Looking Back at Jerry Lewis’ Unforgettable Performance In “The King of Comedy”

This piece originally ran on MovieFanFare in March, we are reprinting it as part of our ongoing tributes to Jerry Lewis, who died today at the age of 91.

The actor/writer/comedian’s most underrated performance is in director Martin Scorsese‘s biting 1983 effort The King of Comedy. The film is an offbeat, funny look at the dark side of celebrity, chronicling what happens when famed talk show host Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis) becomes the object of obsession for would-be stand-up comic Rupert Pupkin (Robert De Niro). After stalking Langford fails to yield Pupkin’s desired big break, he kidnaps the star, his only demand being the chance to appear on Langford’s show. Sandra Bernhard, Diahnne Abbott also star, providing fantastic support while De Niro and Lewis do most of the heavy lifting. Because the film took a bleak look at fame — at point one of Langford’s fans wishes cancer upon him when he dismisses her (something that happened in real life to Lewis) — it was not a commercial success. Critics loved the film at the time, finding it to be an involving exploration of the perils of celebrity, the intensity of obsession and the lengths some will go to pursue wealth and recognition. Indeed, De Niro’s portrayal of Rupert Pupkin is torn out of the same book of psychotic behavior as his Travis Bickle performance, only on the surface Rupert seems much more harmless. While De Niro got most of the acclaim, Lewis himself delivers a knowing, fearless performance as the talk show host who lives a solitary existence. It is a stunning dramatic performance from a man known primarily for bringing laughter, and as such, it is unmissable.