Oscar Catch-Up #2: The King of Comedy (1983) and Lenny (1974)

I’ve been watching a whole lot of Seinfeld lately–well, even more than usually, so I decided to go for a couple stand-up comedy based movies that had been in the Netflix queue for at least a few years without ever inching to the top.  So for my second oscar-catch up pairing, we have:

The King of Comedy (1983) Directed by Martin Scorsese and Written by Paul D. Zimmermann
Starring Robert De Niro, Jerry Lewis and Sandra Bernhard
0 nominations

Lenny (1974) Directed by Bob Fosse and Written by Julian Berry
Starring Dustin Hoffman, Valerie Perrine and Jan Miner
6 nominations including Picture, Director, Actor (Hoffman), Actress (Perrine), Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography

So, I know it’s too early to be breaking rules–and I suppose The King of Comedy is not really an Oscar catch-up since it is one of Scorsese’s only non-nominated films.  However, when Scorsese won the Cecil B. DeMille Award at the Golden Globes last year, I was drawn to the clips of this movie the most.  I haven’t seen a lot of Scorsese’s famous works (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Goodfellas–look for those in future posts), but I haven’t really liked the ones I have seen (The Departed, The Aviator, Shutter Island).  Someone I was watching the Globes with suggested I try The King of Comedy before the more famous works–so that’s what I did.  And my Scorsese bad-luck streak was broken.

Robert De Niro has created one of his most memorable characters with Rupert Pupkin, a hopeful middle-aged stand-up comedian with delusions of grandeur.  Scorsese and writer Zimmermann weave a thrilling tale of a man both charming and insane in this incredibly uncomfortable black comedy.  Jerry Lewis plays a Johnny Carson stand-in with charismatic ease–their scenes together (especially a key moment at a Connecticut country moment) are palpably tense.  It’s disappointing that this film has taken such a back burner in Scorsese’s career (so much so that I’d never heard of it until that career retrospective reel)–even more disappointing is the lack of attention that Sandra Bernhard’s performance received.  An incredibly fearless performance from Bernhard, I can’t believe that Ms. Bernhard not only didn’t win an Oscar for this–but that it didn’t lead to a real film career.  I mean, I don’t know about range, as this performance is only full gusto crazy, but it’s pure gold from start to finish.  Her dinner table monologue to Jerry Lewis is wonderfully hysterical, pathetic, and revelatory at the same time.  Below is a quick glimpse of this manic scene.

I’m surprised I haven’t seen Lenny yet.  In addition to being the most brilliant choreographer of the musical theatre, Bob Fosse has made two of my favorite films: Cabaret and All That Jazz–which utilize incredible musical theatre performance with the sensitivity to image of a master filmmaker.  Lenny was Fosse’s third film, and first nonmusical.  This Lenny Bruce biopic is a tad askew–Fosse retains a brilliant sense of imagery throughout, but the film picks up no steam until over halfway through.  An exciting last quarter doesn’t fully make up for the putting around of the first 3/4.  Dustin Hoffman gives a wonderfully realized performance as Bruce, and Valerie Perrine and Jan Miner put in terrific supporting turns as Lenny’s wife and mother, respectively.   It’s one of those movies that didn’t really leave a strong impression at all, it happened, I saw it–and there was much to appreciate throughout.  But in a year or two, I’ll probably barely remember it.  Oh well, on to the next one…


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