It was one of those great nights in showbiz that you hope for and will never forget: Martin Scorsese, Robert DeNiro and the legend himself, Jerry Lewis, reunited for a showing of “The King of Comedy” to close the Tribeca Film Festival. Lewis. 87, came from Los Angeles just for the event. In a couple of weeks he’ll fly to Cannes for the premiere of his “Max Rose” film. Last night, as always, his great friend Richard Belzer was by his side. Actor Steve Buscemi stopped by the green room to say hello before the screening. Tribeca founder Jane Rosenthal was right there, too. She told me: “What a day I’ve had. Two legends in 24 hours. First Clint Eastwood. Now Jerry Lewis. I’m overwhelmed!”
Lewis looked a little frail before the screening, sat in a swivel chair backstage, and took it easy. “Jerry,” I said, “can you imagine you on the red carpet at Cannes? It will be like Beatlemania.”
Lewis quipped back: “I may not do the red carpet. No red carpet.” Why not? “I’m 87. I’ll be lucky if I get to Cannes. I have to conserve my energy.”
But when he appeared on stage with DeNiro and Scorsese after the screening for a Q&A, Lewis came alive. The audience as well as the director and the other star energized him clearly. Indeed, when DeNiro saw Lewis for the first time backstage before the show, I saw him literally light up with a grin from ear to ear.
“King of Comedy” was released in 1981, the year after Scorsese and DeNiro won literally everything with “Raging Bull.” The new film was overshadowed in every way. “We were ignored,” Scorsese recalled for me, by the Oscars and all the other awards show. It’s stunning to think of that considering how well the film has held up. It was prescient in many ways about the cult of celebrity, stalking, terrorism fears, and so on –even more considering it was made right after the assassination of John Lennon by a fan in front of his New York home.
It’s also, in many ways, an old fashioned film. As Scorsese says, there are wide shots that linger, there’s no fast cutting. There are long conversations. And there’s what amounts to several classic cinematic moments including the famous scene of Sandra Bernhard attempting to seduce Lewis while he’s bound in and covered with huge amounts of masking tape.
The story: Rupert Pupkin, who’s probably a sociopath, wants to do his stand up comedy routine on The Jerry Langford Show– a sort of “Tonight” show with Johnny Carson. Pupkin lives with his (unseen) mother– voiced by Scorsese’s late mother Catherine. He has a version of the Langford show set in his living room, where he acts out his fantasy with Liza Minnelli (Scorsese’s then girlfriend) and Langford (Lewis) as cardboard cut outs. Bernhard is his wealthy friend, a fellow stalker of Langord. They each believe in their hearts they have relationships with Langford, who walks around the city solo, without a bodyguard, between his office and the studio. DeNiro and Bernhard kidnap him. The ransom: that Pupkin gets to perform his act on the Langford show. Pupkin is also trying to impress a young woman, played by Diahnne Abbott, who in real life was the mother of DeNiro’s eldest childen.
(That DeNiro, Lewis, and Bernhard — not to mention Scorsese–had no Academy attention is true miscarriage of showbiz justice. “King of Comedy” was released on February 1, 1983. At the next Oscars, “Terms of Endearment” won, nominated along with “The Big Chill,” “Tender Mercies,” “The Right Stuff,” and “The Dresser.” Robert Duvall, the only American nominated for Best Actor, won. Besides “King of Comedy,’ the other movie that was ignored: Woody Allen’s now classic “Zelig.” What were people thinking? )
A neat bit of trivia: Scorsese let Lewis direct a scene at a phone booth outside Carnegie Hall in which an older female fan of Langford at first is thrilled when she meets him. But when he refuses to talk to her son, who’s on the other end of the call, she screams bloody murder at him. “It really happened,” Scorsese said. “Jerry told us about it, and we put it in.”
Another scene, in which DeNiro and Abbott invade Lewis’s country home, was completely ad-libbed. It’s a brilliant moment as Lewis skillfully ousts the unwanted duo with some help from his house man. The scene eerily also telegraphs the many incidents since then from real life in which crazy people have been discovered in stars’ homes.
Lewis was hot at the Q&A. On Bernhard, who wasn’t there but sent a funny video: “She’s the reason for birth control.” Beat. “She’s a wonderful guy, really. When you get to know him.”
On DeNiro, who watched “King of Comedy” for the first time in 25 years: “And he’s seeing The Deer Hunter tonight.”
A joke: “I said to my staff, this trip is my chance to take the subway. I haven’t been on the subway since I was seven years old. We come to a stop, the doors open and a young guy walks in, he’s wearing a leather jacket. With gold chains coming out of his nose. Leather shirt, leather pants. Leather shoes. He’s got a leather tongue. I’ve never seen so much leather. And besides that his hair is spiked. It’s yellow, blue, green and white. So I’m staring at him. He says what’s the matter old man? Didn’t you ever do anything unusual in your life? I said, Yes, as a matter of fact. Twenty years I had sex with a parrot. I thought you were my son.”
The audience howled. Scorsese said: “I had so many asthma attacks on the set from laughing.”