CANNES, France — Jerry Lewis is premiering his new film — his first in 18 years — in Cannes on Thursday night, as the Daniel Noah-directed “Max Rose” plays for festgoers. But the octogenarian was creating a little in-person drama at the festival Thursday afternoon, when he let loose at a press conference with a barrage of hammy material that didn’t always land.
Wearing a bright red sweater, Lewis made noise from the moment he entered, hectoring an unseen person who was presumably in charge of audio at the press conference.
“You got a button there that says ‘Up,’ ” he said jokily — maybe. “You came to work. Move the volume up.”
Then the press conference got under way, and the big-in-France comedian seemed to be doing bits that had "irascible subject" as its conceit. “Why are you shouting?” he said to one questioner who was just excitedly asking a question.
He dismissed some questions. Asked about the difference between American humor and European humor, he offered, “No difference. American humor is no different from other humor. Humor is humor."
And he returned to a favorite provocative topic of his: female comedians. The performer, who once infamously said he didn't find women funny, answered a question about his current state of mind on the subject with a new response that caused a stir in the room.
"I can't see women doing that. It bothers me," he said of female comedians. "I cannot sit and watch a lady diminish her qualities to the lowest common denominator. I just can't do that."
The always-smooth moderator, Henri Behar, tried to go along with Lewis' odd turns, though it seemed clear in spots that he was struggling to put on a brave face. Noah and the cast members present (Kevin Pollak, Kerry Biche) gamely played along, though one would have paid cash to see the thought bubble above their heads.
At one point Lewis explained to Behar that he was going to listen to a question and talk about something else entirely if he felt like it, then proceeded to demonstrate just that when a journalist asked a serious query about his career and Lewis paused as if to consider it, then went into a verbose unrelated answer about the nature of this script. Then he made a face as if to say, "That’s how I can not answer a question.”
Much of it seemed to be in an attempted spirit of comedy — and there was some laughter of the respectful/nervous variety — but also head-scratching moments about the kind of schtick he was doing.
As the presser progressed, Lewis did get a bit more responsive. Asked about his famous unreleased 1972 movie “The Day the Clown Cried,” he offered a mea culpa. “No one will ever see it because I'm embarrassed at the poor work,” he said. “It was bad.”
He also talked more gently about working with English actress Claire Bloom on this film and got in numerous plugs for the movie — which centers on a jazz musician who loses his wife of many decades — calling it the “best script I read in 40 years” and extolling it as “marvelous” because “it’s about elderly people who’ve been thrown away.”
Many of the questions were about Lewis himself, though, because reporters hadn’t seen the film — a screening scheduled ahead of the press conference had been scratched as of Wednesday. The official reason given was to offer a single public screening and thus, as a publicist for the film said, “create an event” for the comedian — though what it may have indirectly done was steer the press conference to some awkward places.
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