The King of Comedy (Scorsese, 1983)
Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro re-form one of the most exciting partnerships in cinema history in The King of Comedy, completing a trilogy of anti-hero films alongside Taxi Driver and Raging Bull. Like the lost soul Travis Bickle in the former, and the simmering volcano of aggression that is Jake La Motta in the latter, De Niro delivers another fractured performance as aspiring comedian Rupert Pupkin. Not burdened by the violent outbursts of the other protagonists, there is a danger lurking behind his cracked smirk that offers just as much intrigue.
Pupkin is certainly the most delusional of the trilogy’s three characters, with the boundaries between reality and his fantasy merging, allowing for insight into the character not privileged in Taxi Driver or Raging Bull. Like Bickle, his constant solitude pushes him into a dream world, one where he is best friends with talkshow legend Jerry Langford and on the brink of comedic superstardom. Pupkin’s obsession for his idol is portrayed with the chirpy, upbeat loyalty of a dog, as De Niro pushes the canine persistence to excruciating levels.
It is a perfectly judged performance from the lead. Subtle shifts in body language and delivery distinguish between truth and fiction, with his on-stage monologue sequence being a standout. Superbly supported by Jerry Lewis, who plays Langford with a melancholic longing for privacy, and Sandra Bernhard, who represents the opposite side of Pupkin’s insanity in a role full of anger and lust; her stick-insect physique enhances her monstrous psyche.
De Niro is the standout though. After holding the microscope up to damaged souls in everyday life and the sports world, now it is the turn of the entertainment industry. The King of Comedy stands alongside Taxi Driver and Raging Bull as testaments to the quality he and Scorsese are capable of delivering.