I once annoyed jerry lewis by asking him about the day the clown cried, a movie he starred in and directed in 1972 and then refused to release. “It’s horrible,” Lewis said of the Holocaust drama in which he played a circus clown who entertains Jewish children while leading them to their deaths in Nazi gas chambers. why not show it off and let the world decide? “I’m embarrassed about that,” Lewis told me flatly. when I pressed him, he gave a look that could be subtitled “end of discussion.” Now, with the comic book legend passing away at age 91, after decades of battling health issues and painkiller addiction, his never-seen controversial film of his may or may not find a release. But the debate about Lewis – his restless inventiveness, his defensive rage, his need to control, his cinematic innovations, his invaluable contributions to film comedy – will continue. such is the power of his prodigious talent and personality.
lewis obituaries give credit where credit is generously due. his career was huge in many areas: film, television, music, nightclub acts, broadway and as a lifelong supporter of the telethon for children with muscular dystrophy (“jerry’s kids”). But when I last spoke to Lewis, before his induction into the Comedy Hall of Fame in 2015, the subject was film. pure cinema, he called it: comic action without too much dialogue or heavy thematic lifting. Lewis had liked something he had written about Funny Bones, a 1995 comedy-drama in which he starred that delved into comedy’s grim roots. “Comedy grows out of pain and uncertainty,” Lewis said. where does your pain come from? Lewis gave me a dark look. “What the hell do you mean?” He bristled.
I mentioned the common joke that only the French really understand jerry lewis. French critics place Lewis as an artist on the level of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Jacques Tati. But here at home, the boy from Newark, NJ, born to Russian-Jewish parents, is mostly seen as the funnyman who lit box office fires in the 1960s by storming out and yelling, “haaaaayyyyyy, laaaady!” In 1984, Lewis received the French Legion of Honor for his film work. In America, his only Oscar was awarded in 2009 for his humanitarian work.
That has to hurt, right? “A little,” Lewis grudgingly admitted. but he said his famous temper was reserved for professional incompetence. “I persecute those who are acting stupidly. you don’t make friends when you do that. And I couldn’t care less. he claimed to laugh at the digs in the press and on social media (vice posted something in 2014 called “jerry lewis is still alive (and still a piece of shit). as he sees it,” they’re pains in the ass, that’s all.”
so let his film work do the talking in homage to lewis, or “jerry” as he liked to call the idiot kid he played in the 16 films he made with his partner dean martin between 1949 and 1956. most were retreaded formulas, ground to capitalize on the martin & lewis fame on tv and in the clubs. lewis preferred the stooge from 1952, in which he and dean play stage partners and the affable other half of him treats him cruelly. make of it what you want. But the duo’s last two films, 1955’s Artists and Models and 1956’s Hollywood or Bust, deserve mention because they reunited Lewis with director Frank Tashlin, whose sense of mimicry and brilliance – cartoon-colored anarchy would fuel the star’s own career as a solo artist.
The two fit perfectly into 1960s cinderfella: the scene of lewis dancing downstairs to count basie is worthy of a time capsule. That same year he marks his directorial debut for Lewis with The Bellman, basically nothing more than a series of skits involving Lewis as a bellman at Miami’s Fontainbleau Hotel. The film was a hit, though critics derided Lewis as a box-office golden boy and, as the French would say, an author.
Then, in 1963, the stars aligned to put Lewis in the sweet spot with audiences and critics alike. The Nutty Professor, written, directed by and starring Lewis, gave him the dual role of his career. first as julius kelp, the nerdy, nearsighted chemistry teacher, and then buddy love, the witty, cool, superrogant singer that julius transforms into, Jekyll and hyde-esque. Many saw love as a satirical swipe at Dean Martin, the stud who stayed with all the girls while Lewis did the spastic nonsense they laughed at. In reality, the film reflected both sides of Lewis himself. “Are you saying there’s more to me than ha-ha?” he asked when I mentioned this to him. “Then I agree.” he once said, half jokingly, “people hate me because I’m a multifaceted, talented, rich, internationally famous genius “.
problem started shortly after. Lewis continued to receive hits: the patsy, the disorderly orderly, the underrated boeing boeing, but began to overextend (a solo club act, a TV series), all exacerbated by his growing addiction to percodan to ease the pain of injuries sustained doing stunts and falls. The 1970s became something of a limbo for Lewis, until he made a dramatic impact in 1983’s The King of Comedy. Directed by Martin Scorsese, the The film cast Lewis as Jerry Langford, an isolated and embittered version of himself: a TV host kidnapped by a comic wannabe psychopath played by Robert De Niro. his performance was profound and struck a chord. (Lewis not receiving an Oscar nomination for both The Nutty Professor and The King of Comedy only adds to the academy’s reputation for missing the boat on brilliance.) .
Through all the ups and downs, his reputation endured. In the years since, Lewis has appeared in such independent films as Cookie (1989), Arizona Dream (1993), Funny Bones (1995) , max rose (2016) and the trust (2016). But those who want to learn and understand the extent of the man’s artistic influence should read The Total Filmmaker, a 1971 book selected from 480 hours of lectures Lewis gave at the University of Southern California. Steven Spielberg and George Lucas were students. you can find copies of the book online; is indispensable here is an excerpt:
“I have some hatred in the cinema: the imbecile who works with him and, deep down, he doesn’t like him at all; also, the guy who doesn’t care how he works. the other kind of person i hate is the non-total filmmaker who haughtily claims he is dealing with the “human magic” of the reels, dictating what he sees and does the emulsion, and yet has nothing to say. I think he is taking up space. you can automate that kind of filmmaker. They come out of a box that says, “I’ll do whatever you want.”
jerry lewis did what he wanted to do, he showed us what he wanted to show us. that’s a total filmmaker. that too is a race for history. In The Nutty Professor, a student, played by Stella Stevens, burns the love between friends by calling it a “rude, impolite egomaniac.” buddy’s return is pure jerry lewis: “you’re crazy about me, right?” Truer words were never spoken.