Jordan Ruimy is finishing up his Best Films of the ’80s critics poll, which 200 critics have participated in. The #1 pick is no surprise but I’ll get into that when Jordan posts on Monday. He’s given me permission to discuss the film that occupies the #13 slot — Martin Scorsese‘s The King of Comedy (’83). Which Average Joes hated, of course. Critics are the only ones who truly love this deeply uncomfortable, hoi-polloi-loathing film. I adore three or four scenes (“His name is Pumpkin…you know a Pumpkin?” plus “you should get cancer!” are the top two) but mostly it’s a grueling sit. And yet, after a fashion, it’s a powerful look at celebrity wannabe-ism and the aggressive shallowing of American culture.
Scorsese had a tough time in the early to mid ’80s. Post-Raging Bull he thought about getting out of feature films, his health was up and down, The King of Comedy (’83) totally tanked, Paramount abandoned support of a higher-budgeted version of The Last Temptation of Christ (Aidan Quinn as Jesus, Sting as Pontius Pilate, etc.) and he was more or less forced to dive into the low-budget indie realm with the offbeat, comically perverse After Hours (’85).
But once the shooting and editing of After Hours were finished things began to look up. Scorsese took a director-for-hire gig on The Color of Money, which wasn’t all that great but had its moments. He finally assembled Last Temptation funding ($7 million) through Universal and began shooting it in Morocco in October ’87. And of course he’d begun developing and preparing Goodfellas by mid ’86 with Nic Pileggi‘s first-draft screenplay popping out sometime around November of ’86. By any measure Goodfellas was the crowning creative achievement of Scorcese’s ’80s period, even though it wasn’t released until the fall of ’90.
So basically the ’80s wasn’t a downer decade for Scorsese but his greatest if you step back and take it all in — the legendary Raging Bull, the fearlessly frank The King of Comedy and the weirdly burrowing After Hours, the occasionally interesting and commercially tolerable The Color of Money, the spiritually soaring and transcendent The Last Temptation of Christ (best Jesus movie + best death scene ever), and the mesmerizing gangster powerhouse that was Goodfellas. Three stone classics, two admirably offbeat digressions and one straight-down-the-middle star vehicle that isn’t too bad if you step back and ease up.
And by the way I’m revising my best of the ’80s list, a longer version of which I posted on 2.12.21. My top ten are now Paul Brickman‘s Risky Business, Jack Sholder‘s The Hidden, Gus Van Sant‘s Drugstore Cowboy, Scorsese’s Raging Bull, Bill Forstyh‘s Local Hero, Spike Lee‘s Do The Right Thing, Woody Allen‘s Crimes and Misdemeanors, Sidney Lumet‘s Prince of the City, David Lynch‘s Blue Velvet , Oliver Stone‘s Platoon.
My #11 through #16 are Stanley Kubrick‘s Full Metal Jacket, Brian DePalma‘s Scarface, Michael Mann‘s Thief, Albert Brooks‘ Lost in America, John McTiernan‘s Die Hard and James Cameron‘s Aliens.