King of Comedy, The (Blu-ray Review)28 Apr, 2014 By: Mike Clark
Stars Robert De Niro, Jerry Lewis, Sandra Bernhard, Diahnne Abbott.
It’s a snap to name the three most prophetic movies about the still escalating horrors of Celebrity (capital-C) and pop culture when it encroaches like The Blob: Budd Schulberg and Elia Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd, Paddy Chayefsky and Sidney Lumet’s Network and Martin Scorsese’s back-door masterpiece from a script by former Newsweek film critic Paul D. Zimmerman. Filmed in 1981 but not released until about a year-and-a-half later, it was, in terms of distribution chronology, Scorsese’s first movie in three years during a period when he had usually worked more frequently — and, according to a postmortem chart I once saw (in, I think, Variety) the biggest money-losing film of ’83. Scorsese himself says in an on-stage interview included as a Blu-ray bonus here that while dressing for New Years Eve of ’83 going into ’84, he heard "Entertainment Tonight" proclaiming it the flop of the year.
Well, it is a discomforting picture because it absolutely nails the show-biz nerd subculture, particularly in terms of what New York City fringe living was at that time (I experienced this phenomenon first-hand while in NYU’s Cinema Studies grad program and later, in another city, as a film programmer). This was a loner society of creepy autograph seekers and even stalkers, and Robert De Niro’s Rupert Pupkin character (his name mispronounced by nearly everyone he meets) isn’t that far from Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle, though his violent streak, or at least potential for it, is a little more suppressed. The fact that Rupert lives with his mother and spends a lot of time in the basement also suggests the most accepted stereotype of Internet dweeb-com as well.
In a casting coup that has come to seem even more like a stroke of genius over the years, Scorsese got a more-than-willing Jerry Lewis to take on the straight role of talk show host Jerry Langford. A cool cookie who knows everything about what old-school show biz was at the time, he’s kind of guy who would be much more likely to have Liza Minnelli than The Clash on his show — though, matter of fact, a couple members of the latter show up in one of the many street scenes here as extras. Forced by circumstances to share a limo and a conversation with Rupert on the way to his apartment (a cool cookie itself, as domiciles go), he unwillingly leaves the impression that he might be willing to give Rupert a stand-up-comic shot on his show. But give the latter an inch and he’ll take Manhattan — or try.
Adding to the movie’s strangeness is the fact that Lewis ends up being by far the most restrained of the movie’s three principals, the other being Sandra Bernhard as a not-quite-friend of Rupert’s who eggs on his worst impulses with her badgering taunts. One gets the impression from the extras that Bernhard intimidated Lewis in real life — a Jewish girl giving as good as she gets to a Jewish guy. In any event, tension between the actors is one of the greatest things KoC has going for it, though you can see the rapport Lewis, Scorsese and De Niro still have in a half-hour segment recorded at a Tribeca Film Festival showing of the Blu-ray’s restored rendition last year. Bernhard, piped in briefly by satellite, notes that Lewis referred to her as “Fish Lips” — which later garnered an apology (and there aren’t many Lewis apologies around). Jerry gets more rambunctious as the interview progresses and eventually even does his full-water-glass-in-the-mouth routine that he had fun with in Billy Crystal’s underrated Mr. Saturday Night.
The Blu-ray looks somewhat better than I expected, given the lack of consciously flashy cinematography in the first place and the shot-on-video sequences utilized for Langford’s nightly show (complete with Dr. Joyce Brothers and Tony Randall guest shots). The bonus outtakes feature a long sequence with Diahnne Abbott (De Niro’s real life ex-wife as Rupert’s wannabe squeeze) that doesn’t play all that well — but also a ticklish fantasy bit in which Langford hosts Rupert and Liza Minnelli on the air. Opening this 37-minute package is a much-extended version of the Langford monologue that opens the film — one borderline racy enough to make me wonder if it could have really aired in the early 1980s on this kind of show. Oddly, though, KoC is rated ‘PG,’ this for possibly the most twisted important American movie of its era.