If there is any defining cultural aspect of our American experience, it must be our mania for celebrity. More than democracy and certainly more than jazz, our country’s pulse throbs in time to the comings and goings of our actors, musicians and newsmakers. Indeed, so insatiable is our appetite for bold-faced names that our celebrities no longer even need to do much of anything—they are known for being known, and that, sadly, is often enough.
For director Martin Scorsese, our national obsession proved fertile ground for his vastly under-appreciated film The King of Comedy. Although it revisits some of the ground he earlier worked in films like Taxi Driver, this film was far more subtle in its portrayal of our American fixations. When in first appeared in the early 1980s much of its audience seemed unable to recognize itself in the film; today, it seems wildly prophetic about the state of American entertainment, and what it can do to those who want to be a part of it.
Screening this week at Amherst Cinema as part of the theater’s ongoing Martin Scorsese festival, the film stars an unlikely pair of legends: Robert De Niro is aspiring stand-up comedian Rupert Pupkin, while Jerry Lewis is Jerry Langford, a professional comic and talk show host. (Sharp-eyed music fans may also spot The Clash, who play rowdies billed simply as “Street Scum.”) Pupkin, who in his rich fantasy life dreams of rubbing elbows with Langford and his circle, tries to land a spot on the show to launch his career, but can’t accept it when he is repeatedly turned away. In his imagined closeness, he even tries to take a date to dinner at Langford’s home.
When the cold reality of it all comes raining down, Pupkin turns to equally obsessed fan Masha (Sandra Bernhard), and together the two come up with an outlandish kidnapping plan: they will hold Langford hostage, and the ransom will be the opening comedy monologue on that night’s show, with the host to be released after the show airs. (With Langford tied up—literally—Tony Randall fills in, playing himself, as guest host.) Rupert will have his shot after all.
How it all shakes out is Scorsese’s marvelous riff on what we value in our entertainers, and I won’t give away the third act here. Suffice it to say that it isn’t so far off from what we see on the front pages in the checkout line today. In the end, it is really Pupkin who has the last word, as he tries to confess to an audience who doesn’t realize what they’re hearing: “Tomorrow you’ll know that I wasn’t kidding and you’ll think I was crazy. But look, I figure it this way: better to be king for a night, than schmuck for a lifetime.”
Also this week: Legendary Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar returns to area screens with I’m So Excited, his new film following on the mixed reception of 2011’s The Skin I Live In. In this latest feature, a wildly eclectic group of travelers gets trapped on a flight that seems doomed. While the pilots—a steely, professional group—search for a way to cheat death, the flight attendants throw themselves into making what could be their last flight into the most enjoyable jaunt ever. And it turns out that in the air, Almodóvar’s main concerns remain much as they are on the ground: the luscious fruit of sex and death, our twin human dramas. As the group faces its presumed fate, the staff and their passengers—a motley crew that includes newlyweds, criminals, and a psychic—begin to open up, finding that the deeper their confessions, the richer the peace. The only thing nobody seems to be thinking about is this: what happens if the plane doesn’t go down?•
Jack Brown can be reached at email@example.com.