Martin Scorsese and Robert DeNiro followed up
Raging Bull (1980) with a film scripted by the late Paul D. Zimmerman – then a film critic for Newsweek – that deals with the obsession with the cult of celebrity and entertainment that turns mere fans into stalkers. DeNiro plays Rupert Pupkin, a would-be stand-up comic with an obsession for his favorite TV host, Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis). When Rupert saves Jerry from the stalking Marsha (Sandra Bernhard), a bored rich girl and similarly obsessed fan, Langford lets Pupkin share a brief limo ride in which he makes the almost fatal mistake of being nice to Rupert.
Rupert, encouraged by his meeting with Langford, tells his object of desire, a lovely barmaid named Rita (Diahnne Abbott) that he’s destined for stardom on Langford’s talk show, and shows up at his office, ready to appear on TV. His soft-voiced secretary (played by Shelley Hack) tells Rupert to make a tape of his act and submit it, but when it’s rejected Rupert won’t take no for an answer. Even after being forcibly removed from Langford’s offices, he imagines himself in Langford’s good graces, and he imagines appearances where he marries Rita live on Langford’s show.
When he shows up at Langford’s house with Rita in tow, after an imaginary conversation where Langford invited him, Langford tells Rupert he was only nice to him to get rid of him, and throws him out. Still not giving up, Rupert enlists Marsha and kidnaps Langford, who they hold hostage in Marsha’s apartment while Rupert appears on the Langford show.
This is a dark film, made with Scorsese’s typically stylish touch, and while it’s not as seamless as his other work – the continuity is creaky, as if it was filmed over a long period of time and completed in patches – it’s still an important film in the Scorsese cannon. It features the kind of outsider present in most of his film, from
Taxi Driver to
The Last Temptation of Christ. DeNiro’s Rupert, in fact, bears a marked resemblance to Taxi Driver‘s Travis Bickle (another outcast who tries to find redemption through a woman who ultimately rejects him, leading him to commit acts of desperation). But whereas Travis Bickle’s acts were not planned, Rupert’s are agenda-driven, and when we finally get to hear his stand-up routine, it is nothing more than Rupert’s life in miniature, comedy as a cry for attention.
The acting here is wonderful; Lewis has never been better than he is here, basically playing himself, and Bernhard, in her only real star turn, is uncomfortably convincing as the bored stalker who helps Rupert and tries to seduce Langford. But this is DeNiro’s film all the way. As the uber-nerd Rupert, he is alternately hilarious and chilling. Whether practicing his interviewing skills with cutout figures of Liza Minelli or annoying Langford’s office staff, DeNiro is the ultimate entertainment geek walking the thin line between fantasy and reality. It’s a terrific performance in a film that nudges a disturbing area that tells us more about our fascination with fame and celebrity than we might want to see. It’s also hilarious.