One Shot is a series that seeks to find an essence of cinema history in one single image of a movie. Martin Scorsese's The King of Comedy (1983) is showing on MUBI starting February 21, 2021 in the UK and other countries.
Late night host Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis) has broken free, for the moment. He tears the leftover white tape off of the cuffs of his pants and jacket—tape that was used to hold him hostage, and that makes Lewis look more than a little like the Nutty Professor. And then, alone on the street, the camera invasively close, he stares at his deranged fan/triumphant captor with a hatred more violent than anything in a gangster picture. It’s an ugly sight, almost a smash cut, and as Langford’s final shot in the film, its tension anticipates an outburst that never comes. At the time, such abrasiveness begged misunderstanding; as The King of Comedy flopped spectacularly, there were critics who concluded that surely Martin Scorsese couldn’t actually like these characters. So let it be said that it stands today as one of Scorsese’s tenderest, most empathetic films, and something a lot like its own antihero: demented and off-putting, but in the end you understand its twisted idea of intimacy. Thus Rupert Pupkin (Robert De Niro), a wannabe comedian doing a sociopath’s impression of sociability, plans his breakout by kidnapping his talk show idol. Rupert wants fame as he understands it: his private world impacting the public. And he fits so snugly in Scorsese's gallery of outsiders-who-want-in that it's key to the film that Scorsese wasn’t interested in making it until he was on the same side of that divide as Langford. Recognized by people who neither know nor meaningfully care about him, the off-camera Langford—inward, life-sized—has his own kind of anonymity, and you sense how much he craves respites of sanity in an insane business. So casting Jerry as “Jerry” is the film’s inspired cannibalism, invoking Lewis’s legacy for a character who only resembles “le Roi du Crazy” in moments of desperate evasion. As the finale plays Rupert's emotional release off of Langford's eternally thwarted climax, the thorough identification with both is not easily reducible, nor should it be. This is celebrity: a relationship both symbiotic and hostile. But with each visit, it’s clear how the film cares for them all. Enough for Rupert to give him his validation, if only in his mind. And enough for “Jerry” (character and performer alike) to exit him in a reaction so unguarded, so startling, and so private that any fan might flinch to see it. The film doesn't.