Film

Sandra Bernhard Still Rules in Scorsese’s ‘King of Comedy’

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Rupert Pupkin, the talentless self-aggrandizer played by Robert De Niro in Martin Scorsese’s mordant satire
The King of Comedy (1982),
descends from the same diseased bloodline as Taxi Driver‘s Travis Bickle. His name as ridiculous as his polyester suits and Magic Marker mustache, Rupert is a pathetic stand-up hopeful who’s outraged that his TV-host idol, Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis), fails to recognize his comic genius. His pique and desire for instant fame presage our era of Vine celebrityhood, a condition diagnosed perfectly by quick-witted
raconteuse Fran Lebowitz, the subject
of Scorsese’s great 2010 documentary
Public Speaking: “There’s too much democracy in the culture, not enough democracy in society.” Or, as aggrieved Rupert himself puts it, “Why not me? Why not?”

The King of Comedy, which Film Forum is presenting in a new 4K restoration for a week-long run, brilliantly keeps viewers
unmoored, the result of its consistently off-kilter tone. Though filled with sight gags and corny jokes, the movie is also darkened by genuine menace, as Rupert, aided by fellow unhinged Jerry Langford superfan Masha (Sandra Bernhard), becomes ever more desperate to get the icon’s attention. But the most generative tension in the film emerges from the clash of performance styles — and from the incongruous jolt, still potent all these decades later, of watching a 55-year-old Lewis, that longtime avatar of extremely regressed imbecility, in his first serious role.

Lewis’s character is based on Johnny Carson, whom Scorsese first approached about playing Langford, an offer the late-night emperor quickly declined. But Lewis, born less than a year after Carson, makes for an excellent analogue of the Tonight Show host. Both Lewis and Langford are archetypes of Greatest Generation entertainers, old-guard pros who at the time were still beloved by all age brackets. The era-spanning adulation is best demonstrated during Langford’s clipped saunter — a Rat Pack–style gait that Lewis gilds with just a touch more peacockery — from his Midtown East high-rise to his Paramount Plaza office. “Hey, Jerry!” a group of construction workers yell out from several stories above, their salute directed not only to Langford but also to the legend portraying him.

The straightforward approach to show business embodied by Lewis/Langford fascinatingly contrasts with De Niro’s Method intensity as Rupert. The younger performer, among the most emblematic of New Hollywood actors, brought The King of Comedy‘s script, written by former Newsweek film critic Paul D. Zimmerman, to Scorsese in 1974. Production, however, didn’t begin until the late spring of 1981, just a few months after De Niro won a Best Actor Oscar for the Jake LaMotta biopic Raging Bull, his previous project with the director — and the one that features the star, who packed on seventy pounds for the film’s opening and closing scenes,
revealing just how far he would go in his fanatical immersion in a part. Though
Rupert Pupkin is a more benign sociopath than either Travis Bickle or Jake LaMotta, De Niro’s commitment to the character is no less zealous. He plays the loser — a 34-year-old messenger still living at home with Mom, practicing his pitiful routine in the basement across from a cardboard
cutout of Liza Minnelli — as a man whose titanic self-regard is impervious to those who make absolutely clear to Rupert how quickly they wish to be rid of him.

And yet, with all due respect to these three kings — Jerry and Bobby as overseen by Marty — it is Sandra Bernhard, the countess of comedy, here in her first major screen role, whose spectacular derangement as the moneyed Masha gives the
satire its most outré quality. We first spot the rabid stalker in the opening minutes, distinguishing herself with her banshee-like ferocity among the scrum of Langford votaries who mob him after a show. Her unruly auburn curls are nearly weaponized, and her outrageously wide, ever-yammering mouth suggests the enormity of her appetite for the middle-aged talk show luminary. Masha makes her way into Langford’s limo and pounces on him, her frenzied entrance forcing her idol out of the car. Her hands are pressed against the backseat window, an image of desperation that Scorsese freezes as Ray Charles’s “Come Rain or Come Shine” plays over the credits — a song that Masha will
reprise in an a cappella version, crooning to Langford while he’s tied up, his mouth sealed with duct tape, in her tony Upper East Side maisonette.

Like most of the actress’s scenes in the film, these moments were largely improvised. They illuminate what would become the two key aspects of Bernhard’s own one-woman shows, performances that pivot on her lacerating dissections of popular culture: her florid verbal aggression and her brilliant tweaking of the boundaries between insider and outsider, narcissism and abjection. Shortly after The King of Comedy‘s release, Bernhard made the first of several appearances on David Letterman’s show, simultaneously terrifying and turning on the then-ascendant late-night mainstay, a supposedly hipper heir to the Carsons and Langfords of the world. Wholly unpredictable on Letterman’s set, she dazzled, as Guy Trebay wrote in an appreciation in Artforum in 1998, as “one of the shrewdest and least assimilable of cultural exegetes,” becoming “most famous as that character who sticks in America’s craw.” Masha certainly rankles Langford in The King of Comedy, an unsparing look at desperation and entitlement that still leaves a bruise. Bernhard, in a 2013 interview with Movieline, uncannily echoes some of the language Trebay used to describe her when she assesses the brutal power of Scorsese’s film: “It’s made of earth and mud and shit — stuff that sticks to you.”

The King of Comedy

Directed by Martin Scorsese

New Regency

Film Forum, June 24–30

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