‘King of Comedy’ a dark reflection of our times
©by Leo Adam Biga
Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”
Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro enjoy one of the great cinema muse relationships in movie history. Few American directors have found an actor who so thoroughly inhabits their screen worlds as De Niro does his old friend’s. The pair are best known for their collaborations on:
“Mean Streets” “
“New York, New York”
Powerful films all. But, as you’ll read, I’m making the case for Scorsese’s least known and seen film with De Niro, “The King of Comedy,” as a woefully under-appreciated work that ranks right up there with their best teamings.
Cases can be made for five of the other six pictures they did together to be considered in the Top 100 American movies of all-time: In an unusually strong decade for film, “Mean Streets” and “Taxi Driver” are certainly among the very best of that ’70s bumper crop of New Hollywood films. The first is an alternately gritty, trippy look at the small-time mob subculture that goes much deeper than crime movies of the past ever dared. The second is a cautionary tale fever dream that anticipates the cult of celebrity around violence. Though an acquired taste because of its uncompromising fatalistic uneasy rumination on love, “New York, New York” is a lush, inspired melding of intense psychological drama, magic realism and classic MGM musical. “Raging Bull” is often cited as THE film of the ’80s for its artful, brutal take on boxer Jake Lamotta and “Goodfellas” expanded on what Coppola did with the mob in the first two “Gpdfather” films by exploring in more detail the lives of men and women bound up in that life they call “our thing.”
Just as De Niro came to the fore as an actor who penetrates characters in unusually deep, perceptive ways, Scorsese does the same as a storyteller working on the periphery of human conduct. Extremes of emotions and situations are their metier. Their mutual penchant for digging down into edgy material make them perfect collaborators. “The King of Comedy” is a dark film whose intense, deadpan approach to disturbing incidents makes it read as a straight drama much of the time. But it’s really a satire bordering on farce and theater of the absurd about obsession with fame and media. De Niro plays Rupert Pupkin, an emotionally stunted wannabe comic and talk show host who’s prepared to go to any lengths to make his show biz fantasies reality. His intrusive, hostile pursuit of affirmation and opportunity from fictional talk show host Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis) grows ever more dangerous and aggressive and eventually turns criminal. The character of Pupkin is often compared to Travis Bickle in “Taxi Driver” and there are definite similarities. Both are isolated loners living in their own heads. Viewing himself as a kind of avenging angel, the loser Travis fixates on cleaning the streets of the human trash he sees around him and rescuing the child prostitute played by Jodi Foster. After growing up ridiculed and bullied, chasing autographs from celebrities, Rupert sees himself as entitled to what his fixation, Jerry Langford, has and he hatches a plot with a fellow nut case (played by Sandra Bernhard) to kidnap Jerry. Rupert’s ransom: doing a standup routine on Jerry’s show to be aired nationwide.
“King of Comedy” depicts the extremes, dangers and blurring of lines that make the object of celebrity media worship a target of an unstable mind. De Niro delivers a pitch perfect, tour de force performance as a vainglorious neurotic whose love for Jerry masks an ever bigger hate.
The film is filled with awkward, all-too-real situations that make us uncomfortable because we can identify with Pupkin’s desperate need to be liked, to be respected, to be taken seriously. The character is full of contradictions and De Niro strikes an incredible balance of grotesquerie, sweetness, delusion and determination..As Rupert, De Niro is pathetic, inspiring, scary, funny, needy and strong.
It had been awhile since I’d seen the film before catching it for free on YouTube the other night and I must say it holds up very well, and perhaps resonates even more with these times than with the time it was made and released (1983). After all, in an era when America’s elected a bombastic, egomaniacal reality TV star and grifter as president, is it such a stretch to think that someone could extort and kidnap their way onto late night television? “Triumph of the Will” (1935), “State of the Union” (1948), “A Face in the Crowd” (1957) “Medium Cool” (1969), “Network” (1976) and “Wag the Dog” (1997)show, decade by decade, the unholy alliance we’ve made with mass media’s ability to manipulate, seduce, exploit and distort. Likewise, “The King of Comedy” (1983) shows just how far some among us are prepared to go for attention, power, fame.
Watch the movie at this link–
Now, more than three decades since the film’s release, De Niro currently stars as an old, belligerent standup in “The Comedian,” a film that Scorsese was originally going to direct but didn’t. I haven’t seen it and so I can only go by the reviews I’ve read, but it appears to be a real misfire. I will hold judgment until I see it for myself, and I want to because I’m eager to compare and contrast what De Niro did with the standup he portrays in “King” to the comic he plays in the new film.
After recently watching “The Graduate” and now “The King of Comedy,” I was reminded of what brilliant chameleons Dustin Hoffman and Robert De Niro were early in their film careers. They very much followed what Marlon Brando did during his first decade and a half in Hollywood by submerging themselves in very different characters from film to film to film. Their collections ofcharacterizations may be the most diverse in American film history. These kinds of actors are rare. The closest equivalents to them we have in contemporary cinema may be Daniel Day Lewis and Johnny Depp.
But I digress. Be sure to check out “The King of Comedy” and let me know what you think of its ballsy, over-the-top, sometimes surreal yet always thoroughly grounded take on the implications of seeking celebrity as its own reward and the thin line between harmless flights of fancy and deranged compulsion. In its view, the American Dream and the American Nightmare are two sides of the same obsession. Be careful what you ask for it seems to be saying. And don’t look now, but that schmuck and impossibly irritating, shallow moron may just be the next Big Thing in entertainmet, media or some other sphere of public inflience. There’s something Trumpian about the whole thing and its media is the message theme.
A Degenerate’s Work is Never Done: A New Film Examines Mob Informant Henry Hill, Whose Story Informed the Book ‘Wiseguy’ and the Film ‘Goodfellas’
When I read that former mobster Henry Hill, whose life informed the novel Wiseguy and the film Goodfellas, had left the witness protection program and was living an open life under his real name in North Platte. Neb., well let’s just say I was interested. When I learned a documentary had been made about him by some local filmmakers, it didn’t take me long to get an assignment for a story. I contacted the filmmakers, I obtained a screener of the film, but I never got to interview Hill. He had skipped town for the west coast and was purportedly living as a derelict in Venice Beach. So I was left with the portrait of Hill that the film and the filmmakers offered. It’s not a pretty picture. The film and its makers portray Hill as an unreformed degenerate lost in the haze of alcohol and drugs. That may be true, up to a point. The confounding thing though is that Hill always seems to come out the other side of whatever mess he gets himself into and he obviously has the wherewithall and presence of mind to surface in all kinds of situations and places, rubbing shoulders with the rich and famous, ingratiating or buying his way into people’s affections. And he always sucks in media types for yet another telling of his mob rise and fall and his life in and out of hiding. He clearly loves the attention.
Hill is, if nothing else, a survivor and an egoist playing off his infamy. Once a snitch and con, always one. It just may be he’s every bit the actor that Ray Liotta, Robert De Niro, and Joe Pesci are and he’s just doing what he’s always done – putting it over on The Man or The System or anyone and anything else he can scheme or dodge or manipulate to his advantage. That said, I would have loved to have met and interviewed the guy. As it turned out, a couple years later I met someone very much like Hill in the figure of Clyde Waller, whose story I tell in the piece “Omaha’s Own American Gangster” on this blog.
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
When Lincoln, Neb.-based film producer Ron Silver learned mob informant Henry Hill left the U.S, Marshal’s witness protection program to live in North Platte, he went there hoping for the kind of inside mafia stories Hill furnished author Nicholas Pileggi for the book Wiseguy; Martin Scorsese adapted t into the film Goodfellas. Instead, Silver and director Luke Heppner found an unreformed derelict as the portrait for their new documentary Shooting Henry Hill. The film premieres tomorrow at 7 p.m. at the Mary Riepma Ross Media Arts Center in Lincoln.
Facing serious jail time for illicit drug trafficking and organized crime activities, Hill turned state’s evidence on the Lucchese crime family, of which he was an associate. In exchange for testimony that put away major bad guys, he and his family lived in various locales under assumed names. Kicked out of the program for drug-alcohol incidents, some violent, he was always reinstated. His screw ups finally led he and the feds to part ways. He took back his real name. When Kelly, a woman he was involved with, moved from L.A. to be near family in North Platte, he followed in 2004. Divorced from his wife Karen, with whom he has two children, he married Kelly. He soon got in trouble again for possession of cocaine and meth.
The broken man Silver found working as a cook at The Firefly restaurant in 2005 was ready to spill his guts, just not about the mafia. Silver said Hill, 63, agreed to be the subject of the film on one condition — it focus on his addiction, not his gangster past. Ray Liotta’s portrayal of a strung-out druggie gave a glimpse into Hill’s addict lifestyle. Still, Silver wasn’t prepared for the “wreck” of a man he met.
“I was surprised…disappointed…shocked a man his age was still faced with these addictions and was still acting out in this immature, reactionary way,” said Silver, a veteran theater actor-director-producer originally from L.A. “We imagine these guys as tough and fearless and powerful and dapper and he wasn’t those things and I’m not sure he was ever any of those things.”
Ironically, he said, it wasn’t so much the mafia life that hurt Hill and his family as it was his own degenerate behaviors.
The film introduces us to Hill drunk, his usual state of being. As the film progresses, he’s seen more and more sober.
“We made the decision to show Henry Hill in the order of how we experienced him,” said Heppner, an Omaha resident with local music videos and television credits to his name. “He was drunk basically the first few times we taped him. He was at the bottom of the barrel. When we very first see him in the film he’s fragile. As the film goes on you begin to see more of a stronger person. He looks completely different at the end than at the beginning. It’s the story Henry wanted to tell. It shows his life as a struggle. After all these years, this is who he is.”
On the first day of shooting “the star” was wasted, but Silver said when he suggested postponing things so Hill could dry out, Hill “kept saying over and over, ‘This is who I am.’ I think Henry felt by not hiding it, he would help people. And I thought by showing it we were just being honest.”
As filming proceeded last spring Heppner said the small crew got “sucked in” to the chaos and dysfunction of Hill’s life. “While we shot the movie, his wife (Kelly) left him, his friends betrayed him, he was assaulted, he was evicted, he was arrested. All these things happened,” he said. “We talked about how shooting Henry Hill is almost like making a wildlife documentary. We went out filming this (wild) creature going about his business” in a habitat full of intrigue and conflict. Silver said Hill’s wild mood swings, binges and nervous agitation make him difficult to capture.
The further they were drawn into his user ways, the crew found themselves part of the drama. “We went to be observers and ended up getting pulled into the story,” Heppner said. As a result, the filmmakers decided to insert themselves in the film in a fairly obtrusive manner. Silver, his wife Heather and Heppner comment at various points in the film on Hill, the unfolding madness and their reactions to it.
“It was a tough decision,” Silver said. “We realized we had crossed over into the ultimate intimate of his life. We experienced this together with Henry. We had part of the story to tell. We could fill in the blanks. We knew the audience would be reacting as we did. It made us uncomfortable, too. We felt we could let the audience off the hook by letting them know we felt very much as they do.”
A melodramatic framing device at the open and close of the film shows Silver seated on the porch of his house at night, speaking in hushed, weary tones. In these black and white scenes Silver intimates events have dragged he and the crew down. The closing scene, which ends the doc, has Silver holding an absurdly large hand gun as he informs us he’s been threatened by one of Hill’s enemies.
“Honestly, we were in a very dark place when we wrapped filming. I think the black and white is how we felt. Someone threatened to toss a grenade into my home. It’s one thing to know somebody wants to kill you and it’s another thing to know they can,” said Silver, referring to Dale, a felon now serving a stretch in Leavenworth.
As Silver found, getting involved in Hill’s life means dealing with the detritus that attends him. “It kind of takes over for awhile,” he said. Silver said Hill, released in 2005 from the Lincoln County (Neb.) jail to do an interview for Warner Brothers’ DVD reissue of Goodfellas, somehow gets people to overlook his misdeeds. Some celebs, notably Howard Stern, court him. It’s unclear who’s exploiting whom.
“People tolerate things from Henry they wouldn’t tolerate from their neighbor or a friend. I don’t know why,” he said. “I never felt that way. I never adopted Henry. I wasn’t going to be his baby sitter, and he kind of needs one, and when he doesn’t, he kind of spirals out of control. I would never be that guy. So, when he asked for money, I didn’t give him any. I gave him good advice.”
Silver still keeps in contact with Hill, whose problems persist. Some months back Silver said Hill was arrested in California for chugging booze he didn’t pay for in a grocery store, a crime that due to his priors brought a felony sentence of 10 to 15 years. A judge ordered Hill into rehab, which “he walked out of,” Silver said. Ordered back, Hill no sooner checked in than bailed out. Silver’s tracked him down to Venice Beach, where he said Hill’s in sharp decline.
“He’s in horrible condition. He’s just a fragment of even the guy you see in the film,” Silver said. “Barefoot, bearded, dishelved, sleeping on park benches. Henry’s on edge. I’m afraid he’ll get picked up soon and do his 10 to 15 years. But prison would be a good place for him right now. I think it might save his life. I am going to find him and hopefully he’ll clean up. I won’t abandon him as a friend.”
Silver’s considered the possibility Hill has “a death wish.” Why else would a man the mob wants whacked put himself out there in such a visible way? “I don’t think doing the film was his death wish,” Silver said. “I asked him about it. He said, ‘It (a hit) can still happen. But, look, if I live as Henry Hill and show people I’m not afraid and I become a public person, they wouldn’t dare.’ But he does have a death wish and I really do believe he’s killing himself slowly” with “his self-destructive behavior.”
There’s also a chance this is just an old con’s dodge, as Hill capitalizes on his mob persona via books, TV appearances and product lines. “I thought about that,” Silver said. “He is a con man…they function on…manipulation. But he’s not faking being a drunk and he’s not faking the pain he feels about his life. It’s a sad story. What’s hard for Henry is he has a conscience. He’s haunted.”
While he doesn’t feel it excuses Hill’s criminal past, Silver regards him “a hero” for ratting out the mob. “Henry always wanted out. Yeah, he did it to save his skin, but I believe people are alive today because of what Henry did,” he said. Besides, Silver said, the only thing Hill gained as a snitch, other than fame, was “a life in hiding.” One good thing, Silver said, is he did protect his family. His relationship with Karen is strained, but he’s on good terms with his grown kids, Gregg and Gina Hill, whose book about growing up underground, On the Run, Silver calls a “great read.”
Shooting Henry Hill will screen at the New York International Independent Film and Video Festival in September. Now weighing distribution offers, Silver’s at work on an Omaha screening.
- Goodfellas & badfellas: Scorsese and morality (blogs.suntimes.com)
- For One ‘Wiseguy,’ A Permanent Place In Mobster Lore (npr.org)