Wednesday, July 11, 2018

THE BIG MOUTH

Last August, Jerry Lewis screamed "Laaaaaady!" for the last time. The following day, I wrote a tribute of sorts, but only recently discovered that I left it in "draft" mode, rather than publishing it. This is probably something Jerry would have done in a movie (had there been laptops in 1962), leading to all sorts of contretemps with the likes of Keenan Wynn or Phil Harris. 

So here it is now, a year later, lightly re-written and updated.




In the beginning was Jerome Levitch
of Newark, New Jersey.
You never thought Jerry Lewis was funny? That he was morbidly sentimental, juvenile, thoughtless? Driven primarily by ego, anger and cigarettes? Possessed the worst possible aspects of show business, personal philosophy, and fundraising?

I totally understand. In fact, I agree. I once spent a good 30 minutes on the phone with a friend as we watched, in horror, an HBO special taped in Las Vegas starring Jerry Lewis and Sammy Davis, Jr., another entertainer who didn't always understand the concept of "cool it for a second, will ya?" Much of what we saw was singularly, astonishingly appalling.

And I liked the guy. So much so that seeing Jerry in the Broadway revival of Damn Yankees 20 years ago is still a highlight -- make that the highlight -- of my theatergoing experience. And getting his autograph afterwards? I'm still shaking.

Maybe you have to be a guy from my generation to understand. And even if you are, you likely never cared for him. Again, I get it.


As far as the French were concerned,
it was Qui est Dean Martin?
It used to be the highest of compliments to say the French liked someone or something often unappreciated in their American homeland -- Josephine Baker, Charlie Parker, film noir, Jim Thompson. But somehow, when it came to Jerry Lewis, that compliment became a side-of-the-mouth insult. Jerry Lewis -- oh yeah, big in France.

And Germany.

And Italy.

And Spain.

And the Netherlands. In fact, Jerry won eight "Best Director" awards throughout Europe, where he also appeared in movies and TV specials that never aired in the U.S. 



The critical acclaim heaped upon him on the Continent must confound American critics -- or, to be
Yes, that Jerry Lewis.
precise, American critics of his generation. Upon Lewis' death, movie columnist Richard Brody wrote "The French were right: Lewis is one of the most original, inventive, and, yes, profound directors of the time."  Brody's critiques of Lewis' movies make for fascinating, eye-opening reading. And they can be found in -- get this -- The New Yorker, not exactly a magazine for the National Enquirer crowd.


So it shouldn't be surprising that tributes poured in by the monkey-barrelful from the baby-boom generation of comedians. You'd expect them from Gilbert Gottfried and Jim Carrey. But what of Margaret Cho and Richard Belzer? Or, for that matter, Samuel L. Jackson, Cher, Penn Jillette and Mark Hamill? What do they see that American cineastes don't? Plenty.


Even the world of adhesives was influenced.
Years ago, Chris Rock said his three influences were Dick Gregory, Woody Allen, and Jerry Lewis. Sound bizarre? Probably not to Woody, who wanted Jerry to direct his first two movies, Take the Money and Run and Bananas.

Again, that may come as a shock, even to me. Last year, TCM ran a 24-hour Jerry Lewis film festival. I watched the first and final movies he directed, The Bellboy (1960) and Smorgasbord (1983). Over the course of nearly a quarter-century, he appeared to have made absolutely no "progress" in the art of directing.

Of course, you can say the same thing about Charlie Chaplin, Stan Laurel, and, yes, Woody Allen, because their particular style works best for comedy: long takes, unfussy editing, no close-ups. In fact, it wasn't until I saw Midnight in Paris that I realized just how much Woody was influenced by Lewis. Jerry himself could have directed it, and it would have looked pretty much the same. 

And yet, all anybody wanted to ask him about was working with Dean
I'd say there was some truth here.
Martin. For all the self-professed "love" for his former partner, it must have been profoundly irritating at times to be so closely identified with a period that took up only a decade in a career that lasted over 70 years. Perhaps on some level, Americans realized Martin & Lewis were the bridge between "establishment" comedy (Jack Benny, Fred Allen) and what came after (Sid Caesar, Mel Brooks), and could never forget it. 


While I always enjoy watching Martin & Lewis' television appearances, I confess never to have made it through even their more critically-acclaimed movies like Artists and Models or Hollywood or Bust. They always seem constrained by their scripts, whereas they could run wild on live TV.




"Solid"-- as in "constipated".
But I grew up watching plenty of Jerry's solo movies, along with his late '60s variety show -- by then, past his money-making prime. It's easy to forget that there was a stretch when he was the number one box office star, as well as the highest paid actor in movies and television.

I still remember the hype surrounding the debut in 1963 of his Saturday night, live, two hour talk show -- perhaps still the biggest disaster in the history of television, show business, and mankind. His five year "iron-clad" contract with ABC was melted down in 13 weeks.

But this is the same guy who invented the video assist, which revolutionized the way directors made movies. Who, in his last 30 years, made a major switch in careers as a dramatic actor, winning acclaim in movies and TV shows like King of Comedy, Wise Guy, the way-underrated Funny Bones, and his final starring role in Max Rose. The guy who Woody Allen said was the greatest comedy director in movies. The same Jerry acclaimed as a genius across Europe. 


Jerry squared.
Lewis' last TV appearance, at age 91,can be seen on Jerry Seinfeld's Netflix series Comedians Riding in Cars Getting Coffee, taped last year, but available only last week. It's rather moving to see how this elderly man -- who, at 6' tall, would shave a fraction of an inch off the bottom of his shoes, and hunch down just so Dean Martin could tower over him that much more -- is now really hunched over, and whose head can barely be seen over his car seat when filmed from behind.

Jerry comes off during the interview like a grandfather who can drive you a little crazy, but also surprise you with his sense of humor, funny faces, and fascinating stories... while his bottomless supply of anger, self-pity, and, above all, overbearing sense of self-worth percolates underneath, ready to explode at a moment's notice. 


"Admit it -- you're gonna miss me!"
Yes, you can find plenty to love and loathe about Jerry Lewis, as you can most talented, complicated people. But few have had such an impact on one profession. All you need to do is read the introduction to Shawn Levy's terrific biography of Jerry, King of Comedy, to discover his light and dark sides. 

I've heard from people with first-hand experience that plenty of actors and directors with stellar public reputations are, in reality, incredibly difficult, egomaniacal, condescending SOBs. It's to Jerry Lewis' credit that he always gave you the real deal, whether you liked it or not.

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