Is there anything more sought after than fame? Sure, everyone wants a little extra cash in their pocket or love in their life, but there’s something about the allure of being famous that drives people to insane lengths. But are any of them really at fault for that? Maybe the cause is the constant access social media provides people to celebrities, or the way the media glamorizes the luxurious lifestyle that comes with fame. Maybe it’s as simple as the fact that everyone wants to feel overwhelming, unconditional love. No matter where it began, everyone is in some way a slave to that monster fame.

This past week, Nicolas Winding Refn released his horror film ode to the demonic underside of fame obsession, THE NEON DEMON. The film’s story of a young model’s rapid rise and terrible fall in the world of fashion has thematic parallels to Martin Scorsese’s 1982 film THE KING OF COMEDY. Scorsese’s film centers around a hopeful-yet-dysfunctional aspiring comedian who is also trying to crack the impenetrable wall of fame. These two films are counterparts to each other as they explore the avenues that men and women separately take in search of the celebrity lifestyle. The main characters of each film fail to consider whether the notoriety is worth the obsession. Their journey holds up a fun house mirror to our own all-consuming need for fame and the mental health complications that can cause it. The arcs of Jesse (Elle Fanning) and Rupert Pupkin (Robert DeNiro) each reveal the emptiness of celebrity and the psychological afflictions caused by the desire for fame.

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[SPOILERS AHEAD FOR BOTH FILMS]

“Fame, What You Get is No Tomorrow”

Rupert Pupkin, the protagonist of THE KING OF COMEDY, is a schmuck. He is the type of person who believes he is destined for greatness but does nothing to prove it.  Rather than actually work his way up in the comedy world, Pupkin believes he deserves his shot at fame right away. He directly confronts (or perhaps ambushes) his hero Jerry Langford (Jerry Lewis) in the hopes of landing a spot on Langford’s late night talk show. In an attempt to rid himself of this annoyance, Langford tells Pupkin to contact his secretary to make a possible arrangement, opening the door for Pupkin’s fantasies to run wild. Through these grand delusions of his possible success, the audience sees Pupkin’s true self. He views fame as an inevitability, and this certainty leads to drastic, unsettling behaviors.

 

In Refn’s THE NEON DEMON, fame is a prize to be won through vicious means. Refn’s film revolves around the doe-eyed newcomer to L.A., Jesse, who slowly submerges herself into the tarpit of L.A.’s fashion industry. Unlike Pupkin in KING OF COMEDY, Jesse is the desired, on-the-rise newcomer who is envied and hated by those around her. The “demon” of Refn’s unconventional horror film is not a literal one, but rather the fame that possesses and poisons the mind of Jesse. It’s the same demon that has already infected Ruby (Jena Malone), Gigi (Bella Heathcote), and Sarah (Abbey Lee), the seasoned veterans of the fashion industry who hate and envy Jesse in equal measure. “I can make money off of pretty,” Jesse states early in the film. She too has no higher purpose for her “artistic” endevour. This shallow need for fame has troubling psychological implications for both the protagonists of each film, as well as the industry professionals they encounter.

Men and Women and Fame

While Rupert and Jesse are both enamoured with fame, it’s the industry and its cultural stranglehold that encourages their obsessions. With these obsessions comes pressures from the gender biases that the entertainment industry perpetuates. The films reinforce this with Rupert and Jesse’s choices of career. Rupert is taking on an active, stereotypically “masculine” position, one that requires him to assert that he deserves the spotlight. Compare this with the stereotypically “feminine” career of modeling that Jesse chooses as her route to fame. In the opening shot, Jesse passively lays down on a couch, covered in fake blood. The suggestion is that she is nothing more than a prop to be used to create art, rather than being an active creator herself.  

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The films also address the idea of an entertainer’s “expiration date.” There seems to be an unspoken rule that up and coming celebrities will hit a point where they are “too old” for the fame they seek. When Rupert first encounters Jerry in THE KING OF COMEDY, he comments that he is nearly 34-years-old and needs his big break. Compare this with the conversation at the end of THE NEON DEMON where a model is discussing her 21-year-old roommate who she believes is “too old” to continue working in fashion. These two conversations held side-by-side seem too ludicrous to be true, but Hollywood has been notorious about casting the same leading male actors for decades while casting new female actors who are often a full decade (sometimes two decades!) younger to play opposite them. Fame’s focus on the new and the now leaves no room to grow in a career, as established, experienced people are forgotten once the public tires of them.

The harmful hypocrisy of fame is further laid bare in THE NEON DEMON. For men, career longevity comes easily because their side of fame isn’t as focused on physical appearance. For women, it’s fame’s infatuation with beauty that causes destructive psychological behaviors. It’s the reason why women in the fashion industry tend to develop eating disorders or, like Gigi, obsessions with plastic surgery.

Exploitation and Entitlement

When observing the characters in both films who have some experience within the world of fame, the audiences can further see how fame affects personalities. Throughout THE NEON DEMON, there is a repeating visual motif of a neon triangle. The inverted neon triangle not only acts as a vaginal image, but also resembles an incomplete Satanic pentagram. This is the demon of the title: fame personified. It is the triangle that Jesse sees as she walks the runway of her first runway show and embraces her sexuality for the first time. She does this when she recognizes the adoration that has been thrust upon her and, during the show, begins passionately kissing her own reflected image. Jesse has fallen in love with her own beauty. It’s a clear indicator to the audience that fame has profoundly changed the once modest Jesse. Her acceptance of fame and beauty brings out the other meaning of the neon triangle. This three-sided shape also represents the destruction of the female body brought on by the fame of fashion.

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In THE NEON DEMON, Ruby, Gigi, and Sarah each represent the ways fame exploits women’s bodies. Ruby wants Jesse for sex and nearly commits sexual assault to get it. Gigi wants her appearance and has no objections to altering her body with surgery until it’s perfect. Sarah wants to literally possess and consume her body. In a world where beauty is a form of currency, appearances become a precious natural resources worth killing for.

This trio of women also act as the points of the neon triangle. Although the trio are also trapped within the fame obsessed prison, they act as its agents in Jesse’s exploitation. Each tries to break Jesse down until she emerges during the runway show proud of her femininity and strong. However, this strength and pride cannot last in a culture that is so focused on the new and the now. Embracing her power through her appearance makes Jesse a target to the women who she threatens to replace. Sarah says in their first meeting that whenever a new girl enters the world of fashion, everyone around her is wondering “how high can she climb and is it higher than me?” The destructive power of fame gets the better of Jesse and drives its agents to literally devour her (for those who haven’t seen the film, I mean “literally” in its proper form—they eat her).

However, women are not the only ones changed by the pursuit of fame. Both of the films also explore the ego-driven male who becomes the tastemaker in the world of entertainment. THE NEON DEMON presents photographers and fashion designers as self-serious boobs who put on an air of fraudulent superiority. One photographer, Jack (Desmond Harrington), has a taciturn manner that is supposed to give off an air of mystery, but ends up giving him the eloquence of a caveman instead. The nameless fashion designer played by Alessandro Nivola adopts a haughty pose, performing monologues for his captive model audience and delivering insulting monologues about the nature of beauty. These farcical characters seem almost too believable to be outright hilarious.

This male entitlement is present in THE KING OF COMEDY as well. Rupert simply assumes he can be given a spot on Jerry Langford’s show without actually doing any work. After Rupert receives his “promise” from Jerry, he begins to repeatedly appear at the television studio hoping to directly speak with Jerry about his appearance on the show. Between these unwanted drop-ins, Scorsese shows the audience Rupert’s erroneous daydreams where he envisions Jerry begging him to host the show for six weeks, or Rupert’s own wedding occurring during the show. These visions don’t even involve Pupkin performing his stand-up routine; they are masturbatory daydreams of the notoriety and fame he’ll receive. And why? Because as a male, albeit a highly socially dysfunctional one, he deserves it.

The Psychology Behind the Obsession

The arcs of these characters go beyond storytelling evolution; they also match the characteristics of clinical psychological disorders. Rupert’s behavior fits the profile of a love obsession stalker. He dreams of the idyllic life that fame will bestow upon him and those fantasies become inseparable from his reality. Yet it cannot be said that Jerry is the “love” at the center of his obsession. Though he desperately tries to impress Jerry, Rupert’s true love is fame. When Rupert goes so far as to kidnap Jerry in order to blackmail the studio into allowing him on the air, we see that Jerry is simply a means to an end. Rupert has been stalking the abstract idea of love and notoriety from the anonymous masses, regardless of the consequences. “Better to be a king for a night than a schmuck for a lifetime,” Rupert says to justify and enable his psychological instability.

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For Jesse, her arc follows the four steps of psychological change caused by fame as identified by psychologists Donna Rockwell and David Giles in Journal of Phenomenological Psychology:

  1. a period of love/hate towards the experience;
  2. an addiction phase where behavior is directed solely towards the goal of remaining famous;
  3. an acceptance phase, requiring a permanent change in everyday life routines;
  4. an adaptation phase, where new behaviors are developed in response to life changes involved in being famous.

Jesse’s initial reaction to her career is one of trepidation, fulfilling the first step. She is unsure of how far she is willing to go to attain the fame she craves, but quickly abandons those fears when she chooses to lie about her age to the modeling agency. Her addiction phase begins when she begins booking jobs, specifically her first runway show, beating out other models including Sarah. During this show she enters the acceptance phase. She recognizes the beauty she has and slips into narcissism. Finally, the adaptation phase, where Jesse entirely remakes her former girl next door image into a glamorous woman who rejects the kindness she once showed and exhibits the ruthless behavior of models like Gigi. Jesse is blameless in taking on this behavior. All of her choices and behaviors are not only caused by a fame obsessed culture, but encouraged by it. The only way to succeed and feed the fame addiction is to recreate herself into the person that this industry wants her to become. Both Rupert and Jesse are mentally helpless against the unstoppable tide of the entertainment industry.

“Fame, Puts You Where Things Are Hollow”

When art and fame are mixed it becomes nearly impossible to figure out where expression ends and crass exploitation begins. In THE NEON DEMON, we watch Jesse’s slow corruption from aspirational about her potential and beauty to becoming corrupted by the adoration she receives. Whatever interest she had in creating something artistic vanishes when she realizes the envy she inspires in the women around her. Jesse’s corruption is the fault of the modeling agency, the photographers, and the fashion designers who fawn over her, encouraging her narcissistic behaviors. “I don’t want to be like them,” she explains, “they want to be like me.”

This line summarizes how Rupert Pupkin wants to feel right from the beginning of THE KING OF COMEDY. He yearns for the respect and idolatry of his mother or the school kids when made fun of him when he was young. Pupkin can see first hand the power of fame in his friendship with Masha (Sandra Bernhard) who is passionately in love with Jerry Langford.  Pupkin wants that kind of love and hopes to win it from the audience with his routine. When Pupkin finally performs, his manner doesn’t seem much different than the average talk show host. Pupkin’s routine is specific, rehearsed and hollow. Nothing seems natural in it, not even the dark jokes about Pupkin’s abusive childhood. These revealing jokes are so couched in a phony routine, they end up feeling like nothing more than part of an act. When all that is left of Jesse and Rupert’s art is artifice, the removal of their true selves, then the corruption of fame is complete.

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Where do all of the changes get these characters in the end? Ironically, both films portray the characters getting the fame they wanted. Rupert kidnaps Jerry Langford and blackmails his producers into giving him a chance to perform. Following Pupkin’s stunt, he becomes a media sensation and oddity. Everybody loves a winner, especially one that’s a weirdo train wreck. He makes millions off of book deals and film adaptations of his life. If KING OF COMEDY had been released in 2016, he would have gotten a reality show in the epilogue. The film closes with Rupert in front of a manically cheering audience as his visage remains in a nebulous expression. After eating Jesse in the conclusion of THE NEON DEMON, Gigi has a guilt stricken mental breakdown, ending in her suicide with Sarah bearing witness. All Sarah can do is curl her lip in disgust, then return to the fame she is willing to kill for. Nothing either of these films does is to lead the audiences to believe that any of these actions were worth the fame they brought. The behaviors of the characters are destructive, but who is to blame when the culture encourages what they do to achieve the wonders of fame? Ultimately, Rupert and Jesse are both victims of a world that loves fame more than it loves the people who are famous.

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