Scorsese's tragicomic variation on 'Taxi Driver'
In his film ''Every Man for Himself,'' director Jean-Luc Godard shows a blackboard bearing the words ''Cain & Abel - Cinema & Video.'' Maybe the movies would, indeed, like to wipe their chief rival off the screen. But potshots like ''The King of Comedy'' and ''Videodrome'' are more likely to drive viewers back to the TV tube in droves.
The King of Comedy, the latest joint effort by director Martin Scorsese and star Robert De Niro, is a tragicomic variation on ''Taxi Driver,'' their nasty masterpiece of seven years ago. Again the main character is a loner with an odd obsession.
But this time the obsession seems relatively benign: The man just wants to be a stand-up comedian on late-night TV. After wheedling, cajoling, glad-handing, whining, and outright groveling haven't gotten what he wants, he tries kidnapping. The finale, as in the earlier film, is a bitter reflection on what makes a hero in media-dazed American society.
''The King of Comedy'' is interesting mainly as an opportunity to watch a first-rate director struggle with second-rate material that has somehow gotten a hammerlock on his imagination. Rarely has Scorsese seemed so barely in control, either because the screenplay went stale on him during production or because it meant so much to him that his sense of perspective all but vanished.
Probably it's a combination of both. Certainly the material looks moldy up there on the screen, though the subject matter makes a provocative metaphor for Scorsese's own hard-driving artistic personality. With exceptions, the images are dull and distancing, scarcely jazzed up by Thelma Schoonmaker's busy editing. The script (by Paul D. Zimmerman) is repetitive and predictable, perhaps to make a point that never quite comes across. Even the strong supporting cast is weakened by Scorsese's well-meaning but intrusive use of nonactors in small roles.
De Niro, easily the most brilliant film actor of his generation, restricts himself almost completely to a single mood: unctuous and oily. Though such single-mindedness is impressive, in a way, it's his most boring performance since ''True Confessions,'' where he spent two hours looking pious.
Jerry Lewis has the right look and manner as the victim, a TV star not unlike Lewis himself, though he offers few glimpses beneath the character's skin. Sandra Bernhard is morbidly fascinating as a vengeful autograph hunter - it's a forceful and finely tuned performance, for all its crudity - and Diahnne Abbott is nearly perfect as an innocent outsider dragged into the protagonist's weird fantasy.
Flawed as it is, ''The King of Comedy'' is no less daring than such previous Scorsese haymakers as ''New York, New York'' and ''Raging Bull.'' In fact, this may be the first Hollywood feature that purposely chooses embarrassment as its theme and dominating atmosphere; there are scenes that make the spectator squirm as itchily as the characters going through this disconcerting yarn.
Even before its release, the picture has prompted torrents of both praise and abuse from critics, and is reportedly slated to open this spring's Cannes Film Festival - reflecting not only respect for Scorsese and De Niro, but the French fascination with Jerry Lewis, who is regarded by many critics there as a major cinematic artist. Too bad the movie isn't worth the fuss.
Videodrome was written and directed by shock specialist David Cronenberg, who likes to mingle horror and ideas. The plot revolves around a gang of technocrats who have discovered a way to control people's minds and bodies via television. As the hero gets tangled in their web, this cautionary science-fiction conceit evolves into a demented fable punctuated by nightmarish visual effects. Feminists, and everyone else, might also take note of the kinky sex scenes, which contain some of the most brazenly misogynous images in memory.
Otherwise, it's a film of equal boldness and incoherence - dense, dialectical , dour, despicable. For better or worse, James Woods and Deborah Harry are effective in the key roles. The rating is R, which makes you wonder what kind of outrage they're reserving the X for. Giving movies their due
It's time for the Academy Award race again. And the only real surprise about this year's nomination list is how sensible it is - comparatively speaking, of course.
As usual, big hits picked up the biggest bundles of nominations, and there was barely a nod to the second-string cinema that thrives outside the mainstream.
But money didn't dictate all the choices. As reporter Aljean Harmetz points out in the New York Times, there were no goodies for ''Star Trek II'' or ''Firefox,'' and the year's No. 2 picture at the box office, ''Rocky III,'' was named only in the Best Song category. So the burghers of tinseltown seem to have voted partly with taste, instead of ticket sales, in mind.
As for the movies that did make the grade, they are a respectable lot. The best picture of 1982 in my estimation - ''Missing'' - was duly nominated for Best Picture, though I doubt it will prevail over its flashy competition. The year's second-best movie, ''The Verdict,'' is also in the running for the top award. ''Tootsie'' is a reasonably intelligent comedy; ''Gandhi'' is dull but dignified; ''E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial'' is one of a kind, and a charming kind at that.
Looking beyond Best Picture to the overall Oscar race, ''Gandhi'' is the champ, with a total of 11 nominations. That's more than it deserves, but it's refreshing to see a truly serious picture be so honored for a change. ''Tootsie'' is named in 10 categories, ''E.T.'' in nine. The runners-up are also relatively worthwhile ventures - the comedy ''Victor/Victoria'' with seven nominations, and the West German war drama ''Das Boot'' with six.
Among the nominations for Best Actor and Actress, only Peter O'Toole in ''My Favorite Year'' and Debra Winger in ''An Officer and a Gentleman'' seem out of their depth. While I'd like to see ''Missing'' make a clean sweep - Jack Lemmon and Sissy Spacek for best performers - it would be hard to dispute an Oscar for Ben Kingsley in ''Gandhi'' or Paul Newman (nominated six times before, and never a winner) in ''The Verdict.''
Similarly, the work of Meryl Streep in ''Sophie's Choice'' and Jessica Lange in ''Frances'' is certainly of Oscar caliber, whatever the shortcomings of the movies themselves. In fact, the Lange nomination is something of a historical event, since she was also named for Best Supporting Actress in ''Tootsie.'' Such a dual honor hasn't happened since 1942, when Teresa Wright was nominated in the same two categories.
The awards will be handed out April 11, after Hollywood spends a few weeks milking the nominations for all they're worth in advertisements, commercials, coming-attractions trailers, and anyplace else that presents itself. The movies are still an uneasy blend of art and commerce, a fact Oscar time always makes hard to forget. But it's nice that the latest crop of hopefuls have a fair share of real merit on their side.