Robert De Niro, Jerry Lewis and the mutual hatred that made The King of Comedy a classic

Last Laugh: Jerry Lewis and Robert De Niro - Alamy

Last Laugh: Jerry Lewis and Robert De Niro – Alamy

Martin Scorsese was not in a good place. Almost as soon as he started his latest movie, The King of Comedy, he began to regret it.

The studio wanted him to turn the nearly million feet of film he shot into a hit. But he wasn’t ready. Both New York, New York and Raging Bull struggled at the box office. He couldn’t afford a third dud in a row.

“I got into such a state of fear that I just completely crashed,” Scorsese recalled in the book Scorsese on Scorsese. “When I came down from the editing room, I saw a message from someone about a problem and I said, ‘I can’t work today. It’s impossible.’ My friends said, ‘Marty, the negative is there. The studio is going crazy. They’re paying interest! You have to finish the movie.'”

“Marty kind of got caught up in it,” Sandra Bernhard, who played Masha in The King of Comedy, says now. “I think it was unfamiliar territory for him.”

The King of Comedy was released 40 years ago on February 18, but by then Paul D. Zimmerman’s script—about an obsessive fan of a late-night talk show host whose fantasies about fame led him to kidnap his hero and to take its place on air – existed for almost 15 years.

Scorsese, De Niro and Bernhard film The King of Comedy - Alamy

Scorsese, De Niro and Bernhard film The King of Comedy – Alamy

Robert De Niro bought the option thinking he could play future stand-up Rupert Pupkin. The subject had preoccupied De Niro – he was deeply shaken by the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan in March 1981. He coaxed Scorsese into the director’s chair.

Zimmerman had thought Dick Cavett would take on the role of Pupkin’s hero Jerry Langford, but Scorsese pursued Johnny Carson shortly before Frank Sinatra’s name was launched, as did Sammy Davis Jr. Orson Welles was also briefly in the running, before being dropped for not being much of a showbiz. enough.

Finally, Scorsese and casting director Cis Corman landed on Jerry Lewis, the rubber-faced stand-up. “We all grew up with Jerry Lewis,” says Bernhard. “He was a big part of American culture. He was just the eternal adolescent goofball.

Bernard was the opposite. Before The King of Comedy, she was a regular at the Comedy Store in Los Angeles. Her act was abrasive and innovative, “a post-feminist, groovy, fun, rock-and-roll accessible to everyone.”

It was her friend and fellow comedian Lucy Webb who pushed Bernhard to audition, after being rejected herself. She improvised a few scenes for a casting director. “And she looked at me and she said, I think you should meet Marty.”

Her character, Masha, was a teenager from a wealthy New York family whose obsession with Langford was accompanied by a much more violent, sexual overtone. “She just seemed a little lonely,” she says.

Before they worked together, she only knew Lewis’s “very campy” personality. She got to know him better on the set. They were on opposite sides of a generation gap.

“Women were superfluous to him, especially in the setting of working with him as an artist-actor,” she says. “And then you add the whole idea of ​​the completely new generation of women like me [and] he couldn’t avoid it. And then, of course, the character just exacerbated everything.

De Niro was a bit standoffish, and at the peak of his powers just a few months after winning the Best Actor Oscar for Raging Bull. “He seems distracted,” says Bernhard, “but when you work with him, everything comes together.”

De Niro had used Method techniques in Raging Bull, even going so far as to track down his own stalkers. He took one to lunch to ask why he was so fascinated with De Niro. What did he want? “To eat, have a drink, chat with you,” the stalker replied. “My mom asked me to say hi.”

Scorsese was rushed to shoot a month early when a writers’ strike loomed, and was recovering from pneumonia. “Physically I didn’t feel ready,” he later said. “I shouldn’t have done it and it soon became clear that I couldn’t handle it.”

Jerry Lewis, Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese on the movie set for The King of Comedy - Alamy

Jerry Lewis, Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese on the movie set for The King of Comedy – Alamy

Still, the shoot started. Scorsese was “not uptight or controlling” on set, Bernhard recalls, but he might have been able to have a few quiet words between takes, gently flattering in this or that way. While De Niro’s Pupkin craves center stage, the heart of The King of Comedy is the extended sequence where Masha finally has the kidnapped Langford all to herself.

While Pupkin gets his big shot, Langford is strapped to a chair in Masha’s house where she lives out her own fantasy: a quiet, romantic candlelit meal for two, with Masha getting crazier and crazier. Bernhard recalls that “almost everything” was improvised, and Masha’s banter stemmed from Bernhard’s act at the time.

“He [Scorsese] wanted it to be over the top and that was really easy for me to do at the time – intense and crazy – because I think I was really young and was like, okay, great, I’ll do it. It would be much harder for me to access that part of myself now, I think.

Scorsese would later look back on the shoot as “very strange”. A single scene in which Pupkin takes his girlfriend to Langford’s mansion under the pretense of them staying with him for the weekend took two weeks to film. In front of De Niro, Lewis saw him deliberately slowing down.

“I watched him feign not being able to hold on properly to work on a scene,” Lewis told author Andrew J Rausch in 2010. “I saw how he looked like he couldn’t remember the dialogue. He knew the damn dialogue. It was masterful.”

Lewis also recalled that De Niro deliberately tried to provoke him with anti-Semitic insults while in character. The abuse, Lewis said, was disgusting. He flew into a rage, unaware that the camera was still rolling.

“I don’t know if I said anything anti-Semitic,” De Niro later told Playboy. “Maybe I said something to really bust his balls.” When Lewis saw the performance he gave while furious with De Niro, he softened. “He gets you so involved in what you’re doing that you find yourself doing things you didn’t know you could do,” he said in 2010.

'Women were superfluous to him' Bernhard had a dysfunctional relationship with Jerry Lewis - Alamy

‘Women were superfluous to him’ Bernhard had a dysfunctional relationship with Jerry Lewis – Alamy

The relationship between Bernhard and Lewis was also dysfunctional. Lewis mocked Bernhard on set, calling her “fish lips,” and Bernhard flagged it down to Scorsese. Chastised, Lewis brought her a typewritten note on yellow legal paper with a brief apology. But by the end of the day it was gone.

“I don’t know if anyone came and cleaned up the room and took it,” says Bernhard now, “but I imagined Jerry Lewis sent someone to take it back so there wouldn’t be any evidence that he ever apologized.”

Satisfied with the cameras rolling, Scorsese found himself on the back burner after that. His marriage to his third wife Isabella Rossellini, daughter of Roberto Rossellini and Ingrid Bergman, had broken up, leaving him “flat and insane,” as he later recalled. He couldn’t bear to look through the piles of images.

“There were 20, 25 takes of one shot, 40 variations on a line,” he told Peter Biskind in Easy Riders, Raging Bulls. “I just couldn’t do it for the first two months.”

Finally he and editor Thelma Schoonmaker finished their work. But box office returns on a $19 million budget were sluggish. It limped to $2 million, and Twentieth Century Fox decided to pull the film from theaters after a month.

“Basically it was, damn it, forget the picture,” Scorsese told Biskind. “I realized in that moment that nobody cared, and then I really understood that the 1970s were over for me, that the directors, the ones with the personal voices, had lost. The studios have power back.”

The director was dismayed. “He was afraid he would always be the critics’ darling, but the American public would never love him,” his friend and collaborator Sandy Weintraub later said.

The King of Comedy marked the end of an era for Scorsese. Scorsese retreated to low-budget comedy-thriller After Hours as he desperately struggled to make his passion project, The Last Temptation of Christ. But over the past four decades, The King of Comedy’s status has grown.

“It was kind of insane, but it was kind of brilliant,” says Bernhard. The idea of ​​a beloved celebrity being kidnapped by obsessive fans was, she thinks, “a bit awkward at the time, I think for the American public — it seems like child’s play now, but then it had a little more pizzazz.” .

As the nature of the fame economy has changed and social media has narrowed the distance between celebrities and their fans, the movie feels increasingly edgy.

“People have a much more refined understanding of the entertainment business and that thin line between people who are both fans and friends, and enemies at the same time,” says Bernhard. “I think fans love their entertainers, but they hate them and that’s weird. The closer a fan gets to the person they love, the less they love them. It’s a strange phenomenon.”

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