Au revoir, Mr. Lewis
Artist, humanitarian, and monster, Jerry Lewis leaves behind a complicated body of work full of brilliance, bad taste, and innovation
"People hate me because I am a multifaceted, talented, wealthy, internationally famous genius." —Jerry Lewis
Jerry Lewis was one of the most divisive and idiosyncratic public personalities to ever have enjoyed such a monumental level of celebrity in his seven-decade run as a household name. His death on August 21, 2017 brought out predictably polarized responses. In the US obituaries, although Lewis was hailed for his commitment to philanthropy — it is estimated that he raised approximately $2.5 billion over the 40 years he hosted the annual Labor Day telethon for the Muscular Dystrophy Association — it was also frequently emphasized that Lewis fully earned his reputation as a gigantic asshole, a vituperative, utterly toxic showbiz misanthrope. Beyond his cold-blooded directness (like the evening he encouraged drug dealers to donate to the telethon), and his repeated disdain for women in comedy, in one of his last interviews in 2015 he praised the nascent candidacy of Donald Trump and chimed in on the reactionary calls for an immediate halt on the intake of Syrian refugees. (“Hey, nobody has worked harder for the human condition than I have, but they’re not part of the human condition. If 11 guys in that group of 10,000 are ISIS, how can I take the chance?”)
Compare this with the reaction in France, where Lewis was long considered a comic genius on par with Chaplin, Keaton and Tati — a status that completely mystified most Americans, who knew him best from his Las Vegas stage shows and mawkish telethons. There, his death was received as a monumental loss to the arts and to French culture itself: Lewis had been awarded the nation’s highest order of merit, the Commandeur de la Légion d’honneur, in 2006.
To love and admire Jerry’s work, as I do, is to be forced to overlook or rationalize a lot of hot garbage. The old cliché about “separating the art from the artist” is tailor-made for assessing the career of Lewis, who despite his mercurial persona was undeniably gifted, willing to experiment at great financial and personal cost, and who pioneered some key innovations in the film industry that are still with us today, for better or for worse. Several of his films (as actor and director) represent this paradox: the hateful man who only wants to be loved, the lovable man quick to volcanic anger, the goony-faced manchild who could also channel great charisma, the exacting perfectionist who put out a lot of sloppy work.
“You have to remember: postwar America was a very buttoned-up nation. Radio shows were run by censors, presidents wore hats, ladies wore girdles. We came straight out of the blue — nobody was expecting anything like Martin and Lewis. A sexy guy and a monkey is how some people saw us, but what we really were, in an age of Freudian self-realization, was the explosion of the show-business id.” —Jerry Lewis, from his 2005 memoir Dean and Me: A Love Story
Over the course of a ten-year partnership that began immediately after the end of World War II, the team of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis was unavoidable in American culture. In addition to voluminous television, radio, and nightclub appearances mass-marketed for a new information age, they made an astonishing 16 films together for producer Hal B. Wallis. While this body of cinematic work varies greatly in quality (to say the least), the team’s fortuitous pairing with former Looney Tunes animator Frank Tashlin produced the eye-popping VistaVision comedy-musical Artists and Models (1955), arguably their finest and most ambitious screen outing.
When the Martin and Lewis act imploded a year later (for reasons that remain murky), Dino continued on as the smooth crooner and light actor, while running with Frank Sinatra and his notorious Rat Pack. Lewis, meanwhile — a much more acquired taste for an adult audience without the stabilizing and contrasting presence that Martin had provided — defied the doubters by continuing to work as an abrasive (and popular) singer and comedian, fulfilling his contract with producer Wallis and partnering with Tashlin on a string of financially successful solo films.
In 1959, Lewis made showbiz history by signing an exclusive deal with Paramount to star in 14 films over seven years, a $10 million deal which included a 60% share of the films’ profits. During his screen tenure with Dino, Lewis had spent much of his time on the studio lot immersing himself in the details of the filmmaking process, and was determined to utilize this knowledge to launch a new chapter in his career: “The Kid” now wanted to be The Film-Maker.
Jerry’s early-’60s work in particular displayed his boundless ambition and willingness to experiment with the cinematic toybox at his disposal. His directorial debut, The Bellboy (1960), caused consternation at the studio: the film was made without a script, shot off the lot at the Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami, and Jerry’s title character was a mute, à la M. Hulot. (Though Lewis also played a cameo opposite himself as a boorish celebrity entertainer named “Jerry Lewis” — one of numerous instances of Lewis’ insistent, and psychologically revealing, doubling of himself onscreen.)
Compelled to finance the production himself to guarantee his autonomy, it was on this production that Lewis would introduce what would soon become a standard feature on Hollywood film sets: video assist, or playback. As he was shooting on a tight schedule and making a film that depended on precise slapstick gags in an era when one had to wait until the next day to see the rushes, Lewis had closed-circuit video cameras set up next to the film cameras so that he would instantly know if he had captured a usable take. (Lewis claimed he had patented this technology, but in fact, he was just the first person to make concerted use of it.) Lewis was also an early adopter of the Nagra, the portable and self-contained recording units that soon became ubiquitous on film shoots.
Jerry’s next production, The Ladies Man (1961), remains his most ambitious and significant achievement as a film director. A huge dollhouse cutaway set was constructed on two adjoining soundstages at Paramount, for a production carried off with great verve and formal control but which barely contains the chaotic whirlwind blowing through the mise en scène.
Jerry’s most famous film, The Nutty Professor (1963), was ripe for psychoanalytic interpretation, with Lewis the actor doing double duty as the aggressively nerdy, sexually frustrated Dr. Julius Kelp, who in an attempt to win over the girl of his dreams (an aptly cast Stella Stevens) concocts a love potion that unleashes his repressed alter ego, the monstrously self-assured lounge lizard Buddy Love. Some critics of the time assumed the cavalier doppleganger Buddy was based on Dean Martin, but over time it has become clear that the character is only partly Martinized. More and more, it seems clear that Buddy is a walking compendium of Lewis’ worst fears about himself, and how he came across to others: narcissistic, self-loathing, garish, and cruel.
While in the States Lewis was raking it in at the box office and being raked over the coals by the critics, in France he was already being elevated into the comedy pantheon. Jean-Luc Godard was an ardent admirer of Lewis’ work, reading into the films a trenchant and progressive critique of American culture that had been completely missed by its domestic audience; he later paid lavish homage to the stunning set of The Ladies Man in his 1972 Tout va bien.
In 1980, Godard appeared on The Dick Cavett Show, where, in response to the host’s goading, he eloquently praised Lewis’ methodology and sought to explain his specific appeal for French filmgoers:
He’s more a painter maybe, than a director...He’s working with space, he’s not tracking like all those so-called modern moviemakers and making fancy with the camera, he’s just interested in framing. He’s a very good framer, like great painters, he has a lot of sense of geometry — to be a comic you have to be very capable in geometry...
Godard offers a key insight here into one of the main ingredients of Lewis’ brand of screen comedy: the role that awkwardness, failure, and embarrassment plays in the work, and how the comedy plays out on screen less as entertainment and more as a postmodernist study of the science of the humour response itself. (“I think it’s very funny. Even when it’s not funny, it’s more funny, because it’s not funny,” said Godard, concisely prophesizing an entire comedic tradition then in its infancy.) The apex of Gallic Jerry worship would come a few years later, with Robert Benayoun’s exhaustive book (and six-hour documentary series) Bonjour Mr. Lewis.
Buoyed by how seriously his work was taken by European intellectuals, Lewis embraced the acclaim and began to present himself in America as The Serious Jerry, culminating in 1967 when he brazenly started teaching a filmmaking course at USC. (Some of the attendees included future wunderkinds and game-changers George Lucas and Steven Spielberg.) The transcripts of his lectures were the basis for Lewis’ one-of-a-kind film directing manual, The Total Film-Maker.
While this remarkable tome does contain some practical advice, it is mostly enjoyable for Jerry’s weird, revolutionary beatnik lingo, the middle-aged Lewis desperately trying to stay “with it,” looking to avoid the fate of Dean Martin and the other square entertainers suddenly rendered dinosaurs in the Age of Aquarius:
So, leaving the over-thirties to wallow in their own messes, I am aiming this toward the young, the fired-up long- and short-hairs who want to lick emulsion. Film, baby, powerful tool for love or laughter, fantastic weapon to create violence or ward it off, is in your hands. The only possible chance you’ve got in our round thing is not to bitch about injustice or break windows, but to make a concerted effort to have a loud voice. The loudest voice known to man is on thousand-foot reels. —Jerry Lewis, from the introduction to The Total Film-Maker
Lewis’ movie career started to falter after a terrible fall on the set of The Andy Williams Show led to a painkiller addiction and a long depression, accompanied by two career-damaging career decisions that consumed him through the 1970s. The first bad call was to put his name to a new franchise of “mini-cinemas” across the United States, marketed towards film lovers who had always dreamed of running their own highly profitable movie theatre. These Jerry Lewis Cinemas required a $50,000 down payment from franchisees, a relatively low barrier for entry into cinema management; operators would receive all the training and marketing assistance they would need from the mothership, with an emphasis on this being a “turn-key” operation, where everything from projectors to concessions could be operated automatically by as few as two employees. “If you can press a button, you can own a Jerry Lewis Cinema!” blared the marketing materials.
The theatres themselves were partitioned into small screening rooms, outfitted in a basic modernist design, neither opulent nor cheapskate. The programming offered to licensees would be second-run content, but with one ironclad proviso that would prove to be fatal to the success of this business model: Jerry insisted that all programming in his cinema chain must be “family-friendly,” G- or PG-rated fare, in an era when most hit films were rated R. Though the plan was to open thousands of locations, the chain never expanded beyond 200 cinemas, and the neophyte cinema managers quickly learned harsh lessons about the hidden costs of film exhibition, as well as the lack of promised technical support for malfunctioning equipment. Lewis and National Cinema Corporation were buried by lawsuits, and Lewis filed for personal bankruptcy as the cinema chain collapsed in 1980; but the business model of multiplexes and automatic operations he introduced were heavily influential on the direct future of moviegoing that we see today.
If Lewis’ first mistake buried him as an entrepreneur, his second destroyed his directing career. In 1972, Lewis directed and starred in the notorious vanity project The Day the Clown Cried, a dramatic passion project with one of the most cringe-inducing scenarios imaginable: Jerry plays a sad-faced clown in Auschwitz who is tasked by the Nazis to entertain the children about to be exterminated. The film achieved legendary status when Lewis got into a dispute with the producers, and then successfully suppressed it from ever being seen by more than a few people. Towards the end of his life, however, Lewis surprisingly included a complete print of The Day the Clown Cried to the Library of Congress along with the rest of his film catalogue, on the condition that it not be made available to the public until the year 2025.
Now steeped in hostility and bitterness, Lewis eventually returned to directing with Hardly Working (1980), a fairly artless and amateurish collection of freakish comic scenarios that also seemed to be a veiled attempt to settle some Hollywood scores (the marketing material referred to Lewis as “The Original Jerk,” in resentful reference to the success of Steve Martin’s recent, Jerry-esque hit). Hardly Working was released in Europe a year before it hit stateside, where of course it was blasted by American critics (though not all), although it did open at number one at the box office.
For Dark Jerry obsessives, an even more informative example of his desiccated late style was 1983’s Cracking Up (a.k.a. Smorgasbord), which did not get an American theatrical release at all. The aggressively uncomfortable physical comedy Lewis specialized in is in evidence, despite clear signs that things are not fully cooking (a claustrophobic and obviously low-budget set, a middle-aged, Brylcreem-dripping, orange-tanned Jerry dressed in his familiar blazer/glasses/ascot combo so familiar from his guest appearances on talk shows). This is the theoretical comedy Godard and his contemporaries spoke so highly of: it’s funny because it’s not funny.
It was this nightmarish Jerry Lewis — aloof, unknowable, supremely bitter — that was used so perfectly by Martin Scorsese in The King of Comedy (1982), where Lewis garnered the best reviews of his career for his turn as Jerry Langford, a Johnny Carson-esque late-night host who is taken hostage by Robert De Niro’s Rupert Pupkin, a striving sociopath consumed by his own showbiz delusions. As in Lewis’ late self-directed works, there is a strong tone of autobiography (and relative naturalism) to his character here: Lewis even suggested that the character’s original name Bobby Langford be changed to Jerry, and he related an anecdote to Scorsese that the director then dramatized in the film (and reportedly let Lewis direct himself).
The King of Comedy was not particularly commercially successful upon release, but if anything its subject matter of deluded celebrity worship is even more relevant today. Looking back, it’s clear that Scorsese’s film is one of the key influencers on modern "cringe comedy" (The Larry Sanders Show, the UK series The Office, Curb Your Enthusiasm, the films of Judd Apatow, Michael Winterbottom’s Trip-tych): works of anti-comedy where failure = success, where the line between fiction and documentary realism, character and self, is irreversibly blurred. It’s yet another example of the supreme influence Lewis had on the world of comedy — a landscape that, for all his personal unpleasantness, is impossible to imagine without him.