DIRECTED BY MARTIN SCORSESE
STARRING: ROBERT DE NIRO, JERRY LEWIS, SANDRA BERNHARD, DIAHNNE ABBOTT, SHELLEY HACK with ED HERLIHY and TONY RANDALL
The funniest from Robert De Niro turns out to be his saddest as well. Martin Scorsese’s ‘the King of Comedy’ might not have any of the gags one would expect it to have, it has absolutely no stand-up save for Rupert Pupkin’s (De Niro) final monologue that comes as but a last gasp. But it’s funny. And cute as a button. You might have nothing to talk about once you’re done watching, you’d have no haul of memorabilia, no scenes or lines that you can tell a friend, but you absolutely devour what goes on when it’s on. It brings about the eagerness of the fan in you, never the disappointment. And when it’s over, you come to realize that Pupkin was no pity-bin where you could dump your sighs. He was just what he claimed he was – a really funny man.
Jerry Langford (played by Jerry Lewis) is a television star who has it big on his own show that features such names as Tony Randall, Richard Dreyfuss and Elizabeth Ashley. Everyone else plays himself or herself, name unchanged, but Lewis is victim of a filmmaker’s caution, the sort of thing Steve Coogan was to clear of in the variations he has played of himself in a bunch of Michael Winterbottom films. But then again, an actor like Lewis would have a lot more to lose. Plus, this film is not about him. The star is distanced from the viewer, it’s but the minnow who’s supposed to endear as has always been the custom. At least up until George Simmons came along.
As Langford, Lewis keeps his initials as well as his style. He has a characteristically twitchy, effeminate walk that looks out of place on a middle-aged man. He's grumpy. He looks like the sort of person you’d never attribute comedy to at sight, but then change your mind the moment he moves. He’s funny when he’s afraid, funnier when angry. Some of his expressions are gems on screen except they’re products of timing more than prowess. The role is convenient, the actor a good match. You could upturn your dinner table just to watch him frown than eat with him and have a talk. He’s that comedian.
Pupkin, on the other hand, is the fan who gets funnier with failure. De Niro would come to do another performance on similar lines in Tony Scott’s ‘the Fan’ (1996), one that would serve to destruct the niche he had carved for himself with this film. I’ve always thought that comedy came easy to De Niro ('Meet the Parents', 'Analyze This'); it’s his lighter side that has appealed to me than the angry young man or the sadistic prizefighter or the dozen odd mob bosses he’s played. There’s nothing specifically stupendous that he brings to this film. Neither is his portrayal a show of heart – the film came rounds after his tryst with stardom. What sells, however, is the fact that he doesn’t have to put on clothes for this role. He’s already wearing them, he’s got what he needs. Pupkin is second nature to De Niro. The sad wannabe with all bitterness scraped out leaves a caricature pretty close to the actor's personality. Or an amplification. De Niro is at home with his performance as the clown without make-up. They can save the cherry for another film.
By the way, I lied when I said there are no memorable sequences worth talking about after the film. The cue-card sequence is absolutely hilarious, both during and after. But it’s one of those scenes you’d rather watch than be told about. Because it’s one of those films.
Martin Scorsese directs a comedy that doesn't want the laughs it gets. It’s not a comedy that wants to be – it’s a comedy that is. A little more colour would have rendered this ‘dark’ comedy unrecognizable. A little less colour, on the other hand, would have turned it black. We find balance. Scorsese’s film is as dry as it’s lively, as cute as it’s in denial about it, as intense as it tries to steer clear. It’s as intimidating as it is leisurely. It’s good.