Like being forced to listen to an over-friendly weirdo on the bus, there is little more excruciating than an orator cheerily oblivious to his captive audience’s complete indifference. With The King of Comedy (1983), Martin Scorsese invites us into the living daydreams of one such oddball, pipe-dreaming, mediocre stand-up comic Rupert Pupkin, a man so certain of his right to fame he loses his grip on reality.
Robert DeNiro is unnerving as the unhinged comedian,stalking his talkshow host idol (jerry Lewis), convinced this will lead to success. Disquietly believable, his relentlessly chirpy Pupkin is a restrained, creepy, but altogether different lunatic to Taxi Driver’s (1976)volatile Travis Bickle. The famous DeNiro scowl is supplanted by constant disarming nods, smiles and winks, the method actor fizzing with nervous energy, his fidgety, constant tie-fixing hinting at a dark chasm of need lurking behind the smirk.
It is easy to spot ‘the crazies’ on the street by a strange emptiness in their eyes, and DeNiro convinces as a man lost in delusion, inviting sympathies with his friendly, courteous demeanour, that swiftly dissolve to discomfort under his unfaltering, shark-like gaze. An old flame is suckered by tall tales of Pupkin’s famous pals and when the comic slips her an autograph it should be funny, but the deftness of the performance renders the scene harrowing. We are utterly assured of his self-deception – the only one not in on the joke, he is chillingly unpredictable. With events culminating in a reckless kidnapping, the clown tellingly never stops grinning.DeNiro is devastatingly effective because he never allows this mask to slip. Eminently watchable, his conviction totally sells us on a stooge who unswervingly believes he is “The King.” Frighteningly, he wouldn’t seem out of place on America’s Got Talent, a phenomenon that depressingly reminds us that there are many dauntless, desperate Pupkins living among us