Perhaps he knowingly sees something he can never become, no matter how hard he works at it. This realization that your dreams may not be readily accessible (as you were assured they would be as a child) is a tough understanding to come to, and perhaps one of the reasons Pupkin spills completely over the edge into utter insanity. The breakdown of one’s hope is also the destruction of sanity; only Scorsese and Zimmerman blow it up to macro levels of crazy.
The desire for fame is a psychosis so prevalent in American culture that it leads to the cultish objectification of celebrities themselves – a devaluation of them as human beings. Luminaries are no longer people, but things and aspirations, due to the fixation on celebrity as a status instead of an individual achievement. Much like Rupert Pupkin, many want to achieve another level of recognition not just because it’s a career they desire, but instead because they can use the position to justify their very existence. Once the achievement of celebrity is attained, they can look back at their parents, teachers, high school principals and bullies, laughing as they’re now looked up to in the same way they once craned their own narrow necks. Fame washes away all problems, psychological or otherwise. In the end, the interest justifies the individual – not the other way around.