In Film Classics we go backwards through film history, one year at a time. Now the DeLorean stops in 1983, although it’s a bit more complicated then that in the case of The King of Comedy. Sure, it had its American premiere in 1983, it’s festival premiere in Cannes in May 1983 – but its world premiere was actually held in Bíóhöllin (The Cinema Palace), a suburban Icelandic cinema, just before Christmas of 1982.
The film starts with Jerry Lewis, portraying his namesake Jerry Langford, having to fight his way to his car through a crowd of fans, seeking his autograph. A crazy lady hits the car window as the frame freezes and a romantic song plays as we read the names of the film and its makers. Except those hands are still there. Moments before they symbolised a threat, yet have now turned into something beautiful.
This opening scene sums the film up nicely. For example we don’t see Jerry properly in the background – since a certain Rubert Pupkin (Robert De Niro) is in the way, having smuggled himself into the car.
Soon we learn that said Rubert and Masha (who, just like Jerry, is played by a famous real-life comic in Sandra Bernhard), the crazy lady banging the car window, are partners in stalking. They’re equally mad, only Pupkin is more considered in his madness, with a clearer agenda and it takes others a bit longer to figure out that his grasp of reality isn’t too strong.
Pupkin dreams of becoming a stand-up comic, just like Jerry. But he’ll do anything to make that dream come true. He has daydreams about the next steps in his quest, where everything works out – and the director uses no tricks to differentiate daydreams from reality, which means we’re never entirely sure if we’re in Pupkin’s daydreams or his reality, something he probably isn’t always too sure about himself.
Pupkin is simply an ordinary Joe dreaming of a better life – and the film underscores that in numerous ways. He finally asks his high school crush on a date and live on air his old headmaster asks forgiveness for underestimating him back in the day. It shows us how daydreams can be both ambitious and petty, which is probably true for most of us. The only difference is Pupkin is ready to do more then most to make them come true.
Rubert the stalker is a charming performer – while the star, Jerry, is rather dry. Already their roles are beginning to reverse inside the film, where the stalkers become larger-then-life stars while the actual star tries to hide away.
By the end of the film Jerry finally sees Rubert perform his stand-up – and by the look on his face we see him realise that the rules of the game have changed, the road to fame now has a different map and a new generation is taking a different path. He is the theatre actor realising film stars have stolen his status, the silent star watching a talkie, a TV star discovering the first YouTube star. The star of a dying medium and a dying generation realising all the rules have changed and all their hard-won advise is now obsolete.
Texti: Ásgeir H Ingólfsson