The King of Comedy (1982) opens with some sparse title cards: “Arnon Milchan Presents… a Martin Scorsese Picture… starring Robert De Niro.” These words feel like they hold an implicit promise, a cinematic contract. By 1982, with Mean Streets (1973), Taxi Driver (1976), New York, New York (1977), and Raging Bull (1980) already under their belts, Scorsese and De Niro’s cinematic relationship had become increasingly defined. We know that Scorsese knows how to coax out that capital-M Movie Star charisma from within De Niro, and his ability to be attractive, suave, quietly confident, perhaps a little aloof. Under Scorsese’s watch, De Niro could play someone a little dark, a little dangerous, often quiet or intense — someone with that overwhelming charisma, that compelling draw.
But when we finally see De Niro in action in The King of Comedy as the thirty-something-year-old Rupert Pupkin — mustached, hair slicked, bow-tied, and powder-blue-suited — it is clear that this imagined contract of traditional movie stardom is not being upheld. The anticipated hum of charisma beneath De Niro’s performances has been ripped away. To put it bluntly, De Niro is playing a complete and utter loser.
One of the original contributions to the cinematic cringe canon, The King of Comedy follows Rupert Pupkin, a man with a fanboy obsession with late-night host Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis), and a certainty that he is destined for greatness as a stand-up comic, despite the fact that Rupert is, in reality, not only untalented but completely socially incompetent. The King of Comedy is carefully and wonderfully crafted to be as uncomfortable as it is, a feat in creating moments so agonizing in its unease that we want to look away, but can’t help continuing to watch.
But despite the character of Rupert being constructed in this way, there is something particularly painful about having De Niro in this role. Where we are usually compelled by, attracted to, and drawn into De Niro’s performances, The King of Comedy instead makes it embarrassing to watch him exist. Scorsese offers us a vision of De Niro that is completely outside of his wheelhouse — De Niro is playing cringe, he is playing lame, he is playing unattractive. With this twisting of our expectations, a generally cringey filmic concept is elevated to be almost nauseating. And the creative minds behind the film are very much in on this strange little joke – in fact, De Niro claims that he convinced Scorsese to take on the screenplay, as he was so eager to play Rupert.
Generally speaking, De Niro is the man; he’s the coolest; he’s De Niro… and Scorsese is one of the best at playing with that certain something De Niro has. If Scorsese sometimes has De Niro play a man with the occasional quirk, those characters have some entrancing, twisted, oversaturated attempt at masculinity — like Raging Bull’s Jake LaMotta’s off-putting possessiveness of his wife, or Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle’s twisted heroism and bloodlust under the guise of vigilantism. These are characters with issues and beliefs that are perhaps not ethically, morally, or socially sound, but are nonetheless deeply compelling. Even in their obsessiveness, their coldness, their off-ness, there’s a charisma; a drawing in, a desire to lean in closer, to understand him better. We get the feeling that we can’t look away. In The King of Comedy, on the other hand, we feel the need to beg for respite from watching this man be so continually humiliating.
“I’m a little nervous,” Rupert sweats in the opening minutes of the film, trying desperately to pitch his comedic capabilities to Jerry Langford. Our handsome, charismatic De Niro is “a little nervous” in front of some guy. Almost immediately, the vision of suave De Niro as a mobster or a brooding social outcast or an aloof, intense husband is shattered, and we are forced to watch as over and over again he fails us by being extremely, entirely uncool.
De Niro’s Rupert dreams of signing autographs, of his wedding being televised for the public to adore, of his high school principal apologizing for not understanding his genius when he was younger. Rupert craves fame and the approval that comes with it, he cares what we, the public audience, think of him. And despite his certainty that he is funny and destined to make it big time, Rupert is, in actuality, so strange and forgettable that people often can’t even be bothered to remember his name.
Scorsese’s many different De Niros often interact with others on screen in a way that mirrors the way we are drawn to him despite the risk his characters often hold. The women that interact with De Niro’s characters often let him close, let him be possessive and strange, against their better judgment. Even men occasionally have a hard time detangling from his magnetism, evidenced in Henry Hill’s (Ray Liotta) draw to Jimmy Conway (De Niro), and his need to justify or bear Conway’s general quirks and intensities throughout Goodfellas (1990).
The King of Comedy’s pseudo-love interest, Rita Keene (played by Diahnne Abbot — De Niro’s actual wife at the time), similarly reflects our likely reaction to this much less cool, much more humiliating De Niro, standing in for us not as someone ultimately compelled by De Niro’s characters against better judgment, but as someone embarrassed by the man Rupert is.
Perhaps the most intense iteration of Rita’s repulsion (that is perhaps our own horrified response reflected back at us as we watch), is when Rupert convinces Rita that they have been invited to a weekend at Jerry Langford’s vacation home. The two arrive with suitcases in hand, and we are forced to watch as Rita gradually pieces together that they were not only not invited, but are trespassing. As Rita tries desperately to apologize to Jerry and explain that she was misled, Rupert speaks over her, affronted by the fact that Jerry isn’t welcoming them into his home, that he isn’t taking Rupert seriously. Rita’s face continues to fall, increasingly repulsed by the man who she sensed was off-putting from the start, humiliated to see her gut feeling proven correct. Rita leaves Rupert not because he is too intense, violent, chaotic, or possessive, but because he is simultaneously so pathetic and so unaware of his patheticness.
Just to tease us all the more relentlessly with what we anticipated, we are occasionally forced to remember a more familiar, charming De Niro in the form of Rupert’s fantasies. Rupert frequently gets lost in daydreams that we watch with him, and in them, De Niro plays something much closer to the movie star persona we feel entitled to generally. This imagined Pupkin is perhaps not totally suave, but is at the least socially capable and generally charming. In Rupert’s daydreams, Jerry Langford giddily sings Rupert’s comedic praises, laughs loudly at his jokes, and begs him to be a guest host on the show. Rupert’s the one in the room with the allure, the charm — he’s playing much closer to the De Niro we anticipate.
But, never intent on giving us any long-term cringe respite, intercut in these daydreams is The King of Comedy’s tragic, lame De Niro — talking to himself and his bizarre collection of life-size cutouts of his favorite celebrities in his mother’s basement, laughing too loud, acting nauseatingly overwrought.
In the final act of The King of Comedy, Rupert finally obtains his dream of performing comedy live on Jerry’s show, albeit through some questionable means — Rupert kidnaps Jerry with fellow super-fan Masha (Sandra Bernhard) and blackmails the show into letting him perform. His opening monologue is a sort of sad, semi-constructed, spitting out of different tragic events in his childhood – not necessarily funny, but technically jokes. At the end of his set, Rupert bows and then tries pulling the curtain up to leave, not understanding that the curtain lifts on its own. It’s a final, awkward gut punch, an emphasis on how fully and totally Rupert does not understand how show-business works despite his delusions.
This forced pulling back of a curtain that is already going to pull itself up, this moment that shows that as much as Rupert may feel he is destined for fame and greatness, he has no idea how the most basic technical aspects of fame and performance work, feels like a physical literalization of The King of Comedy as a whole. The film is a curtain being pulled back, forcefully and uncomfortably, to reveal the way we implicitly anticipate and want something from De Niro and his performances with Scorsese. In the way I am startled by De Niro playing cringey, by the way he has failed me by not playing a Scorsese/De Niro character up to my imagined standards, I am oddly enough partaking in the film’s very commentary on celebrity-dom and infatuation with the idea of stardom and performance, and how strange it is to presume we can anticipate a sort of static movie stardom.
The King of Comedy ends with Rupert being released from a stint in jail and living as a sort of cultural oddity that fascinates the public. In the final moments of the film, Rupert stands in front of an ecstatic audience, basking in an endless standing ovation as his name is announced over and over and over again by an unseen announcer at the beginning of a comedy show. It’s not quite clear if it’s reality or a figment of Rupert’s wildly active imagination (although we feel inclined to believe it’s the latter). But even this peculiar partial-fantasy, partial-reality, is a twist on the anticipated appeal of De Niro. Where Taxi Driver’s ending is similarly contested and unclear— did Travis survive the bloodbath that he enacted to save young Iris (Jodie Foster) from her miserable life? Was he lauded for what he did? Or did he die on the couch, in a blaze of demented glory? That is the sort of De Niro and Scorsese ending that feels right; sexy and mohawked, coolly bleeding out from a gunshot, staring up and outward. Volatile and compelling. The question in King of Comedy does not hold that intensity, that twisted appeal. Instead, the question is: Did this pathetic, strange man get out of prison and become a cultural icon because of his own miserable, strange story, or did he hallucinate it? It’s an uncool question for an uncool man.
We anticipate De Niro a certain way in his creative relationship with Scorsese, in his general movie star persona. And while The King of Comedy is a cringe-inducing feat in so many senses, and buoyed by so many incredible, uncomfortable performances, there is something overpowering about the way we are so shocked and horrified by the De Niro we are forced to see in The King of Comedy. Because the repulsion comes not from some sort of simmering danger, or intensity of character, but from an overwhelming sense of how miserable it is to watch a movie star like De Niro be so atrociously lame, intentional as it may be. And only with a true grasp on how sexy, charismatic, and a little dangerous De Niro can play could one pull out a performance so horrifically, fascinatingly unsexy and delusional.