Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: Instead of pegging our picks to a new release, we’re running through the best movies of 1983.
The King Of Comedy (1983)
The toxic desire for fame at any price can sometimes seem like a peculiarly modern phenomenon, but long before there was reality TV or the Bling Ring, there was Rupert Pupkin. As played by Robert De Niro, in one of the most dedicatedly obnoxious performances ever attempted by a major movie star, Pupkin is a jittery, obsequious bulldozer of needy self-regard, with only one goal in life: to perform his stand-up comedy routine on The Jerry Langford Show (read: The Tonight Show). Unable to make any headway through normal channels—his interactions with various receptionists and talent scouts anticipate the Comedy Of Oblivious Mortification that we now associate with Ricky Gervais on The Office—he eventually decides to kidnap Langford (Jerry Lewis), with the help of a crazy autograph hound (Sandra Bernhard), and issue a single ransom demand: being allowed to deliver the opening monologue on that night’s program.
Released in 1983, The King Of Comedy marked the fifth collaboration between Martin Scorsese and De Niro, and was arguably the most unconventional film either of them had yet made at that time. Both divested themselves of their most familiar tools: De Niro, usually a seething husk of raw masculinity (he’d won the Oscar for Raging Bull just three years earlier), transformed himself into the very definition of pathetic. While Scorsese, renowned for his aggressively mobile camera, shot The King Of Comedy using the flat, locked-down impersonality of the era’s TV programming. Lewis, meanwhile, happily satirized his own public image, making Langford at once a testy, condescending prick and the helpless target of an endless stream of celebrity-crazed interlopers. All of these elements, plus Bernhard’s sheer unpredictability, combined to make the film (written by Paul D. Zimmerman) a bold, productively off-putting, and genuinely prescient look at the way adulation and its promise can warp us. The film ends with a coda that was widely interpreted as fantasy at the time; seen today, the same sequence of events looks entirely credible.