Martin Scorsese Rages On: King of the Outsiders
February 15, 1983
It’s late in the final day of shooting on King of Comedy, and the press has been invited to a studio so far west it’s practically in New Jersey to watch Martin Scorsese film inserts. Technicians have begun dismantling the set, tables are being pushed together for a modest champagne celebration, members of the crew are gravitating toward the refreshments. The star, Jerry Lewis, has long since returned to Las Vegas, but Scorsese is still working — he’s perched on a ladder having close-up after close-up taken of Robert De Niro handing him a business card.
On most sets, this routine chore would be a matter of stand-ins and second-unit crew. Scorsese, however, is doing double duty, directing the scene while wearing Lewis’s sports jacket. In France, where Scorsese is an auteur and Lewis a superstar — America personified — their teaming is regarded as a cultural event. (King of Comedy has already been chosen to open the 1983 Cannes Film Festival.) Here, where the picture opens on February 18, it’s considered a tough sell and distributor 20th Century-Fox is nervous. “They know Lewis fans will hate the movie,” one industry savant explains. “And they’re afraid all the people who hate Lewis won’t go near it.”
As talk-show host Jerry Langford, Lewis has given Scorsese his first dramatic performance. Actually, Lewis is not so much De Niro’s co-star as his straight man; it is De Niro who plays the self-appointed “king of comedy.” Dressed in garish polyester, he’s grown a pencil-thin mustache and slicked his hair into a razor-sharp pompadour for the role of aspiring comic Rupert Pupkin, a 34-year-old messenger and autograph hound, still living in his mother’s Union City basement, who constructs an obsessional fantasy around Jerry Langford. “I find comedians fascinating,” says Scorsese. “There’s so much pain and fear that goes into the trade.”
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Pain and fear — and the convulsive desire for public recognition — are Martin Scorsese’s meat. Not even Woody Allen has chosen to dramatize his neuroses more flagrantly. Unlike Allen, however, Scorsese offers no apologies. Racism, misogyny, selfishness, paranoid fury are right up front. More than any studio director, he resembles an avant-garde filmmaker like Yvonne Rainer, who unpacks her mind and fissures her persona with each feature, then figures it out later. Except, of course, Scorsese’s subject is macho.
With De Niro as his alter ego, Scorsese has created a memorable gallery of jittery, psyched-up loners: Johnny Boy, Travis Bickle, Jimmy Doyle, Jake La Motta. As embodied by De Niro, homo scorsesian is a frustrated outsider fueled by a highly combustible combination of guilt, jealousy, and delusions of grandeur. Ellen Burstyn plays a female, suburban variation of the type in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, but Scorseseville is mainly a man’s world. Women are unknowable Others, children the promise of destruction. The family is at once a sacred value and something to flee like the plague.
The bruisingly kinetic, starkly lyrical Raging Bull — Scorsese’s masterpiece and the one possibly great Hollywood movie of the past five years — goes so far into professional aggression and sexual anxiety that it becomes a critique, a lament for stone age maleness in which blood drips from the boxing ring ropes like tears down the cheeks of the Virgin of Guadalupe.
Rupert Pupkin may be less violent than Travis Bickle or Jake La Motta, but he’s no less possessed. Although he has never performed for an audience, Pupkin demands the TV show watched by half of America each night as the launching pad for his career. “To have drive is what counts!” Scorsese exclaimed in an early interview. “Anything to meet people to generate events towards your goal.” Pupkin personifies precisely this crazed pragmatism: rejected by Langford’s aides and thrown out of Langford’s weekend house, he ultimately gets himself on The Jerry Langford Show by kidnapping its star.
“King of Comedy is a film about the desperate need to exist publicly which is so American,” says Paul Zimmerman, the 44-year-old former Newsweek critic who wrote the screenplay. “It’s the ultimate outgrowth of the question ‘What do you do?’ ” Hirsute, talkative, and the author of unproduced scripts for Sidney Pollack, Alan Pakula, Milos Foreman, and Stanley Donen (“I’m unproduced at the highest levels”), Zimmerman explains Pupkin’s complaint. “The problem Rupert faces is, will he ever count? And for him, it’s a matter of life or death.”
Zimmerman labored over the King of Comedy script for the better part of a decade before Scorsese even became involved with the project, but the screenwriter sees the finished movie as essentially Scorsese’s. “There is much more conflict in King of Comedy than what I wrote. The film is darker than the script. Marty takes everything and makes it his own,” reports Zimmerman, unperturbed. During production, he recalls asking Scorsese what the director thought their film was about. “Marty looked at me, smiled, and said ‘me.’ For me, King of Comedy is a fable. For Marty, it’s true.…”
The interpolated home movies in Mean Streets and Raging Bull, the memorabilia Scorsese characters fondle in New York, New York are scarcely the only evidence of the director’s emotional investment in his work. Like Samuel Fuller, Scorsese fills his movies with personal talismans; like Werner Herzog, he riddles them with documentary subtexts. The single chair in Rupert Pupkin’s basement, for example, is the actual chair of one of the authentic autograph hounds Scorsese and De Niro interviewed for the film. A key scene in King of Comedy is played entirely with nonactors. Scorsese used a real FBI agent, a real TV producer, a real lawyer, and a real agent (his own). “And they really fought,” he remembers. “When I yelled cut, they kept on going.”
Scorsese rounds out his casts with nonactor buddies, regularly gives himself cameos, even provides bit parts for his parents in each of his films. (A scholarly paper — if not a case study — could be written on the roles Charles and Catherine Scorsese have played in their son’s oeuvre.) The only character Scorsese introduced into Zimmerman’s script was Rupert’s mother — heard, but never seen, and played by Mrs. Scorsese. “Each film is like a family,” Scorsese says; for Sicilians, he explains, “family” is a value more transcendent than religion.
In fact, Scorsese’s associates are highly protective, resembling nothing so much as an extended family indulging the tyranny of an adored, precocious child. No less impressive than the director’s actual films is his ability to create this situation in the world.
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On the set, Scorsese doesn’t seem to direct so much as conduct, communicating with co-workers in private asides and precise gestures. He doesn’t exactly fit the stereotype of the Hollywood artiste — Josef von Sternberg directing in boots, jodhpurs, and carrying a riding crop — but it’s an autocratic scene, full of its own subtle codes. When some minor mishap occurs, Scorsese barks good-naturedly for Tylenol the way a less highstrung maestro might call for tempo.
Short, bearded, and mercurial, Scorsese could have been animated by Bill Tytla, the Disney artist who designed Pinocchio’s nemesis Stromboli and half the Seven Dwarfs. At 40, the director is said to have mellowed. There are no recent reports of telephones sent hurtling around hotel rooms, but Scorsese remains a tightly wound spring — courteous, controlled, and wary as a fox.
“Marty used anything he could to get where he is, and once he got there he calmed down,” says editor Thelma Schoonmaker, who won an Oscar for Raging Bull and labored for 11 months cutting King of Comedy. Schoonmaker has known Scorsese since both were students at NYU film school, 17 years ago, and she mainly remembers “Marty’s incredible ambition.… He was manipulative too,” she adds, “but I admired that.” Scorsese’s apparent modesty is as deceptive as it is disarming. Critic Roger Ebert saw an early version of Scorsese’s grad-school opus Who’s That Knocking on My Door? at the Chicago Film Festival in 1965 and ventured a guess that in 10 years its director could be “the American Fellini.” “ ‘Gee,’ ” he remembers Scorsese saying, “ ‘do you think it will take that long?’ ”
Schoonmaker is not the only Scorsese associate who goes back to the ’60s. Indeed, much of the director’s success derives from his capacity to form extraordinarily close bonds with his collaborators; his professional relationships are virtually the most stable in his life. Publicist Marion Billings has handled every Scorsese film since Who’s That Knocking? (“This fat little NYU professor came to me in 1967 and said he wanted the same kind of coverage I got for The Shop on Main Street. I looked at Who’s That Knocking? and thought, ‘He’s so talented he’ll never work again.’ ”) Harry Ufland has been the director’s agent since he first saw Scorsese’s student films in 1965. Harvey Keitel starred in Who’s That Knocking? and has appeared in three Scorsese films since. Mardik Martin, another NYU graduate, has worked on the scripts of five Scorsese films, from Mean Streets to Raging Bull; Paul Schrader wrote Taxi Driver, worked on Raging Bull, and has just completed an adaptation of Nikos Kazantzakis’s — the capper to their trilogy — which Scorsese plans to film in the fall.
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Meanwhile, the Scorsese–De Niro collaboration has been one of the richest director-actor alliances in Hollywood history, comparable in its mingled identities to the teaming of von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich. It was De Niro who brought Zimmerman’s script to Scorsese’s attention (as he had La Motta’s autobiography) after Michael Cimino, originally tapped to direct, got bogged down with Heaven’s Gate.
De Niro is notoriously press shy, and Scorsese shares his working habits. “If there are too many people on the set I don’t like it,” he has said. “I like to be out of the limelight as much as possible when directing so that nobody knows, nobody can see what I’m doing.” Scorsese describes the direction of New York, New York, his most logistically complex film, as though it were a business deal in The Godfather: “All the actual directing was done in whispers and in the dressing rooms, and nobody would see.” Rehearsing actors individually, Scorsese shapes and refines their improvisations on the script. The situation calls for considerable mutual trust. “I essentially wrote 50 per cent of my part,” says Sandra Bernhardt, who gives a chilling, comic performance as Rupert’s accomplice and Langford’s most ardent fan. Scorsese doesn’t deny her claim. “That’s why we take so long with casting,” he says.
Associates assert that it’s painful for the director to audition performers, yet Scorsese estimates that some 500 actresses read for the part before Bernhardt, a 27-year-old Los Angeles–based stand-up comedienne with limited screen experience and an act Scorsese describes as based on “sexual menace,” got the role. For Bernhardt, the part provided her with something akin to psychodrama. “If anyone can understand needing and wanting the attention of famous people, it’s me,” she grins. “I was a manicurist for seven years in Beverly Hills.”
Originally, Scorsese wanted Johnny Carson for the role of Jerry Langford. When Carson demurred he approached Jerry Lewis. “Jerry has done nearly everything in show business. He had a lot to draw on and he was eager to play the part,” the director recalls. Lewis’s career was then at low ebb and his personal life was strained by severe financial and marital woes. “I had two meetings with Jerry over the course of a year and a half,” Scorsese says. “I could see the man was ripe for it.”
Scorsese once called Raging Bull “a documentary with actors,” and he has used Lewis as a kind of found object, pure celebrity: “The less Jerry does, the better he is.” According to Scorsese, Lewis is “almost playing himself. He’s wearing his clothes, his glasses. That’s his dog in the apartment.” Scorsese maintains that Lewis improvised a sustained invocation of the burdens of success — delivered by a desperate Langford to his captors — while the cameras were rolling. Others recall Scorsese inducing the hostage Langford’s barely controlled fury through endless retakes of a scene which begins with the star bound like a mummy with adhesive tape.
“Directing is lousy. It’s not an enviable position,” Scorsese complains without much conviction. “You have to be tough. It’s like a screwdriver going through your stomach,” he elaborates with morose intensity. “Especially if you like the person.” Scorsese himself is immediately likable — quick, funny, and unpretentious — but his closest associates regard him with more than a touch of fear. No one denies the director can be demanding and compulsive, restless and paranoid. “There’s nothing he wouldn’t do when it comes to making the film,” says Bernhardt. “He’s everywhere he doesn’t need to be. He’s a fanatic, a perfectionist.”
Scorsese’s projects habitually run over schedule because of his painstaking attention to detail. It took a grueling 16 weeks to finish the 40-track sound mix for Raging Bull. Schoonmaker says it was assembled “inch by inch.” When he’s on, Scorsese drives himself to the point of exhaustion — at one juncture in 1977 he was editing New York, New York, The Last Waltz, and the documentary, An American Boy, simultaneously — and he expects his colleagues to do the same. When he’s off, suffering nerves or from the asthma that has afflicted him since childhood, a project may stall. “A noise in the corridor can distract him,” says Schoonmaker. “I’m glad I don’t have to live with Marty, although when we’re working, I practically do.”
“His needs are top priority — and he has a lot of them,” another associate says. To hear Scorsese describe it, each film takes on the nature of an ordeal, a psychodrama, a working through. Not that it necessarily resolves anything. “When the film is finished you go into a mourning period,” Scorsese says gloomily. “Then you realize, my God, it isn’t enough just to put it on screen. To put something on film doesn’t mean you’re rid of it.” “I was crazier when I finished Taxi Driver than when I began,” he told Paul Schrader in a conversation published by Cahiers du Cinema last spring. Scorsese acknowledged his shrink in the credits for Mean Streets and has recently reentered psychoanalysis. (“It helped me the first time,” he says hopefully.)
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Scorsese’s sense of himself is rooted in a childhood formed by illness, fantasy, and the Catholic church. The second son of first-generation Sicilian garment-workers, Scorsese was set apart from other children when he developed asthma at age four following a traumatic tonsillectomy. He was eight when his family moved from a house shared with relatives in Corona, Queens, back to their old neighborhood on the crumbling Lower East Side. Small and sickly, Scorsese did not fit easily into the tough Little Italy street life he would ambivalently celebrate in Who’s That Knocking? and Mean Streets.
“I couldn’t mix in,” the director says with pained diffidence. “I mean, I did mix in, but for comic relief. If you weren’t able to give a beating, you had to take one.” Scorsese may have felt powerless but he wasn’t passive: “He was always the littlest guy, the weakest, but he fought,” one schoolmate has remembered. “He would work himself into a frenzy.”
Unable or unwilling to participate in athletics — “I developed this great hatred of sports when I was a boy, a hatred I have to this day” — Scorsese applied himself to Catholic school and found himself at the movies. “My father used to take me to see all sorts of films. From three, four, five years old, I was watching film after film, a complete range.” Scorsese was a child of unusual devotion. Even now, he readily holds forth on the B-westerns and biblical spectacles that impressed him as a child, conjuring up specific scenes as though they were epiphanies. With ingenuous total recall, he cites the movie theaters — tawdry roads to Damascus — where he witnessed each vision, taking care to acknowledge the disciples who accompanied him. “Even as a kid I couldn’t give up movies for Lent,” Scorsese remembers. “I’m still guilty about that.”
Not content merely to consume, the young Scorsese was inspired — or compelled — to reexperience and master each film. From the age of eight on, he drew elaborate pencil versions of the films he’d seen, sketching shot-by-shot breakdowns in the manner of the Classic comic books his father bought him. (Precociously, the future director invented the storyboard, a standard tool for cinematic exposition, years before he would attend film school and learn that such things existed.) Scorsese meticulously reproduced each film’s standard or Cinemascope frame ratio; when Hollywood flirted with 3-D in the early ’50s, he followed suit with cutout paper constructions.
These early attempts to articulate his fantasies were not unconflicted. Scorsese showed his projects only to a chosen few, and after his parents discovered his “3-D movies,” he destroyed his handiwork. “They must have thought I was cutting out paper dolls or something,” he later explained. “My mother went along, but I don’t think my father liked it. Not that he didn’t like it; he just didn’t know what I was doing. I felt embarrassed, so I threw them away.”
In effect, Scorsese spent much of his childhood giving himself a second education, supplementing the Catholic schooling supplied by the Old St. Patrick’s School on Mulberry Street with an intensive course in American mass culture, its glories and its detritus. Devouring movies, TV shows, and comic books, the strong-willed, often bedridden boy recycled them in his own terms and according to his own interests: “Jealousy was a big theme even then.” Scorsese’s taste for widescreen epics of the ancient world — Quo Vadis, The Silver Chalice, Samson and Delilah, Land of the Pharaohs — complemented his fascination with Catholic ritual, and, encouraged by his parents, in his early teens he gave up on becoming an artist and spent an unhappy year attending a junior seminary in preparation for the priesthood.
In her 1980 monograph on Scorsese, former nun Mary Pat Kelly compares the filmmaker’s abortive religious vocation to that of James Joyce and calls his films quests for “redemption in a fallen world where evil is real and violence can erupt at any moment.” Asked if he still considers himself a Catholic, the director laughs ruefully, “I’m afraid so.” It has been many years since he went to confession or took communion, but Scorsese acknowledges the sexual guilt with which his upbringing left him and which torments many of his characters. “If I could resolve it, it might be resolved for them.” Since leaving the church in his early twenties, Scorsese has been married and divorced three times, most recently from model Isabella Rossellini, the daughter of Ingrid Bergman and Robert Rossellini. Their three-year-old marriage broke up during the shooting of King of Comedy. “I think it is very hard to be with a person who is completely dedicated to his work,” Isabella told People magazine. “When the horrible stuff was about to start — neurosis and insecurity — we just split.” “It’s impossible for me to talk about,” Scorsese says tersely. “You find all sorts of ways to punish yourself.”
Observance fades, wives come and go, but the love of movies is eternal. Scorsese’s lower Manhattan triplex — a 10-minute jog from the mean streets of his youth — is not unlike an affluent version of Rupert Pupkin’s fetish-crammed, shrinelike basement. The loft will never make The New York Times Magazine, but it offers eloquent testimony to the totality of its inhabitant’s obsession.
Shelves are crammed to the ceiling with dog-eared film books and leather-bound scripts. Copies of Video Review and TV Guide litter the coffee tables. At least one of Scorsese’s numerous TV sets is always on. An entire floor is given over to editing consoles. Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker labored over King of Comedy here, working mainly at night. Omnivorous in his consumption of electronic images, Scorsese habitually projects movies silently on a huge Advent screen while editing. Along with a list of the movies he’s seen since childhood, he has hundreds of videotapes of his favorite films catalogued in cardboard boxes and an impressive collection of vintage movie posters; his staff includes a full-time archivist. In 1980, Scorsese-organized a petition intended to pressure Eastman Kodak to recognize its “responsibility to the people it services ” and develop longer-lasting color film stock. (The crusade appears to have fizzled and Scorsese dismisses it: “I was rash to lash out at Kodak,” he now says, disingenuously adding, “The problem is not so much with film stock as care of original negatives.”) Still, his psychic investment in the preservation of filmed ephemera is beyond question. Cinema totems surround him, and each has associations all its own.
An enlarged still from Duel in the Sun — Gregory Peck facing down Jennifer Jones in the shadows of the old corral — dominates one wall: “My mother took me to see it even though it was condemned from the pulpit.… To this day I love the picture.” A triptych composed of the credits from The Searchers is framed by the window: “Made by old men, but seeing it is like going to the Fountain of Youth.” A garish French poster for George Steven’s Giant hangs across the room: “An inspiring film. I don’t mean morally, but visually. It’s all visual.”
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Redolent as it is of squandered afternoons and adolescent daydreams — and darker satisfactions than those — the passion for movies lacks the cachet of more elevated aesthetics concerns: Film Comment, the most self-consciously literate of American movie magazines, regularly asks directors or critics to reveal their “guilty pleasures,” the unredeemable movies they unaccountably love. Most restrict their choices to 10 or a dozen. When Scorsese published his confessions he could barely stop — describing 28 movies and listing another 103 “random pleasures ” from The Agony and the Ecstasy and Al Capone to The Vampire Circus and Where’s Poppa? One suspects that for a child of the Church and the Loews Commodore, all movies are guilty pleasures. “Yeah,” laughs Scorsese, “and Schrader would consider the ‘guilty’ redundant.”
Scorsese has directed a glossy Liza Minnelli musical, a nostalgic rock-doc, the prototype for a long-running sitcom, and even a public TV documentary portrait of his parents, but he’s typecast as a purveyor of cinematic mayhem. Taxi Driver, his greatest success, only avoided an X-rating for violence after the director agreed to tone down the gore of its climactic massacre. The 10th highest grossing Hollywood release of 1976, the film made headlines five years later when John Hinckley Jr. claimed it as the source of his obsession with teenage actress Jodie Foster and the inspiration for his attempted assassination of veteran personality Ronald Reagan. (According to one of the mental health experts who testified in Hinckley’s defense, the would-be assassin “felt like he was acting in a movie.”)
In 1980, months before the Hinckley shooting, Scorsese had already been singled out by The Saturday Review as the “exemplar” of a new school of Hollywood “brutalists,” including Brian De Palma, Walter Hill, and Paul Schrader. “At the very least,” wrote Robert F. Moss, “brutalist films are glorifying and encouraging the immense potential for savagery that already exists in America, attracting groups who seek any match that will ignite their seething aggressions.”
Scorsese keeps a stock answer for this sort of charge: “Taxi Driver is about a man racked by dark feelings. I think everybody has them. It’s unfortunate that some people act them out.” Anyway, King of Comedy was already in preproduction when the ultimate fan opened fire. Still, nobody will deny that Rupert Pupkin bears an uncanny generic resemblance to John Hinckley. Zimmerman traces his script’s genesis to a 1970 David Susskind Show on autograph hunters: “I realized that autograph hounds are just like assassins except that one carries a pen instead of a gun.”
Not surprisingly, Scorsese is loath to describe the guilty pleasure he may have felt when he discovered that the president of the United States had only narrowly escaped death at the hands of a man who reportedly saw Taxi Driver 15 times, fell pathetically in love with one of the film’s stars, and told Newsweek, “I bought so many handguns because Travis bought so many handguns. Ask him, not me.”
Scorsese refused to comment on the case for more than six months. “For a while I didn’t feel like making any more films,” he says, although production on King of Comedy was not delayed. Last May, when Hinckley went on trial, Taxi Driver actually became the cornerstone of his defense. Three psychiatrists and a psychologist testified that Hinckley identified so strongly with the film that he sometimes “almost thought he was Travis Bickle” and suffered the delusion that he had to commit a violent act to effect a “magical union” with Jodie Foster. Dr. Thomas C. Goldman testified that when Hinckley first saw the film in 1976, “he felt as if this was the story of his life.… He identified with Travis Bickle’s sense of loneliness and isolation.” The defense rested its case by screening Taxi Driver for the jury. Hinckley was acquitted on grounds of insanity.
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“It’s like a purging,” Scorsese once said of his filmmaking. “It’s got to be done, and you just have to be honest with yourself.” Although he evinces only casual interest in the remarkable fact that one of his films has been judged capable of driving a man mad, an even more disturbing suggestion is that Hinckley might be his distorted doppelgänger. “The dividing line between Life and Art can be invisible,” the would-be assassin wrote from prison while awaiting trial. “After seeing enough hypnotizing movies and reading enough magical books, a fantasy life develops, which can be harmless or quite dangerous.”
Hinckley’s obsession doesn’t even strike Scorsese as particularly bizarre. “I don’t mean to seem glib,” he says prescriptively, “but you must have a varied viewing pattern. You can’t see Taxi Driver and Mean Streets together on a double bill. You must see Taxi Driver and… His Girl Friday.” Pressed further on his feelings about the Hinckley case, Scorsese grows agitated, then serious. “What should we do?” he wants to know. “Should we ban the film?”
I attended one screening of King of Comedy with a cadre of editors from The New York Times; after the film the big question was, would this new Scorsese vision inspire some lunatic to abduct Johnny Carson? “The thought has crossed my mind,” Scorsese allows, his staccato delivery picking up speed. “But I don’t see how that can happen. I mean, guys on that level have already dealt with this sort of thing. Show business personalities can handle themselves. They have to.” Pausing, he adds, “At first I thought you were asking if I thought someone might try to kidnap me. Or Bob.…”
Scorsese has had other cause to ponder the effect of “hypnotizing movies.” Last March, while he and Schoonmaker were editing King of Comedy, Theresa Saldana, a 27-year-old actress who had a bit part in Raging Bull, as well as roles in other films, was stabbed four times in front of her West Hollywood apartment by a British-born drifter, Arthur Richard Jackson. Evidently Jackson only knew Saldana from her films; police found a diary in which he invoked her name more than 50 times. Scorsese doesn’t seem surprised that such an attack occurred; after all, evil is real and violence can happen at any moment. But, “I was totally shocked because she was just starting,” he says. “I immediately got very protective about the people around me. I’m just now starting to go out again.”
There is a sense in which Rupert Pupkin’s pathology hyperbolizes the profoundly ambivalent relationship Americans have with the aristocracy of winners who, presented on TV or paraded through the pages of People magazine, live their lives as public drama. Among other things, the mild gossip purveyed by the news and entertainment media promotes the socially cohesive illusion of an intimate America where everyone knows (and even cares) about each other. Part of Rupert’s motivation is a simple hunger for intimacy with Langford, the celebrity he idolizes, impinges upon, violates, and ultimately supplants.
“King of Comedy is about people falling in love with idealized images of each other and how misleading and selfish that can be,” says Scorsese. Rupert imagines he “knows” Langford personally just from years of watching him on television and nights spent waiting for his autograph. Moreover, he comes to feel that Langford actually owes him something for this “unselfish” loyalty.
In The Fall of Public Man, Richard Sennett suggests it is “the complete repression of audience response by the electronic media” that produces “a magnified interest in persons or personalities who are not similarly denied.” King of Comedy takes the rage and wounded narcissism implicit in such denial as the fulcrum for an Oedipal drama. Splitting its sympathies between the “have” Langford and the “have-not” Pupkin, the film offers a both-sides-now dialectic of American celebrity.
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“Marty’s not an intellectual,” says Schrader at the end of an evening spent talking mainly about himself. “When he finally realizes something, he also feels it.” Scorsese has called King of Comedy “a reappraisal of my first 15 years of making films, what it’s been like.” “Rupert becomes a star,” he says, “but for what?”
Scorsese also speaks of his identification with Langford. “Jerry walks into his empty apartment, and he does exactly what I do, he turns on the TV.” Scorsese ponders the loneliness of his alter egos: “I’ve lost a lot.” The director maintains that he identifies with both protagonists in King of Comedy. Which one more? “At this point, I think it’s Jerry,” he says without hesitation, adding, “There are kids who will do anything, anything, to get into movies.”
King of Comedy is Scorsese’s view of celebrity — a situation he experiences as almost more perilous than the absence of celebrity. “King of Comedy is a very funny film,” he cautions, “but it’s not a comedy. The end is full of despair.” Is it dangerous? Scorsese hems and haws, then answers like a filmmaker: “How can you be afraid to show something that already exists?” ■