‘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.
Cautionary tales of cinema, culture war and Donald Trump
©by Leo Adam Biga
Author of Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film
As a film buff and cultural journalist I naturally look for connections between cinema and social-political currents. There’s been much written about the parallels between a certain 1950s film’s fictional themes and today’s real-life the rise of Donald Trump to the seat of American power. I refer to Elia Kazan’s scathing 1957 “A Face in the Crowd” written by Budd Schulberg (the two previously teamed for “On the Waterfront”) that imagines a narcissist reprobate named Lonesome Rhodes, magnificently played by Andy Griffith, seducing segments of the nation through his insistent, cloying presence in the media and coming to a position of high influence. Only in “A Face in the Crowd” this egoist is exposed for the fraud and monster he is by those closest to him. But nothing dramatic like that happened in the case of Trump. So far. Instead of being called out and brought down, Trump rode waves of racism, classism, isolationism and xenophobia to win his party’s nomination and eventually the presidency. I mean, plenty of people outside the Trump camp pointed out reasons why he is unfit for the job but those cautionary notes about his character were variously ignored, dismissed, discounted and countered by Trumpsters who would stop at nothing to see their champion of alternative facts gain the Oval Office. What the Kazan-Schulberg film failed to anticipate is that unlike in the 1950s, when there were very limited primary means of people getting information – print, radio and TV – the number of news, information and opinion channels has exponentially increased. Where Rhodes used radio and especially TV to fool people into loving him and then became the victim of that same medium, Trump largely bypassed traditional media and used social media to directly appeal to his base and thus build a movement unaffected by the three major networks or PBS or CNN. We are far past the time when an Edward R. Murrow or Walter Cronkite or Ted Koppel or some other trusted media news figure can make a difference by taking an editorial stand. There are far too many clamoring voices for any one pundit to count in the culture war being fought.
Then there’s the old but new phenomenon of some of the electorate and public turning a blind eye and ear to data, reason, even common sense out of sheer naked allegiance to ideas based in fear, not fact, and without the discernment to separate real news from false news or irrefutable facts from alternative facts.
Is there someone brave enough in the Trump inner circle to go rouge and reveal whatever may be the darkest, damning secrets and lies behind what we already know about his house of cards private business empire, his shady dealings, his fascist leanings? Or will it take someone in a prosecutorial or oversight role looking from the outside in to let in the light and awaken the sleeping masses of his supporters?
Two earlier films starring the same actor, one based on a famous novel. “All the King’s Men” and the other based on a hit play, “Born Yesterday,” have Broderick Crawford portray bellicose men whose blind ambition and power corrupts them absolutely. Whatever populist ideals they once espoused and perhaps even believed have been corroded by rank avarice. There are some obvious overtones with Trump in these characters and stories.
But the more I think about it, the film that most particularly speaks to the venal way Trump operates is “Sweet Smell of Success” (1957), whose J.J. Hunsecker is the true antecedent of The Donald. The character of Hunsecker was patterned after such predatory real-life columnists as Walter Winchell, Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons who could make or break careers with their alternately golden and poison pens.
Alexander Mackendrick directed the black and white classic that he co-wrote with Ernest Lehman and Clifford Odets. In the figure of Hunsecker, brilliantly played by Burt Lancaster, they imagine a vain, mean-spirited big city newspaper columnist who wields inordinate influence through his opinions, many of which are thinly veiled innuendoes, attacks and disparagements. Hunsecker cows people by threat, coercion, vendetta and the force of a bullying, overbearing personalty and a dark, sinister character that can neither tolerate the light of scrutiny nor the flame of truth. Hunsecker is at the center of his own world that he expects to orbit around him to pay him fealty. He’s also more than ready to do verbal battle with and to threaten acton against anyone he views as an opponent or obstacle. As far as Hunsecker’s concerned, your either with him or against him. There’s no middle ground. Hunsecker sees only black and white and he’s predisposed to see the worst and weaknesses in people because that’s what he preys upon in order to exert influence and to extort favors.
A figure like Hunsecker can only survive by appealing to the lowest common denominator, i.e. an uneducated population’s fears and resentments, and by parlaying the weird cult of celebrity and authority that attends anyone in the public eye. A Hunsecker can only rule if he’s aided and abetted by toadies, stooges and functionaries who gladly put aside morals and scruples to further his ends and their own agendas. And a Hunsecker is only as powerful as the public’s gullibility allows.
Does this sound like anyone who’s recently maneuvered his way into the halls of power in our present day real world?
The difference being that Hunsecker, just like his real-life inspirations, never got this much power. The closest that an American political reactionary got to this much power in the last century was Sen. Joseph McCarthy, who was nothing more than a gangster and opportunist posing as a public servant. McCarthy was undone in large part by how poorly he came off on television. Trump plays poorly in the media to those predisposed to dislike him but he apparently comes off well to those inclined to support him, which may speak to both the idealogical divide and the weird space occupied by reality TV figures and their followings. If Trump could get this far with so little to offer other than his huge personal bankroll and eventual big GOP dollars, then who’s to say someone even more outlandish or dangerous than Trump might not rally enough support to follow in his footsteps?
In these reactionary times amid decentralized new media and dumbed-down public education, the once unthinkable notion of a Trump coming to power in America has happened. What comes next may be even scarier.
Donald the Imperious is now the President. For some, this movie-movie moment of a real estate tycoon and reality TV star reaching the Oval Office despite losing the popular vote in an unusally divisive election marked by his ugly rehtoric casts a dark pall over the land. This melancholic sentiment, combined with the grey, misty, foggy weather in Omaha, got me to thinking that Trump bears many of the characteristics of heavies in my favorite cinema genre – film noir. That cinema of dark intents, moods, goings-on and settings usually has as its villainous center a suave mastermind or crass boss. You decide which Trump is. The protagonist is generally an anti-hero private eye, cop, attorney or newspaperman going up against steep odds and powerful, sinister forces to expose an underbelly of misdeeds. My screen-fired imagination can easily see this playing out in a real way. Would Trump and his gang get away with it, whatever it is, or would he take the fall and get his comeuppance? Who knows? But the speculation is fun. As for me, I content myself with the thought that we’ll likely to have Trump for only four years. Even if his time in office should play out like a film noir and take us down some shadowy paths, I take faith in the notion that a trench-coated tough guy with a five o’clock shadow and a crooked nose for the truth will make Trump heel and, if need be, bring lawbeakers to justice, even if that means the chief executive himself. Of course, nothing like this may happen at all, but it sure would make a good movie. However this dark art-imitating-life or life-imitating-art episode in American history plays out, it should never be boring and like any good film noir story it should be filled with some interesting plot twists and turns.
Film noir, Donald Trump and art imitating life (or is it the other way around?)
©by Leo Adam Biga
Author of Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film
The grey, misty, foggy gloom that’s settled over Omaha, combined with the United States presidential inauguration and transfer of executive power taking place today, has me in a film noir state of mind. The dark, ill-fated world of that cinema genre contains a certain beauty in its interplay of light and shadow, stark cityscapes, back alley brawls, smoky back room dealings, white hot neon seduction and cold betrayal. it is a dog-eat-dog, predatory world of nihilism and existenialism, of bald avarice, greed and lust. The genre grew out of German Expressionism and took root in a World War Ii America of waning innocence and idealism and had its heyday from about 1941 through 1959. The genre reflected the undercurrent of anxieties of those times: economic depression, hot war, cold war, the bomb, racial strife, organized crime and corruption, et cetera. Every once in a while film noir gets an update or homage when the genre seems a good template for a particulalry troubling period, and so “The Long Goodbye,” “Chinatown” and “Body Heat” spoke to their time. Even the most famous American film about a Whte House occupant brought down by an investigation, “All the President’s Men,” is at its heart a film noir.
Film noir is as apt a metaphor as I can find for the tenor that the new Commander in Chief and his henchmen are asserting as the new gang in town in this time of division and uncertainity.
Viewed in a certain noirish, fatalistic light, our nation’s capitol is a battleground between opposing mobs, syndicates and special interests that we just happen to call administrations, political parties, departments, think tanks, consultants and lobbyists. None may meet the technical or legal definition of crooks or criminal enterprises, but the corruption, under-handed dealings, budgetary overruns, hush money, slush funds, scandals, threats and vendettas are real. They certainly come with the territory. Some of our elected officials navigate this underworld with some subtlety. Others are more brazen about it.
Donald Trump is a lot like some of the heavies in classic noir. He doesn’t pose to be anyone than who he is – a rich, powerful man who will stop at nothing to get his way. Think of the character Noah Cross (John Huston) in “Chinatown” or – and how’s this for irony? – Ronald Reagan as Jack Browning in the 1964 made-for-TV adaptation of Hemingway’s “The Killers.” Yes. Trump has the part down pat. Calculating when it serves him and impulsive when things get tight. Ruthless, vindictive, self-centered, vain. A misogynist with a decorative dumb blonde on his arm. Always scheming to get what he sees as his. You cross him at your own risk. He’s right out front in his I’m-above-the-law attitudes and actions. Smug in his confidence that nothing, not even the rule of law, can touch him.
Where before Trump had only partners and shareholders to answer to, he now has a nation, a party, a congress and an administration to hold him accountable. But will we? Will the office and responsibility he now holds change him? Will he grow emotionally and intellectually into the position? Will the system of oversight work to reign him in when necessary? Or will this rank opportunist find ways and loopholes to get around every modulating check and balance to feed his ego and greed?
What about his agenda? Is there really anything more to it than his nationalistic appeal to make America great again, whatever that means? Isn’t it just all about lining the pockets of rich people like himself? Will small business people and low to middle class workers really see any benefits, especially if they have to pay for health care themselves and if inflation spikes and interest rates go up? Won’t average homeowners and taxpayers pay the brunt of his plan?
Won’t Trump be just another CEO or Boss in this economic political landscape that puts the interests of corporations above the greater good? If he gets his way and follows through on his promises to deport the undocumented, to close borders, to crack down on undesirables, to force loyalty oaths and to cut the safety net for the vulnerable, won’t he be a capo or despot by any other name?
So, in this scenario who is the film noir equivalent of the hardboiled character that will take on Trump and his gang? if it comes down to it, who will help expose him in a journalistic or criminal investigation that looks deep into the shadows of some wrongdoing rising to the level of impeachable offense? Might it be a grizzled reporter or cop or attorney or even senator who has the guts and I’ve-got-nothing-to-lose chutzpah to poke his nose where it’s not wanted and risk getting it broken or slashed? Would any traditional media or law enforcement officer or court or elected official have the will and courage to risk everything to expose such things? Or would it have to come from an outlier like an Edward Snowden?
Let’s hope it doesn’t come to needing a Sam Spade or Jake Gittes to haunt those dark streets in search of answers to secrets and lies, plots and scandals. But if it does, I will try to view the brooding, menacing, treacherous America of Trumpland as a sprawling film noir and hope that a femme fatale or false move undoes it all and humbles him before our eyes.