Robert De Niro did not receive an Oscar nomination, despite being nominated for a BAFTA, for portraying Rupert Pupkin in The King of Comedy.
The King of Comedy marks the fifth collaboration between Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro. Once again he plays a character who is purposefully unpleasant in nature, although he actually I think was suppose to pleasant in New York, New York but that's besides the point. Rupert Pupkin though is very different from the wannabe gangster Johnny Boy in Mean Streets, the taxi driver suffering likely from PTSD, or the jealous boxer Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull. In all of those cases De Niro technically was closer to his perceived image of the Italian tough guy. Rupert Pupkin though is not a tough guy in fact he's quite the opposite. It's interesting how there still is a strong physicality to his work, which is often what De Niro is noted for, in his physical manner as Rupert. There is a sense of desperation merely in the weak way he walks about and talks to people. When it is someone he wants to talk to someone De Niro almost seems to cling to that person, without touching them, while if Rupert is being told something he does not want to hear, by someone he really does not care about, De Niro effectively portrays Rupert as sort of withdrawing into himself.
Rupert Pupkin is a deranged man which is known from the start. Pupkin's oddity though is a bit different from say Travis Bickle who was in part damaged by the very real problems in the realities around him. Pupkin is rather a man who lives in his own reality, the film even takes detours where it depicts Rupert's daydreams, and De Niro is particularly good in establishing this idea with this performance. The way De Niro speaks is very off putting in that De Niro rarely expresses an attachment of the moment in Pupkin's manner of speaking. De Niro shows this well as Rupert always trying to be in his version of the reality that even when he is speaking to someone not of that reality De Niro still expresses Rupert in on a different wavelength than that person. There are times though where Rupert is forced into reality though due to the insistence of someone else. In these moments De Niro is especially good in portraying a volatility in Rupert. There's a quick and intense pain almost that De Niro portrays in these moments as though Rupert only suffers when he is forced to accept the truth of his situation, and wishes to snap himself back to his dream as soon as he possibly can.
De Niro often does do something quite interesting in his performance, conveying the intent of Rupert as a man, which is he often plays Rupert much like the comedian he stalks Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis). Although Rupert wants Jerry to put him on his show, Rupert does not really want to work his way on the show or through the show, he just wants to be as famous Jerry instantly. De Niro presents Rupert often in terms of his walk, his smile, his whole manner like Jerry. Not Jerry as he clearly is as a man in his personal life, but obviously like Jerry just when he is in act of being the talk show host. De Niro one ups that showing that Rupert's whole act to be all too much for his own good. De Niro shows Rupert already in a way living his dream out, after all he often is in his dream, and really is already performing since in his mind the dream should only be a matter of time. De Niro is quite good at being grotesque. I'll admit this is one of his colder performances, and De Niro is hardly known for his fuzzy personality, but the reason it is so cold is because De Niro portrays the demented state of Rupert to make him have only tunnel vision. De Niro expresses the tunnel vision in Rupert, he's unable to see any reality except his distorted reality.
Now the awkwardness and discomfort of certain scenes is ramped up to probably eleven. Now I have to say this is particularly unpleasant viewing although that is clearly the intent. Which does not alleviate this is technically that De Niro is outstanding as Rupert because he realizes Rupert's insanity in a fashion that feels almost a bit too authentic at times. One great scene for this is when he receives fairly positive advice, although rejection, from Jerry's assistant. De Niro is terrific in the scene by conveying a searing aggression in De Niro as he questions the assistant's credentials. What is most notable about it though is how De Niro shows the way that Rupert refuses to really break his whole manner and just keeps trying to prod the assistant while keeping his pleasant demeanor. This only painfully continues though when they must call security to ask Rupert to leave, and again De Niro only extends the pressure through keeping something so problematic about a man who acts as though he's just an eager guy. The continued eventually does lead to a breaking point of sort when Rupert along with a female stalker of Jerry, Masha (played atrociously by Sandra Bernhard), kidnap Jerry in order to live their mutual dreams of celebrity.
Rupert organizes his television debut which ends up being a moderate success. De Niro is technically great in this scene by just giving an average stand up comedy performance, not great, but decent enough for him to win over the audience. His stand up routine, as well as a dream involving a former school principal, show that Rupert's past seemed to have been rather troubled. Well De Niro never breaks the act though perhaps in part of the pathetic nature of the man there is a certain sadness in De Niro's portrayal even though he tries to cover that up with his whole act. The film is definitely not a truly refined piece as I don't think the film quite hits the right stride in terms of tone which is not helped by De Niro's overacting co-star. I must admit though I did find De Niro's performance consistently compelling even when some of the scenes did not quite work. In fact he's even occasionally rather funny, such as when he yells at his mother for interrupting his fantasies or when he fails to give Jerry proper cue cards. I don't think the film technically makes the most of the potential of Rupert Pupkin. De Niro is the one that makes that potential through the way he physically makes this sort of man, and realizes the mental state as absolutely unnerving yet still quite fascinating.