Robert De Niro and The High Wire Balancing Act of Being Rupert Pupkin
The King of Comedy is a 1983 black comedy about the dangers of celebrity worship and our obsession with pop culture. A box office disappointment on release and panned by critics, it has since become a noted classic, deemed ahead of its time. It also features one of the greatest performances ever, by an actor who took an incredible risk in bringing it to life.
There is a point around the 52 minute mark of Martin Scorsese‘s The King Of Comedy when a character named Rupert Pupkin worms his way into the home of a popular late night TV show host’s home when you began to truly appreciate just what exactly Robert De Niro is doing. From the pinched shoulders and always-gesturing open palmed hands, to the bird-like twitching of his head and breathy urgent voice, this is a tightly-wound soul and a man in deep internal torment. It’s also so natural, so genuine feeling, you almost don’t notice how affecting it is. But little by little, minute by minute, Rupert Pupkin is getting under you skin. He’s an uncomfortable character and we are meant to feel uneasy.
Pupkin is a celebrity hound. He collects autographs in a leather-bound book and thinks nothing of spending hours waiting outside a back door to see a famous person. And he’s not alone. A host of others are equally as devoted, some a bit more disturbing. Pupkin isn’t just interested in being close to fame though. Rupert want to be famous. His dream is to be a stand-up comic and be featured on The Jerry Langford Show, a late night celebrity talk show.
Langford (played by Jerry Lewis) is a phenomenon, a television personality that has earned legions of fans and he loves the attention (he often takes walks by himself in the city, adoring the recognition). When he leaves a taping of his show, there is chaos from the door to his limo, a mob scene that is a flurry of desperate fans just wanting to touch the star. Pupkin is one of them, but where he differs is what he wants. While most just hope to be noticed or in case of some of the more extreme, marry him (Sandra Bernhard in an unnerving performance), Rupert only wants a favor. By chance, one night as Langford is pushed into his car as throngs press closer, Pupkin climbs inside the limo with him and with the opportunity present, invites Jerry (he calls the famous man by his first name, believing they are already friends) to have him on the show, promising that he is a very funny comic.
Jerry, looking only to pacify the situation and rid himself of this fan, agrees that maybe if Pupkin works his way through the ranks of the nightclubs, he could make it onto the show. They part with Jerry convinced he’ll never see him again and Pupkin sure he’s now a confirmed guest on the next program. This is the delusion that paints every waking step of Pupkin, leading him to make some very seriously awkward and then frightfully dangerous decisions.
There is an art to how well De Niro brings Pupkin to life, the mannerisms aside, there is a manic lunacy behind his eyes that is unsettling, making many scenes purposefully uncomfortable. But watch carefully. One step in either direction and De Niro’s work is a parody, a clumsy, obvious stereotype that would absolutely upend the film. Instead, De Niro masterfully keeps Pupkin on a tight rope and we watch with bated breath wondering if he might fall. This is because De Niro knows Pupkin very well. He knows that Pupkin knows how he effects people, we see it on several occasions when he recognizes how others want to be rid of him or worse, hurt him. We know too that his reactions are like callouses, worn thick by decades of abuse from peers and strangers. He knows what is happening, but he barely feels it anymore.
Consider a deeply moving daydream sequence when Pupkin once again imagines himself as world famous and a guest on Langford’s show where not only is he the most popular star to come on the set, Jerry has arranged a surprise wedding with Rita (Diahnne Abbott), the girl Rupert has been infatuated with since high school, who works in a bar now and dates Pupkin more out of guilt than pleasure. What’s more, in the ceremony, it is Pupkin’s school principal who serves as justice of the peace, a man who saw no future for his pupil, taking the time during the event to publicly apologize to Rupert and proclaim that everyone was wrong about him. He was always right. It’s a gripping, solemn moment that is amusing to watch but undeniably heart-breaking to consider. We ponder his past.
Rupert lives with his mother, a disembodied voice that heckles him from the other room (long before Howard’s mother on The Big Bang Theory). Pupkin has decorated his space like the set of Langford’s show, complete with life-sized cardboard cutouts of Jerry and a sitting Liza Minelli and a wall plastered with still shots of a cheering audience. His fantasies are crippling of course, serving to sustain a delusion that he is in fact something he is not. His one encounter with Jerry has left him fiercely believing the two are now friends, and while Pupkin has spent hours upon hours sitting and waiting for a meeting with Langford at the studio office without ever getting in, he is still convinced he is invited to Jerry’s home for the weekend and so brings Rita along on lie. What happens at Jerry’s house starts with some comedy as the Asian butler is overwhelmed by Rupert’s persuasive personality and ends in bitterness as Jerry puts the hammer down. During all of this, we watch with a mix of cringe-worthy humor and sadness as Pupkin is exposed to Rita and once again shut down by his hero. It’s a devastating moment and one that will affect both men.
The thing to remember about Pupkin is that while he ingratiates himself on us, we are aware that he is wrong, even while we root for him to at least get a crack at his dream. But what we know and he doesn’t–and can’t by his defining traits–is that the fame he seeks is earned not given, something Jerry tries to explain but on deaf ears. But naturally, what Scorsese (and writer Paul D. Zimmerman) understand is that fame has its dark side, and being famous doesn’t necessarily mean being good. If fame is all you want, there are faster ways to get there, and they have consequences. But in the world of entertainment, that might be the break you need.
Robert De Niro has best made his mark with other Martin Scorsese film collaborations, including Raging Bull (1980) and Goodfellas (1990), but there should be no discounting this remarkable performance, one that is as nuanced and innovative as anything the actor has ever done. A character that lives in the nebulous regions of reality and dreams, we are so perfectly drawn into this mercurial existence by De Niro and Scorsese, we are left wondering what is real and what is not as the final scene comes. Where are you Rupert Pupkin?