From the archive
Although it didn’t impress me too much when I first saw it, The King of Comedy has gradually come to seem the most important and resonant of Martin Scorsese’s features, largely because of all it has to say about the values we place on both stars and fans in contemporary society. Part of what makes it so pungent is the casting: by all rights, talk-show star Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis) should be the “hero” and his crazed kidnapper-fans Rupert and Masha (Robert De Niro and Sandra Bernhard) the “villains”; but De Niro after all is a charismatic star in his own right, while Lewis has long been someone Americans love to hate. The same kind of twist on stereotypes occurs in the story: Rupert is an obnoxious loser and Masha a borderline psycho, but Langford’s offstage persona is so morose and unpleasant that next to him they seem like models of humanity. To make matters even more disturbing, Masha clearly regards Langford as a substitute for her own neglectful parents, and Rupert’s climactic stand-up comedy debut, won as a ransom for kidnapping Langford, largely consists of contemptuously trashing his own family and background. Implicit throughout Paul D. Zimmerman’s suggestive screenplay is the notion that our adoration of celebrities has a great deal to do with self-hatred, while the frequent aversion of stars toward their fans is similarly founded on self-hatred.
Misery, a psychological horror thriller adapted by William Goldman from a Stephen King novel and directed by Rob Reiner, lacks the scope, nuance, and self-awareness of The King of Comedy. But most of what makes it interesting, beyond its relative success as a pared-down genre exercise, is its exploitation of similar feelings about stars and fans. The fact that King’s own fiction often seems motored on self-hatred — particularly when his heroes are writers, as in The Shining and here — probably helps to seal this connection, and suggests as well that King’s self-hatred, like Woody Allen’s, has a lot to do with his popularity. King’s writers and Allen’s heroes are typically frustrated, twisted, and self-deprecating about their talents in spite of their self-absorption. (It was only when Allen owned up to his hatred for his own fans as well as himself, in Stardust Memories, that he risked losing his audience.)