21 June 2009

Better to be King for a Night Than a Schmuck For a Lifetime

Oh just to touch the frays of fame's garment. To walk and talk among the famous as an equal. To be publicly celebrated and recognized. Save only power and riches nothing else is so intoxicating so beguiling as fame. And so few ever know it.

Many films have successfully explored the trappings of fame but none have better examined the obsession to experience it, nor what its it like to be outside of it looking in as did Martin Scorsese's The King of Comedy (1982). The only movie I love that makes me really, really uncomfortable.

Robert DeNiro plays Rupert Pupkin, an aspiring comic who cannot take no for an answer. Hell, he can't even take maybe for answer, or even just a minute. He is determined to be discovered by Jerry Langford, a talk show host played magnificently by Jerry Lewis.

Rupert suffers from what has become a common affliction in our culture. He is a man who has deluded himself into thinking he has talent. And indeed he is wildly appreciated and successful in his very own fantasy life. Fair enough, many of us have imagined giving Oscar acceptance speeches or hob nobbing with the glitterati. But Rupert crosses a line. A very fine one. He blurs fantasy and reality. And thus he shows up at Jerry's weekend home with his girlfriend. In fantasy he was invited. In reality, not so much.

Wisely Scorsese shot the fantasy scenes no differently than the rest of the film. In the film they are seamless. Just like with insanity. One of the finest lines many people walk is between knowing what is real and what merely exists in their imagination.

Fine lines is what The King of Comedy is all about. It's where the discomfort comes from. Whether when meeting Jerry himself or dealing with his assistant, Rupert keeps stepping over it. There's always one too many "oh, and one more thing." Actually that would be all right, one too many. With Rupert there's many too many. Everyone always maintains propriety around Rupert for as long as they can. Boundaries take an awful beating from Rupert who is polite but persistent. Then merely persistent. He knows his destiny -- to be a famous comic -- and can't see why he should bother with any of the niceties in his way such as hard work or receptionists.

Rupert expects Jerry to listen to his audition tape and put him on the show. The notion of working on his act in night clubs is unacceptable. After all he's got a basement with a re-creation of a talk show set in it that includes cardboard cut outs of Jerry and Liza Minnelli. It's there where he rehearses his act. Of course he's also created restaurant conversations with Jerry and appearances on his show. Only the voice of his mother yelling at him from upstairs interrupts this rich fantasy life.

In fantasy we can be an instant success. Today shows like American Idol fuel this notion. Reality shows in general make our 15 minutes of fame seem so easy to come by. And that 15 minutes can be stretched. Oh to have just a bit of fame. With a touch of fame you have access to more of it. And with fame you have immortality. With fame you are right and everyone who ever doubted you, crossed you or insulted you is wrong. From the song and movie Fame (1980):

I feel it comin' together
People will see me and cry. Fame!
I'm gonna make it to heaven
Light up the sky like a flame. Fame!
I'm gonna live forever

The real pain of watching The King of Comedy is in its powerful observations of what it's like to be close to something and not have it. You can stand outside that building where you want to have an office and look at people going to work there. You can watch that girl you love, the one who doesn't even know your name, walk down the street, you can even say hi to her. You can see a famous person, or know his cousin, or watch him perform or stand where he stood. You can get so very close to all the things you want. But possessing them can be millions of miles away. You're left then with fantasies that you can hone and perfect and add detail too and embellish. "Ain't nothin' like the real thing baby," to quote another song.

When all else fails Rupert takes drastic measures. That is to say, even more drastic measures. He has a ready made accomplice. She's an obviously unbalanced woman who is totally in love with Jerry. She's played to the hilt by Sandra Bernhard. It's a part she was born for. They kidnap Jerry. She to have his way with Jerry. Rupert's goal is get on the Jerry Langford Show by using Jerry's life as a bargaining chip. As Rupert says: "Better to be a king for a night than a schmuck for a lifetime."

I'll not give away the end but will say that the great post movie debate is whether what happens next is all supposed to be reality or part of Rupert's vivid imagination. If it's the former Scorsese has made an even more powerful comment on American culture.

During the closing credits we hear Van Morrison's 'Wonderful Remark' which includes this line: "I sighed a million sighs I told a million lies - to myself - to myself." As Rupert should but doesn't know, those are the deadliest lies of all.

(Epilogue. Actor Delroy Lindo sometimes works out at the same gym that I do. I've seen him four or five times. Twice I've seen people go up to him and ask if he'd look at their screenplay. Once someone stared at him while he showered, finally saying, "your the famous guy, the star." I had nothing to do with these exchanges but nonetheless wanted to crawl into a hole.)

1 comment:

Skitch said...

I'm glad someone else has mentioned The King of Comedy. It's a Scorsese movie that somehow has been forgotten, yet one of his best.

I do agree with you that it is unnerving in a way and very prescient for its time.

About the Delroy Lindo incidents...it's amazing what some people will do when a celebrity's around. Then again, people somehow feel that stars owe them something. Just part of idiot America unfortunately.

Another great column!