Why Rupert Pupkin is Robert De Niro’s finest role
Long considered the finest actor of his generation, Robert De Niro’s career pre-2000 was littered with some of the most iconic roles of all time. In fact, De Niro fans often to struggle to choose between his wide selection of characters. There’s his breakthrough role as Johnny Boy in Mean Streets, his cult role as Harry Tuttle in Terry Gilliam’s dystopian Brazil, and his first comedic role as Jack in Midnight Run. De Niro brilliantly played some of the finest villains put to screen: the satanic Louis Cyphre in Alan Parker’s dark noir Angel Heart, a brutal take on Al Capone in The Untouchables, and the nasty Max Cady in Scorcese’s remake of Cape Fear.
Then, there are his numerous award baiting performances, such as the often imitated, never equalled role as Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, his first Oscar win as Vito Corleone in The Godfather Part Two, and, the role many would happily call his finest role of all time, his mesmerising turn as Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull. All sublime roles and all worthy of praise.
However, there has always been one role above all that has stood out to me as being the key De Niro role, and, considering it gained only a single nomination (at the always reliable BAFTAS), his most underrated. I am talking about the incomparable Rupert Pupkin, De Niro’s character in Martin Scorcese’s creepy masterpiece, The King of Comedy.
Rupert Pupkin is an aspiring comedian who just happens to stalk Jerry Langford, his favourite talk show host (played brilliantly by Jerry Lewis). Out of all the characters in film history, Pupkin might just be the biggest loser of all. He divides his time between acting out restaurant meetings with his hero in his Mother’s basement, and waiting in the reception of TV centre, hoping to one day get his big break. Pupkin is a desperate, lonely character, completely assured of his own talent and yet, as we learn throughout the film, has never performed to a crowd, and relies solely on Jerry to give him his career.
In the film’s second half, after being constantly denied time and friendship with Jerry by both Langford himself, and his various production staff, Pupkin, along with a fellow stalker even more desperate than himself, kidnaps Jerry with a plastic gun and demands to perform. As Pupkin himself puts it as he finishes his monologue, “It’s better to be king for a night than a schmuck for a lifetime”. The film is a tough watch, with numerous scenes designed to make the audience cringe, and Pupkin is the catalyst for some of the tough scenes to watch.
The reason Rupert Pupkin is the finest De Niro performance of all time is simply because for the first time in his career, De Niro is unrecognisable. He sinks into the role and becomes the borderline psychopath with a real friendly charisma and charm that is initially disturbing to recognise. De Niro has made a career playing strong, brutal men, so to see him play a character so extraordinarily average is an incredible sight.
The King of Comedy left some viewers cold upon first glance, and it is completely understandable why: It is easy to see yourself in the sad sack Pupkin. He is simply an underdog desperate for acceptance; his pursuit of an attractive bartender does not end well, because Rupert is a complete loser, and tries to impress her by taking her to Langford’s dinner party; a dinner party that doesn’t exist. Pupkin is not an evil man, just a man confused between friendship and pity, and De Niro’s performance keeps him on the right side of human.
It may not have won him any awards, and The King of Comedy ranks as one of Scorcese’s most underrated films, but Rupert Pupkin may be the only De Niro role in which we see no element of good old Robert De Niro; there’s no menace, no hard streak, no sense of being the biggest man on screen. Instead, we are left with an unrecognisably low key performance, and in a strange way, the most normal character of his early career.
Though his career is filled with outstandingly written, directed and performed characters, it is Robert De Niro’s performance as Rupert Pupkin in The King of Comedy that I will always look back on as my favourite performance of his illustrious career.
By Harry J. Ford
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