Saturday, December 15, 2012
"Mr. Pupkin? I'm Cathy Long..."
In college, I had a friend who was a big Martin Scorsese fan. I have never been a huge admirer of his work, though I do respect him, but my favorite of all his movies was "The King of Comedy" (1983). I think it's a hilarious movie and it's portrayal of obsessed fans is dead-on for anyone who has ever attended a celebrity autograph show and chatted with other people who are there. Most people who talk about "The King of Comedy" usually end up discussing the scenes involving Robert DeNiro's Rupert Pupkin and Jerry Lewis's talk show host Jerry Langford, or about DeNiro and Sandra Bernhard's wealthy stalker Masha. But the scenes I enjoy the most in the movie are the scenes between DeNiro's Pupkin and Shelley Hack's very cool and efficient Cathy Long. My college buddy and I used to enjoy acting out and reciting the dialogue from these scenes as a running joke between us. I would enter a room, see my friend, walk over to him while extending my hand and say "Mr. Pupkin? I'm Cathy Long..." (a paraphrase of Hack's opening line of dialogue in the movie) and we would launch into a re-enactment of those scenes.
I think the reason why we enjoyed acting out those scenes is because of the underlying tension that exists between these two characters. In their scenes, DeNiro's Pupkin is attempting get in touch with talk show host Jerry Langford through Hack's Cathy Long, the assistant of Langford's Executive Producer Bert Thomas (Frederick De Cordova). The interaction between Rupert and Cathy Long are very entertaining, as both are trying to "one-up" and manipulate the other for their own purposes. Rupert is on his best behavior with Cathy Long and trying hard to impress her so that she will grant him access to Jerry Langford and, in turn, appear as a guest on his late night talk show. In turn, Cathy Long is trying hard to maintain her cool and calm as she seeks various ways to try and get rid of this persistent guy who has suddenly appeared out of nowhere at her workplace, insisting on speaking with her boss. Cathy Long is a character that most critics overlook when they review the movie. They usually talk about Rupert Pupkin's adversarial relationship with fellow Jerry Langford fan Masha, or his attempts to impress his would-be girlfriend Rita (Diahnne Abbott) with his alleged friendship with Jerry. But it's really Cathy Long, from amongst this trio of women in Rupert's life, who seems to have the ability to help further his career if she chooses to do so. She is a much more important character in "The King of Comedy" than she is given credit for.
Cathy Long remains a bit of an archetype in "The King of Comedy." We never hear anyone, much less Rupert, address her in the film as simply "Cathy." She is called "Cathy Long" or "Miss Long" by everyone in the movie. Paul Zimmerman's script, which is available online, always refers to her in the character cues and stage directions by her complete name, "Cathy Long." This is a formal indication of how detached, impersonal, and archetypal she is meant to be. She is part of the faceless, monolithic entertainment establishment that refuses to grant access to weirdos like Rupert. But I don't think she's meant to be an unsympathetic character. Cathy Long is always polite to Rupert when he visits the office, listens patiently as he rambles on incessantly, and is honest with him about his chances of appearing on the show. She tries to give him constructive criticism about the demo tape he gave her to listen to, and even advises him to try out his act in front of a live audience at comedy clubs. She does not string him along unnecessarily and takes a much more direct and diplomatic approach. She never even loses her cool or yells at him when he barges into Langford and Bert Thomas' private offices, nor when he shows up uninvited backstage at Langford's TV studio, after he has kidnapped Jerry, to announce that he is the "King" who is to appear on the show in exchange for Jerry's safe return. Cathy Long never denigrates Rupert as an individual the same way as other characters do in the film who openly mock and disrespect him.
In the latter half of the film, after Rupert has kidnapped Jerry Langford, we see Cathy Long in scenes with Langford's Executive Producer Bert Thomas, her boss, as he receives the phone call from Jerry that he has been kidnapped, and later meets with network executives and FBI agents. Cathy Long sits silently in the background as these middle-aged men in suits debate what to do about the situation. At no point do the men ever turn to Cathy Long to ask for her opinion on how to handle the matter. This indicates how Cathy Long's function in Langford's universe is of a reactive, supportive nature. Even though one would argue that she could've been more sympathetic and helped Rupert gain access to Jerry and his show, it's not her call to make that decision. She's simply following the directive of Jerry Langford and Bert Thomas to keep Rupert away from Jerry. I think Cathy Long's role in Langford's organization reflects how women working at the executive level in the entertainment world in the early 1980s were still seen in a support function because the field was still dominated by older men who had been working for decades and who still did not consider women as their peers. It is apparent watching the movie that Cathy Long's duties and responsibilities were probably beyond being an administrative assistant, but she was still not yet at a managerial level where she could call the shots. I get the impression that Cathy Long is intelligent and capable enough to continue to rise in Langford's organization until she reaches the point where SHE would be the Bert Thomas of Langford's show (or whoever is his replacement) by now.
"The King of Comedy" represented an opportunity for Shelley Hack to redeem herself as an actress after she was fired from "Charlie's Angels" in 1980 after appearing on it for just one season. I remember reading that director Martin Scorsese became interested in Hack for "The King of Comedy" after seeing her in the stage play "Vanities" that also starred Annette O'Toole and Meredith Baxter. On "Charlie's Angels," Hack was likeable, but awkward at times. Her line delivery on that series seemed stilted and overly cheerful, and her stage movement were clumsy and gawky, even though her performance improved considerably towards the end of that season. In "King of Comedy," Hack rewards Scorsese's confidence in her with an assured and intelligent performance. Even though Hack is smart enough to maintain a stylized distance and coolness to Cathy Long, she does humanize the character so that she does not come across as a cold-hearted jerk. In her hands, Cathy Long becomes a mature professional with enough decency to her that she treats Rupert with a certain degree of dignity before, and even after, he crosses the line with her. None of the awkwardness that characterized her work in "Charlie's Angels" is on display here, and she shows us a different side to herself that should have been utilized more often by major filmmakers. She more than holds her own opposite the powerhouse DeNiro, and I sense that DeNiro is comfortable enough not to dominate his scenes with Hack so that he allows her an opportunity to shine. Even though Hack left acting in the mid-1990s and went on to an admirable career as a media consultant who, among other things, helped produce the first-ever televised presidential debates in Bosnia-Herzegovina, I have a feeling that, if "The King of Comedy" and not "Charlie's Angels" had been Shelley Hack's proper introduction to audiences, she would have enjoyed a much more rewarding acting career.