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Classic Recordings
Robert Altman Week

Monday
Jun152009

« In Which Absolute Fame Corrupts Absolutely »

The Aura of Prosperity

by MOLLY LAMBERT

The King Of Comedy came out twenty four years ago and it rings like a truth bell more than ever. Martin Scorsese's criminally underrated dark comedy is about fame and its pursuit. Not the lovingly sepia-toned version he rolled out in The Aviator that keeps chumps like me interested in the VF Hollywood Issue. ("Ooh! Hitchcock!") The King Of Comedy is interested in focusing on the chumps. What happens to the lowly consumer of culture who tries to reciprocate.

The King Of Comedy was written by Paul D. Zimmerman, who once said "If you're not cynical, you're stupid."

Fame is a one-way mirrored monologue masquerading as a conversation. Celebrity Worship Syndrome is a recognized psychological condition. Some people think it's at an all time high in America, corresponding with insecurity about the impending recession. I buy that, but it's not just America. The epidemic is worldwide. Celebrities represent our cultural Jungian archetypes.

Adult child beauty pageant queen Britney Spears is busy demonstrating the full spectrum of psychological conditions in the DSM IV on a world stage. Angelina Jolie is practically a fertility cult and Jennifer Aniston is the patron saint of jilted women. Whether you see yourself in Anna Nicole or Alan Rickman, no one is immune to identifying with celebrities.

They are our Olympians. They act out the same basic emotional dramas as mortals. Through invasive media we get to watch voyeuristically and make judgments from home. It's the concept behind social networking sites, blogs, American Idol and the election. That bizarre desire to be judged, to be evaluated and approved by strangers, is somehow innately human.

Scorsese's made a lot of films about celebrity. His Mafia films are about the localized version; neighborhood notoriety. It's basically the same idea. You get recognized and receive special treatment. People help you out and want to give you things.

But there's a malevolent flip side, which is that people want to tell you about themselves. They are helping you in the hope that you will give them something in return. You most likely can't and they will be disappointed. Fame is both convenient and a curse.

Rupert Pupkin (Robert De Niro) is neither funny nor talented, but he wants to be a famous comedian. He lives in his mother's basement with a cardboard cut-out of Liza Minelli. He is sidesplittingly pathetic, which makes his drive to be recognized fucking hilarious.

Fabulous ginger dykon Sandra Bernhard, as Masha, gives DeNiro a run for his money in the 'genuine psychopath' school of performance. Masha's masking tape seduction of Jerry Langford is as uncomfortable as you imagine being forcibly raped by your lesbian stalker might be. (Unless you are Alex, who is gunning for lesbians to start stalking him.)

Scorsese excels at depicting the interior lives of poignant losers. Pupkin and Masha may be his most blindly confident losers and by that token, the most poignant. The film's "happy" ending is perhaps the darkest touch of all.

"I make you laugh, I'm here to fuckin' amuse you?"

You know the saying Kill Your Idols? Sometimes just meeting your heroes can be enough to destroy the positive illusions you've built up around them. You're generally better off not meeting them without a proper introduction.

Success begets other people trying to leech off that success. If people came up to you every day wanting something you can't really give them; the aura of prosperity, I imagine it would get tiresome really fast.

Jerry Lewis; Money, Cash, Hoes

But fans feel like celebrities owe them the courtesy of an encounter. Especially in the case of a comedian or a talk show host with a 'friendly' public persona that is supposedly also your 'real' one. How do you be a dick to someone badgering you for an autograph when you're, say, Conan O'Brien or Ellen DeGeneres?

Like the true cliche, a lot of comedians are deeply unhappy people. Sad clowns abound. It makes you suspicious of funny people. Humor is often a more socially acceptable form of more uncomfortable emotions like anger or sadness. Charismatic people are generally hiding some kind of insecurity or fatal character flaw behind their great personality.


no one knows what it's like to be the sad clown

Jerry Lewis seems like a testy enough guy to start. To coax this great performance out of Lewis, Scorsese had DeNiro shout anti-Semitic shit at him in character before shooting a scene. Lewis never finished his own jaw-droppingly offensive magnum opus, 1972's The Day The Clown Cried. The complete script is online.

TDTCC tells the story of a self-centered circus clown, Helmut Doork, who is sent to a concentration camp after a drunken impersonation of Hitler. There, he befriends the Jewish children of the camp, and performs for them, angering the camp Commandant. He is sent with the children on a train to Auschwitz, and there, he is expected to lead the children, like a Pied Piper, to the gas chambers.

The Larry Sanders Show really picks up where The King Of Comedy left off. I can't recommend that show enough. Judd Apatow (who wrote and produced Larry Sanders) has his own Pupkinesque anecdote about Steve Martin that he is surely sick of telling by now:

Apatow regaled an audience at the New Yorker Festival this weekend with the tale of how, on vacation in California as a boy, he had spotted Martin washing his car in front of his home. The young Apatow jumped out of the car and asked for an autograph, but Martin said he didn't give autographs at his home. "Please, we won't tell anyone," Apatow begged. Sorry, Martin said, but no.So Apatow went home and wrote Martin a nasty letter, in which he gave an early glimpse of his now well-documented talent for profanity. Three months later, he received a package from Martin that contained a copy of his book Cruel Shoes. "I'm sorry," read Martin's inscription. "I didn't realize I was speaking to THE Judd Apatow."

Top Twenty Movies About the Corrosive Nature of Fame

1. A Face In The Crowd

2. Sweet Smell Of Success

3. Ace In The Hole

4. All About Eve

5. Stardust Memories

6. Zelig

7. 8 ½

8. Opening Night

9. Nashville

10. This Is My Life

11. Being There

12. All That Jazz

13. I Shot Andy Warhol

14. Mulholland Drive

15. Boogie Nights

16. Cecil B. Demented

17. Showgirls

18. To Die For

19. Valley Of The Dolls/Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls

20. Glitter

Molly Lambert is the managing editor of This Recording. She lives in Los Angeles, and she tumbls right here for your pleasure, and she twitters right here for mine.

"Kundun! I liked it!"

 

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"Rock and Roll Nightmare" - Spinal Tap (mp3)

"Warmer Than Hell" - Spinal Tap (mp3)

"Gimme Some Money" - Spinal Tap (mp3)

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Reader Comments (7)

Star Is Born?

June 15, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterdean

I love everything about this post - great movie list. Thank you.

June 15, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterChad

Hey, Molly! Awesome as always. I don't normally comment, but I remember when I saw "The King of Comedy" being particularly struck by one thing: Pupkin isn't talentless, it emerges at the end: he's actually as good a standup comedian as the celebrities he admires. His routine is almost hard to reconcile with the guileless, dim, goofy character we've seen until he takes over the air. It's excellent for the genre of TV standup, straight off of "The Tonight Show."

I realized, afterward, that there was precious little reason to assume that Pupkin was bad: it's never demonstrated, except in that he's shown to be a loser in other ways. But we assume it from the beginning: we are ashamed of him, embarrassed for him. It is as though we know that as an ordinary, non-famous man, he shouldn't aspire to more than spectatorship, consumption: he has no right to try and join the gods.

I think Scorcese did that so we'd be complicit in the assumption Lewis makes, so that we'd have dismissed Pupkin too; it is our culture, after all. To us, fame is what makes you funny, fame is what confers talent. If someone isn't famous, they can't have anything valuable to say; they can't be valuable. The separation between the Valhalla of celebrities and the scrum of ordinary life is one we accept as just: we resign ourselves to it without question.

(As we get older, we start to sense that perhaps ingenues aren't the most beautiful, or rock stars the most talented, or whatever, but fame is for the young: they drive it as much as anyone).

So for me, the turning point of the film is that monologue: Pupkin kills! Imagine that! All that time Lewis and we in the audience knew to duck his calls, hide from him, avoid his gaze, because we knew he wasn't worth a damn. And then: the audience is laughing; he's making fun of his family; it's all well-timed; and we're stunned, as though the fickle and random allotment of fame should have had anything to do with the distribution of talent, which is raw, democratic, unpredictable.

Just my thoughts, which -reading them over- sound stupid as hell. Good night!

June 15, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMills Baker

I just always assumed the monologue at the end was his fantasy and that in real life he gets arrested or killed or something. but it's an interesting alternate theory!

also I have never seen This Is My Life, that was all Alex Carnevale, Nora Ephron superfan #1

June 16, 2009 | Registered CommenterMolly

this is my life is the greatest movie ever made

June 17, 2009 | Unregistered Commenteralex

I love 'A Face in the Crowd' and I'm so glad you put it at number one!

June 20, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterBecks

i always thought that Pupkin's success at the end--if real--was more of an indictment of the audience's stupidity. while there are (canned-sounding) laughs in response to an unfunny monologue, the audience is reacting out of reflex, performing the audience-role, just Pupkin is performing the role of hack comedian. because he is in the man under the applause sign, because he is speaking in familiar comedian cadence, Pupkin is king to a court of fools.
and i'm a fool for Molly Lambert. thanks for making me turn on the internet today.

June 24, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterstephen

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