When Martin Scorsese was on a streak with his muse Robert De Niro in the 1970s and 1980s, they gave us characters who would leap from the screen in a flurry of violence and rage. Paragons of toxic, unimpeded masculinity – Travis Bickle, Jake LaMotta, Johnny Boy Civello, Jimmy the Gent – these men lingered on the mind because of the abject, quaking terror they inspired. De Niro rode through these classics on a short fuse, ready to break out into unfettered chaos at any moment.
In this flock of posturing poster boys for brutality, there’s an overlooked runt of the litter. The King of Comedy‘s Rupert Pupkin – so dismissed he can’t even get a receptionist to pronounce his surname correctly – is damaged just like his brothers, but the meek, jovial way his psychopathy manifests means De Niro and Scorsese’s sickeningly comical work on his story is left by the wayside. But Rupert might be De Niro’s sickest creation yet, and The King of Comedy might be Scorsese’s most terrifying film.
Aspiring stand-up and emotionally damaged to the core, Rupert meets a world that doesn’t want or understand him with a tepid smile and a nervous chuckle. His attempts to get a guest spot on a late night talk show hit an embarrassing number of brick walls, due to his lack of tact, awareness of his limitations or other people’s personal space. Insinuating his way into the life of show host Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis basically playing himself), the horror at the core of Rupert’s temperament is his inability to acknowledge the word ‘no’.
Where Taxi Driver sees Travis consumed by his quest to eradicate injustice with violence, Rupert’s quest for fame and recognition is one far closer to home for all of us. This is what makes him far scarier than anyone else in the Scorsese/De Niro rogues gallery – it’s far easier to see ourselves in Rupert. We sympathise with his need to be noticed and adored, by his idol Jerry or his high school crush Rita (Diahnne Abbott), and his refusal to accept that he may well just not be remarkable enough to achieve his dreams.
It’s a fear we all have, and Rupert is the warped, extreme conclusion of that line of thinking – by refusing to back down when the world tells him ‘no’, Rupert ends up embroiled in a ridiculous, shambolic scheme to hold Jerry captive at gunpoint until he gets the televised stand-up spot he has always craved. This brazen, instant-gratification-at-any-cost pursuit of celebrity is a twisted parody of an attitude that has now pervaded much of our existence, in reality television and talent shows, Twitters and Instagrams the world over. Those kinds of reflection of pop culture are old hat now, but Rupert is the original, stomach-turning mirror that Scorsese held up to us all.
The audience gets to decide whether the film’s finale – where a stint in prison makes Rupert an overnight success with a million-dollar book deal and his very own show – is reality, as was the case in Taxi Driver, but if it is, then this isn’t the cathartic payoff we have waited for across the film’s duration. Instead, it’s our society legitimising all of Rupert’s deluded, toxic desires.
Surely that’s a more violent fallout for us all than a wish-fulfilling gunfight in a brothel, or a boxing match gone too far. We remember those big dogs in Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, and Raging Bull because their bold, bloody exploits are so exaggerated compared to our everyday existences. Rupert, on the other hand, is the black sheep who quietly follows us every day.