Jerry Lewis Is a Brilliant Comic Artist, a Technically Innovative Filmmaker and an Enduring Creative Influence in Hollywood -- and for That He Deserves an Oscar
Jerry Lewis. No comedian since Charles Chaplin has been so loved and so reviled. He is America’s Dark Prince of Comedy--brilliant, bitter, passionate and deeply conflicted. A man of many demons, his cockiness conceals a labyrinth of doubts and self-destructive impulses. An American original whom Americans have never quite come to terms with, he also happens to be one of the greatest filmmakers of the latter half of the 20th century. And for this he deserves an Academy Award.
It’s not surprising that he’s never even been nominated for one. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has a tradition of snubbing comedians. The list of those whose movies failed to win a single Oscar is appallingly long and distinguished: Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, Harry Langdon, Mabel Normand, the Marx Brothers, W.C. Fields, Abbott and Costello, Bob Hope, Red Skelton, Lucille Ball, Bill Cosby, Richard Pryor, to name a few. The academy finally gave Keaton an honorary Oscar in 1960, and one to Stan Laurel in 1961 (after Lewis lobbied passionately on his behalf), and even one to Charlie Chaplin in 1972, bringing the once-demonized “un-American” director back to Hollywood after 20 years of exile in Europe.
Now it’s time to honor Jerry Lewis.
Lewis was a superstar in the 1950s and early ‘60s, the I Like Ike era of “The Organization Man,” when a Wonder Bread corporate monoculture force-fed an entire generation a bland diet of conformity. In a time of crew cuts and bouffant hairdos, of TV dinners, suburban tract houses, gleaming new supermarkets and the homogenized nuclear family paradigm set forth by “Father Knows Best” and “Leave It to Beaver,” Lewis’ archetypal character, “the Kid,” served as an escape valve--a personification of the American id, cavorting across TV and movie screens, acting on the anarchistic impulses his audiences felt obliged to repress.
“We used to hang out on street corners, and guys would do Jerry Lewis imitations,” says Philip Kaufman, director of “The Right Stuff” and “The Unbearable Lightness of Being,” who came of age in the 1950s. “The way that Jerry Lewis walked, that staggering, uncoordinated adolescent walk--you could feel the American youth culture being born. . . . Lewis and Elvis had this primordial American energy.”
Lewis gradually filled his comic archetype with nuances and complexities, so that it continued to resonate on deeper and yet deeper levels. He did this by becoming what he calls “a total filmmaker,” as Chaplin and Keaton had been. When Lewis began appearing in movies in 1949, he set about learning the technical intricacies of every aspect of production. “After about a year and a half I was able to load a BNC [35mm Mitchell] camera and do anything on the set that any technician did--maybe not with the quality of a man who’s done it for 25 years, but if he got sick, I could do it,” Lewis told me in an interview in December 2003. “I know depth of field like you know your wife’s first name. . . . I therefore proceeded to own every union card in the picture business.” Along the way, he also managed to invent the video assist, which allowed him to instantly replay scenes he’d just shot--now standard equipment on most Hollywood sets.
Once he’d mastered the filmmaking process, Lewis dared to declare his independence from the studio system. He wrote, directed and starred in a series of features that he also co-financed with his own money. “I mortgaged my house a couple of times, sold two cars, I remember that!” Lewis told me. In exchange for putting up half or sometimes the entire budgets of the films he directed, he got 50% or more of the profits and a level of creative autonomy that no screen comedian had commanded since Chaplin. “I had final cut on everything,” he said.
“I would love to have achieved the level of independence that he had,” Kaufman says. “The opposite is Orson Welles. He’s a half a generation before Jerry Lewis, but he gets destroyed because he can’t control the films.”
The movies Lewis directed--including “The Bellboy” (1960), “The Ladies Man” (1961), “The Errand Boy” (1961), “The Nutty Professor” (1963) and “The Patsy” (1964)--were bizarre stream-of-consciousness concoctions packed with brilliant pantomime set pieces and surreal comic nightmare sequences, moving Rorschach inkblots that reflected Lewis’ deeply conflicted psyche. “They were not regular Hollywood films,” says director Martin Scorsese. “There were no stories. No plots. They were very dreamlike, going from one free association to the next, almost like the later Luis Bunuel pictures, like ‘The Phantom of Liberty,’ which was a dream within a dream within a dream. You know you’re in the hands of a master; you just let him take you along. His films were almost avant-garde.”
Like Buster Keaton, Scorsese says, Lewis had an uncanny ability to pour his subconscious onto a movie screen, creating phantasmagoric visions permeated with disturbing psychological undertones. Unlike Keaton, Lewis often worked in color. He urged his cinematographer, W. Wallace Kelley, to pump huge amounts of light onto his sets until the comic book hues popped off the screen. “Lewis’ use of color has influenced many filmmakers, [such as] the way David Lynch uses color, and Pedro Almodovar,” Scorsese says.
In the mid-'60s, European critics--the French, most famously, or infamously, depending on your point of view--embraced Lewis as a genius, an heir to Chaplin and Keaton. Chagrined American critics sputtered outrage. They saw Lewis as a vulgarian, a pretentious, sentimental egomaniac who was a tad less subtle than the Three Stooges, and a lot less funny. And those were the good reviews. “Mr. Lewis is a frenetic performer,” wrote Eugene Archer of the New York Times, “but he lacks a point . . . a rubber-limbed robot making faces in a void.” Harriet Van Horne of the World Telegram wrote of a Lewis performance, “you flinch from the soulless vulgarity of his spastic twitches and low-class leers.” In his 1968 book “The American Cinema,” Andrew Sarris demeaned not only Lewis, but also his fans. “Lewis appeals to unsophisticated audiences in the sticks and to ungenteel audiences in the urban slums,” Sarris wrote. “He is bigger on 42nd Street, for example, than anyplace else in the city.”
Lewis seemed to scuttle any chance that American intellectuals would change their minds by taking the fight to the enemy. He wrote nasty letters to reviewers and denounced them on television and radio. He said they were “caustic, rude, unkind and sinister. . . . They’re burying the business they’re paid by.” And in his most infamous salvo, blasted in a 1981 Los Angeles Times interview, he called them “whores.”
But beneath his belligerence one sensed the man had been deeply wounded. In a telling passage in his landmark 1971 book about moviemaking, “The Total Film-maker,” Lewis confessed: “I cannot sit at certain tables at the Directors Guild because I make what some people consider is a ‘hokey’ product. John Frankenheimer waves and hopes that no one else sees his hand, simply because I film pratfalls and spritz water and throw pies.”
In countless magazine profiles and biographies, Lewis has been vividly portrayed as a tantrum-throwing egomaniac. But there is another side. I’ve talked with many people who worked with Lewis over the years--including his longtime collaborators, writer Bill Richmond and comedienne Kathleen Freeman--who told me stories of his private acts of extraordinary kindness and generosity. Peter Bogdanovich tells of how Lewis befriended him when he was a poor, young aspiring filmmaker--lending him a car, allowing him to screen movies at Paramount and charge the cost to Lewis’ production company. “He’s been a good friend to me for more than 40 years,” Bogdanovich says. When I first interviewed Lewis a year ago, I found him to be a perceptive, articulate but deeply divided man who oscillated during the course of our one-hour conversation from laughter to anger to tears. His ability to infuse his movies with these seething emotions gave them their strange emotional charge, and helped make them audacious and poetic works of art.
In “The Bellboy” and “The Errand Boy,” Lewis’ Kid finds himself wandering through sprawling corporate complexes: the ultramodern curvilinear interiors of Miami Beach’s Fontainebleau hotel, and the cavernous soundstages and maze-like streets and corridors of a movie studio. He desperately tries to mesh with the gears of the industrial combine, but his inability to function with the automaton efficiency of his co-workers inevitably causes catastrophe. “There’s a sense in which he’s a modern man, a universal figure confronted with modernity, with bosses and difficult jobs, and especially with a fast pace that’s difficult to keep up with,” says Henry Sheehan, critic for KPCC-FM and KCET.
There are haunting moments that evoke the lonely yearnings of the alienated in America’s increasingly institutionalized society, such as the brilliant pantomimes in which the Kid conducts an imaginary orchestra or imagines himself to be a movie mogul holding forth in a deserted boardroom. Or the scene where the Kid is assigned the Sisyphean task of setting up more than 1,000 chairs in an auditorium the size of a football field. Lewis films from one wide angle, holding the shot as the Kid recedes farther and farther into the great hollow hall. “When he started directing his own pictures there was a powerful visual sense,” Scorsese says. “It was almost as if the films were drawn by hand--animated. Something was very arresting about the way Lewis designed his scenes and shot them, the way he focused the eye of the audience.”
In the middle of “The Bellboy,” the Kid is ordered to help with the luggage of an arriving celebrity: Jerry Lewis, the movie star. Lewis the star arrives in a limousine with a huge retinue of yes-men and sycophants. “That kind of thing was refreshing and brilliant,” Scorsese says. “It opened the audience’s mind. What is the reality? We know we’re watching a film. We know it’s directed by him. We know he’s in control. Then he shows up as a film star within the movie! It plays with your sense of what reality is and what cinema is--and also what celebrity is.” In a culture obsessed with celebrity, Lewis shows us that a star is as objectified as a Playboy centerfold, and his existence at the top of the ladder every bit as lonely as that of the Kid at the bottom. The entourage of Jerry Lewis the movie star laughs at his every remark. When he tearfully reveals that a beloved aunt just died, the crowd howls with unhinged hilarity. “Nothing like a laugh!” someone screams.
In “The Ladies Man,” the Kid serves as a gofer in a boarding house full of young women. Lewis built the entire mansion--four stories tall, including a stairway and working elevator--on two soundstages at Paramount, with the fourth wall of every room cut away, like a giant dollhouse, so the camera could swoop on a crane from room to room, each of which was pre-lighted and wired for sound. It was another groundbreaking technical innovation, and a fantastic dreamscape through which Lewis’ imagination ran wild. In one spectacular crane shot, Lewis pulls back to show the entire dollhouse. “That shot is so striking,” Scorsese says. “In a funny way, it had something to do with the way I did a shot in ‘Gangs of New York’ in the beginning of the film, showing the [multileveled] hell of the old brewery.”
Scorsese found more inspiration in Lewis’ masterpiece, “The Nutty Professor,” in the famous sequence that occurs after Professor Kelp has transformed himself into the incandescent lounge lizard Buddy Love. At first we do not see Love. Instead we see the world through his eyes. In an intricately choreographed tracking shot, Love walks through the street toward the Purple Pit nightclub and various passersby react with astonishment to his high-voltage charisma. “I use that as an example of the kind of point-of-view shots that I use,” Scorsese says. In “Gangs of New York,” he told his assistant director, Joseph Reidy, that he wanted to choreograph a similar point-of-view shot in the scene where Amsterdam Vallon (Leonardo DiCaprio) places a rabbit pelt on a Five Points fence as a declaration of war. “I am constantly referring back to Lewis’ work,” Scorsese says.
Lewis explored the polarities of his personality--the lonely kid he had been in his youth and still felt himself to be, and the polished persona he presented on television and in live performances--not only in “The Bellboy,” but also in “Cinderfella” (directed by Frank Tashlin and produced by Lewis) and “The Errand Boy.” This theme reached its full and most complex expression in “The Nutty Professor.” The movie is an extended investigation of Lewis the public performer, and his insecure inner self. But more than a movie star’s exercise in self-absorption, it is a meditation on the American model of masculinity. Lewis acknowledges its pathology even as he admits that he cannot free himself of his aspiration to embody it. In the climax of the movie, Buddy Love transforms back into Professor Kelp before a stunned crowd of college students. Kelp makes a heartfelt speech about the fallacy of trying to create a false personality to please others and the need for self-acceptance, and there’s not a dry eye in the house. But in the film’s denouement, as Kelp leaves for his wedding with heartthrob Stella (Stella Stevens), the director reveals that she has stuffed two bottles of Kelp’s magic tonic in the pockets of her jeans--an admission that there’s a dark, erotic power to Love’s aggressive posturing that Americans find irresistible, despite whatever lip service they may pay to the values of sensitivity and brains.
“Lewis’ sense of burlesque is a strange type of comedy because it’s full of anxiety,” says director Barbet Schroeder (“Barfly,” “Single White Female”). “It’s a tragic vision that makes you laugh. . . . And all that is completely personal and completely extraordinary. He took burlesque comedy one step further, like any great artist, to a very freaky, disturbing modern tone.”
in 1977, someone at an american Film Institute seminar asked Lewis why his films hadn’t been rediscovered, as those of other great comics had been. “They wait until you die,” he snapped.
Until recently, it looked as if Lewis might be right. During the last decade, a series of serious health problems--bouts of meningitis and pulmonary fibrosis--forced him to cancel live engagements and spend long stretches in the hospital. But last year, Lewis bounced back. He returned home from the hospital, and in the fall he released sparkling wide-screen DVD transfers of 10 movies from his golden period, complete with outtakes and commentary tracks.
And the damnedest thing happened. They got good reviews. The New York Times published not one but two rave notices. In the second one, Dave Kehr wrote: “Is it finally time to stop with the French-love-him jokes and acknowledge that Jerry Lewis is one of the great American filmmakers?” Kehr noted that the DVDs “reveal both the fierce creativity of his comic performances and the extreme formal sophistication of his direction. The centerpiece is the 1963 ‘The Nutty Professor’ . . . a study in split personality that both anticipates Ingmar Bergman’s 1966 ‘Persona’ and surpasses it in psychological acuity. It’s also a lot funnier.”
In December 2004, the Library of Congress concluded that “The Nutty Professor” is a movie of lasting cultural significance, worthy of preservation, and added it to the National Film Registry.
Then in January, Lewis received a career achievement award from the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn. The explanation for this turnaround is simple: As older critics retired, a new generation replaced them. They had come of age in the 1950s and ‘60s and had spent the better part of their youth in the dark, watching Jerry Lewis and laughing till they just about wet their pants. “For me, personally, the impact of watching ‘The Nutty Professor’ as a boy in a drive-in in the Valley was huge,” says Robert Koehler, who writes for Variety. “It was the first time I had felt a weird sense of terror, horror and comedy all in one fell swoop. I’d never felt that before in a movie. There was something going on here besides just another Hollywood comedy. There was a sense of wild theatrics. I was only 7 years old at the time; I couldn’t even put my finger on it, but it so absolutely impressed my young mind.”
As they grew older, like Morty S. Tashman in “The Errand Boy,” these young fans made their way to Hollywood to become part of show business. Their film school professors and older critics had told them Lewis was vulgar and tasteless, but they went back and watched the movies and didn’t believe it. “I always thought he was funny, from the first time I came to him, at 9 years old,” says Henry Sheehan, president of the L.A. critics association. “Once I grew older and learned something about composition and the mechanics of gags, I was full of admiration for him. I think my experience is pretty common for people my age.”
For years a growing number of Lewis supporters had been urging the association to give the comedian the career achievement award. This year the membership suddenly agreed. “It was pretty widely supported,” Koehler says. “In the past there have been complaints. The first year I was in the group, his name was brought up and some people were openly contemptuous. I heard none of that this time. I don’t know why. I think it’s the test of time.”
As the night of the awards ceremony approached, a question loomed: How would Lewis react? Would he be able to drop the contentious attitude he’d held against his old adversaries for more than half a century? When I talked with him shortly after the award had been announced, he seemed to be struggling for his equilibrium. “I don’t really know how I’m going to deal with it,” he admitted, then murmured something about handling it with grace. But when he talked with other journalists, some of the old fighting verbiage crept into his remarks. He told Larry King the award was “the best revenge I’ve ever had.” And to a reporter from the Los Angeles Daily News, he said, “Jesus Christ, is that retribution or not?”
Finally, the moment came. Peter Bogdanovich presented the plaque. Lewis stepped to the podium. His eyes passed over the crowd. “Thank you very much, ladies and gentlemen. I am delighted to be the recipient of this award. . . . What took so goddamned long?” The room exploded with laughter. Lewis segued smoothly into his Vegas act and did about 10 minutes that had the critics, filmmakers and stars doubled over and gasping for air.
Then he stopped, his voice growing serious. “I would feel somewhat remiss if I didn’t show you something that I believe brought me here tonight,” he said. Film rolled, and on the screen behind him appeared a 35-year-old Jerry Lewis doing the famous Chairman of the Board pantomime from “The Errand Boy,” his gesticulations and mugging timed to the tempo of Count Basie’s “Blues in Hoss’ Flat.” It was much more than funny. It was at once melancholy, poetic and exhilarating. When it was over, the room rose in a howling, hooting standing ovation. The only one of the night.
Now it’s the academy’s turn to step up. A few months ago, Bogdanovich wrote a letter to its president, Frank Pierson, suggesting that Lewis be given an Oscar. I hope the Academy doesn’t take too long. The hour is late. Another great clown and groundbreaking filmmaker, too long ignored, deserves to be honored by his peers.