Cinematic Soulmates: The King of Comedy and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

For some people, fame is like a drug, and their desire to attain it becomes the driving force of their lives.  This has been the case for a very long time, but it seems to have reached a sort of fevered pitch in the modern era.  The rise of “reality television” would seem to bear this out.   Indeed, for over a decade now, seemingly normal people have gone to great lengths, often to the point debasing themselves, just to attain what ultimately amounts to a fleeting sense of fame.  Oftentimes, this overpowering obsession leads to little more than a sad spectacle, one that is played out on a very public stage, and is entertaining primarily to those who derive pleasure from watching other people fail.  However, for some people, this obsession grows into a dangerous type of mania, and pushes them to commit any number of heinous acts in their pursuit of recognition.  This brings us to the subject of this month’s Cinematic Soulmates column, which focuses on two very different films that feature protagonists who will do anything for just a touch of fame.

In Martin Scosese’s hugely underrated The King of Comedy (1983), Robert DeNiro plays Rubert Pupkin, a sad sack stand-up comedian who lives with his mother and daydreams of a future in which he is recognized as a household name.  In his mind, the only thing standing between him and fame is late night talk show host Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis), who is understandably reluctant to give this nobody a prominent spot on his show.  Pupkin knows that he is destined for greatness, however, and decides to take matters into his own hands.  He enlists the aid of his best friend, Masha (Sandra Bernhard), and together they kidnap Langford, and tell him they will only let him go if he lets Pupkin perform on the show.  Langford grudgingly agrees, and Rupert finally gets his shot at fame.  Unfortunately, the cops are waiting for him just offstage, so he might not get to enjoy it for very long.

Similarly, in director Andrew Dominik’s masterful The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007), the titular coward (played to perfection by Casey Affleck) wants nothing more than to become best friends with the legendary gunman Jesse James (Brad Pitt, channeling more than a little bit of his own legend for the role), just so he can bask in the man’s fame, in the hopes that some of it eventually rubs off on him.  This is easier said than done, however, as Jesse is understandably wary of the creepy little man, and keeps him at arm’s length.  He also takes great delight in ridiculing and belittling Ford at every turn, and treats him and the other members of the James Gang as little more than expendable pawns who need to be disposed of as his paranoia and suspicions grow along with his legend.  Finally, Ford is given a chance at immortality when he is tasked by the government with the job of killing Jesse James, which he does in the most gutless manner possible; he shoots James in the back while he is unarmed.  This simple act bestows upon Ford the fame he has so desperately been seeking his whole life, but it is a bitter triumph, as he is not so much famous as he is infamous.  People know his name, but they know him only as the coward who shot Jesse James in the back.  They don’t exalt him, they find him pitiable and a bit ridiculous.  It is a recognition that eats away at the very core of Ford’s being, and hangs around his neck right up until the day he dies, at which point it disappears in a cloud of gun smoke, leaving him in obscurity once more.

Right from the start, both Ford and Pupkin believe they are destined for great things, despite all evidence to the contrary.  It is as if they believe they are owed fame simply because they want it.  Ford especially comes across as particularly entitled, as he really doesn’t display any sort of special talent or personality that might set him apart from the rest of the crowd.  He simply doesn’t want to be a part of the rabble, and he believes that is enough to elevate him above it.  At least Pupkin displays some degree of talent, and the viewer is led to believe that he is actually funny, especially in light of the film’s climax.  Unfortunately, he hasn’t paid any sort of dues, or put in any real work toward achieving his dream.  He wants fame and he wants it now, and doesn’t believe he should have to start at the bottom like everyone else.  In that regard, he is every bit as delusional as Ford, and they both inhabit the same world.  Ultimately, they are both small men who very much want to be more important than they actually are, and eventually, they start to believe in the fantasies they concoct for themselves.

This desire for fame leaves both men delusional, and as a result they are constantly embarrassing themselves, or allowing themselves to be embarrassed by others.  Pupkin continually tries to make himself seem important in front of the people who he believes will hand him the keys to fame, but is often undercut by his doting mother.  When he tries to make a tape of his routine that he can send to Langford’s bookers, his mother is constantly shouting at him to keep it down as she has to work in the morning.  This throws Rupert off his game and leaves him exasperated, and forces him to rewind the tape so he can effectively edit her out of the fantasy he is so carefully constructing.  Similarly, Robert Ford’s fords attempts to create his own legend are constantly thwarted by his brother, Charley (Sam Rockwell), who is quick to jump in with an embarrassing story about his awkward childhood.  Later, when Robert has finally gained entrance to Jesse James’ inner circle, it is Jesse who takes delight in pointing out his new lackey’s failings.  While both Pupkin and Ford bristle at this embarrassment, and even occasionally attempt to stand up to it, they are nonetheless willing to endure it if it means that they will someday be known far and wide as important people.  In other words, they are willing to put up with a little pain now for a lot of pleasure later.

At one point, Jesse James asks Robert Ford, “You wanna be like me, or you wanna be me?”  This begs the question of whether Pupkin and Ford simply want to be like their idols, or do they want to replace them entirely?  It’s this tension that makes both of them creepy and overbearing. Ford outright kills the man he admires, and does everything he can to take his place as the most notorious outlaw in America.  He performs stilted reenactments of the murder in front of eager crowds, but only gives them his side of the story.  It is as if he is trying to snuff Jesse James out entirely, and then step into the void that is left behind.  Unfortunately, his infamy is unsustainable, and soon Ford finds himself running a failing saloon in some two-bit mining town, biding his time until he fades back into obscurity.  On the other hand, Rupert Pupkin effectively kills Jerry Langford’s career, as it is never made clear what happens to Langford after Pupkin’s performance.  Pupkin does his time, yes, but when he gets out, he has achieved the fame that he has always wanted.  He writes a book which is optioned for a movie, he gets his own show on network television, and he is finally a household name.  Meanwhile, Langford is never seen again, and we are led to believe that he has either disappeared entirely, or he is simply living in Pupkin’s shadow.  Like Robert Ford, he has killed his idol.  The only difference is, Pupkin was seemingly successful in replacing him.

Whether we acknowledge it or not, we all live with the fear that we will fade away in obscurity, and that we won’t leave behind anything that outlasts us.  This is what makes fame so desirable.  We believe that if we are able to make our name memorable, we will live on through the ages, and thus our lives will not have been in vain.  That is why there are so many people willing to go on television and eat spiders, gleefully expose their own lack of singing ability, make out with Snooki, or otherwise humiliate themselves, all in the name of fame.  They believe that any type of fame is worth it, as it will ensure that they will become a part of history.  This desire is embodied in both Robert Ford and Rupert Pupkin, and it makes them perfect Cinematic Soulmates.

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