The Cult Movie Club: The King Of Comedy (1982)

Looking at the trailer and publicity for James Franco’s Tommy Wiseau biopic ‘The Disaster Artist’, it’s hard to ignore the ‘King Of Comedy’ comparisons. Featuring Robert De Niro’s fascinating and detailed turn as anti-hero Rupert Pupkin, Martin Scorsese’s classic black comedy was released 35 years ago today. 

If Wiseau didn’t actually exist, Hollywood would probably have to invent him. Recent American cinema is full of Wiseaus and Pupkins – desperate characters, probably a few cards short of a full deck, who will do almost anything to make it.

Pupkin passive-aggressively stalks celebrities for their autographs, but then comes to believe that he is owed a shot at fame. Talk-show host Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis) is his passport to success – Pupkin and disturbed rich-girl Masha, brilliant played by Sandra Bernhard, kidnap him. Pupkin then demands the opening monologue on Langford’s nightly TV show.

Jerry Lewis and Robert De Niro in character

If ‘The King Of Comedy’ had been made today, it would probably be hailed as a modern classic, a fable for our times, a coruscating attack on narcissism, celebrity culture and unchecked ambition. It’s ‘Nightcrawler’ meets ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’. But it stiffed on its original release (not helped by a substandard trailer – see below), grossing barely $3 million against a $19 million budget.

The studio didn’t know how to market it, trying to sell it as a knockabout comedy. Scorsese sensed the bad vibes gathering around the film long before it was released, telling writer Peter Biskind, ‘A close friend of mine told me “The buzz is bad.” I hate that. When the buzz is bad, people don’t want to be associated with the picture. But they were right – the film was a bomb. It’s called “The King Of Comedy”, it’s Jerry Lewis, and it’s not a comedy. Already it’s a problem…’

Yes, it sometimes feels like a succession of skits strung together, almost in the style of Brian De Palma’s early films ‘Greetings’ and ‘Hi Mom’. And it would be nice to get a bit more access to Pupkin and Masha’s backgrounds. But Scorsese, Lewis, De Niro and Bernhard, working instinctively from ex-Newsweek film critic’s Paul D Zimmerman’s slight but intriguing story, create something toxic and completely memorable.

Scorsese fills the screen with significant minor characters, mainly playing themselves and recruited from the ‘real’ TV world, and he obviously has deep respect for Lewis and all he stands for (though has less respect for the all-pervading, gossipy influence of TV culture). Bernhard, prodded by De Niro, is superb, given free rein by Scorsese to improvise freely: ‘I cover the waterfront, remember that!’ she bawls at Pupkin, just before one of the director’s typically bracing cuts.

There are many excruciating moments: Pupkin’s arrival at the Langford house (De Niro apparently screamed antisemitic abuse at Lewis to elicit the correct level of outrage in his response to having his golf game interrupted) and Masha’s ‘seduction’ of Langford. Is his violence towards her justified? Over to you. I’m not sure. And then there’s Pupkin’s monologue, shown in one long take with no cutaways – Scorsese and De Niro dare us to laugh at this schmuck, and it’s unsettling when one or two of his gags hit the spot.

‘The King Of Comedy’ is the De Niro/Scorsese collaboration I return to the most. Nobody gets killed, but a lot of people get hurt. Very hurt indeed. And it bears repeated viewings: recently I noticed an intruder in the restaurant scene where Pupkin tries to persuade his ‘girlfriend’ Rita to accompany him to Langford’s. Check him out. He’s behind Pupkin, mocking him throughout. I take it he’s supposed to stand in for the entire film-going audience.

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Magic Mickey: ‘Angel Heart’ 30 Years On

angel_heart1987: alongside Michael Douglas, Mickey Rourke was fast becoming one of the most controversial movie stars of the era, the go-to guy for potentially commercial but decidedly ‘off-colour’ material. Even David Bowie rated Rourke as one of the coolest people on the planet in ’87 – to my knowledge, only Mickey, Iggy Pop, Tina Turner and Al B Sure! ever shared ‘lead vocals’ on a Bowie solo album (though their collaboration was less than essential…).

‘Angel Heart’ turns 30 this week. I’ve been a Mickey fan since randomly renting the video circa 1988. If, as Marlon Brando attested, acting (or at least good acting) is essentially ‘behaviour’, Rourke delivers one of the great modern screen performances in the film. He mumbles lines, adds strange emphases (‘Yeah, I could be free‘) and quirky ad-libs, smirks inappropriately and generally shambles around in his filthy linen suit; Pauline Kael memorably wrote that ‘he has enough dirt on him to sprout mushrooms’. But he also deals with the action sequences with aplomb, looking like he could take care of himself in a bar fight.

Most importantly, Rourke tempers the increasingly hokey supernatural elements of the film with a believable, sympathetic, relatively down-at-heel protagonist: ‘Harry Angel seems to be a regular knockaround guy in Brooklyn. He likes the simple life, going for a beer, getting laid whenever he can. He minds his own business. He just gets by. He works, reads the comics, he takes a walk,’ Rourke told his biographer Christopher Heard.

William Hjortsberg’s screenplay for ‘Angel Heart’, based on his New York-set novel ‘Falling Angel’ (described by Stephen King ‘as if Raymond Chandler had written “The Exorcist”’), had been hanging around Hollywood for a while. First it looked like Robert Redford would produce and star. Then ‘Midnight Express’/’Fame’ director Alan Parker came onboard, rewrote the script (with the questionable decision to relocate most of the action to New Orleans) and offered the lead role to naysayers Jack Nicholson, Al Pacino and Robert De Niro, the latter taking the role of Louis Cyphre (geddit?) instead.

Enter Mickey. Parker made it clear to Rourke that he was nowhere near his first choice, but was interested in what he could bring to the role. Rourke was disillusioned with acting in general and Hollywood in particular but desperately needed the part: ‘I was about to lose my big-assed house in California and needed a big paycheck fast…’ Parker warned Rourke that he wouldn’t put up with any funny business, also apparently giving him many a dressing-down on set.

But how does ‘Angel Heart’ stack up these days? It’s still incredibly watchable, salvaged by the Rourke/De Niro scenes and Mickey’s eccentric ‘behaviour’. Bonet is a refreshingly natural presence and De Niro hams it up semi-convincingly. Trevor Jones’ original soundtrack (recorded at the aptly-named Angel Studios in Islington, North London) still holds the attention alongside some great crooner and blues tunes.

But Parker searches in vain for his inner Nicolas Roeg (or Ken Russell?), showing his background in advertising with a succession of beautiful, if clichéd, images of ‘evil’ (a glistening, freshly-extracted human heart, ceiling fans, lift shafts, writhing bodies, blood-stained walls), memorable crane shots and disorientating flashbacks, but it all feels way too slick. Kael again: ‘There’s no way to separate the occult from the incomprehensible. Parker simply doesn’t have the gift of making evil seductive, and he edits like a flasher.’ There’s also a lack of memorable secondary characters – Charlotte Rampling and Brownie McGhee seem miscast and barely register.

‘Angel Heart’ just about broke even at the box office but has enjoyed a healthy cult following since. My brother tells me that it most definitely worked on the big screen, delivering a real sense of impending doom. I don’t doubt it.