Apropos of Jerry Lewis's Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award given to him at the Oscar's last night, I thought I'd reflect (and frankly reprint from a very long time ago a quite interesting piece I wrote for this blog back when ABSOLUTELY NOBODY READ IT) upon the man who, one way or another, everybody loves to hate...and secretly (I believe) everyone actually quite likes and perhaps even adores.
Check yesterday's (2/22/09) New York Times Sunday arts section appreciation of Lewis. I believe it's his first American highbrow nod in God knows how long (if ever) and it comes, frankly, as something of a surprise. What a nice thing for the New York Times to reach across the divide and celebrate the fact that Jerry Lewis--our last link to true, old-fashioned, show-biz is alive and well and able to accept a long overdue award. Even so, the writer can't help but reference the eight-hundred pound elephant in the room--namely the fact that Jerry's tendency to go to very uncomfortable (and often unfunny) places makes him...dangerous. Well, yes. And for me it's always been that danger that I've cherished--his "little boy lost" thing is never the point for me in nearly the way that his "crazed ego-driven id-monster" thing" is. And unless you buy that about him, you'll have a hard time feeling good about yourself for loving Jerry. But love him lots of us do. And frankly, Jerry-hating (or pretend Jerry-aversion) is as boring as New Yorkers hating Los Angeles (yes yes, I've been guilty of that old saw)...or, if you will, of Republicans calling Democrats "socialists". Enough! Can't we admit that the world is a large place filled with interesting things that we should be open to? Can't we all be friends? Or at least the few of us who are worthwhile? Let's start by enjoying the brilliant "Typewriter" routine from one of more middling mid-sixties efforts, "Whose Minding The Mint?"
Great. Right? And not offensive, sentimental or too crazy. On the other hand:
Imagine a 70 year old getting pissed off at a kid doing an imitation of him...and after inviting him onto the stage. This is the stomach-churning Lewis, the Jerry who my mother loathed and couldn't abide my fandom of.
Upon reflection, I've been seriously fascinated by this gifted, paradoxical creature for many many years.
The paradox in Lewis is, you might say, the classic comic's paradox: how can sombody so funny be such a repugnant shit? Lewis can be outwardly warm and expressive when he chooses to be--and can also be famously rude and cold. Years ago, a friend of mine--who was also a big Jerry fan-- worked as a P.A. on the "Today Show" and excitedly told me that Lewis was appearing as a guest. When the day came, my friend waited for Jerry's interview to be over and approached him. "Mr. Lewis, I just wanted to tell you what a big fan--" And this was as far as he got. Lewis spun on him and said, "How dare you bother me? Can't you see I'm busy?"
Awful though the story was (and lousy though my friend felt) something in me loved Lewis for his nutty star attitude. The monstrous egoist and the innocent boychick truly exist side by side in this man. Need I mention his comment on women comedians? ("That sets me back a bit...I think of them as baby-producing machines.") And a year or so ago, apparently at hour eighteen on his telethon, he called somebody's son a "fag." (GLAAD got on his ass immediately. To his credit, Jerry apologized immediately.) Still, I believe sincerely in his concern for and desire to help the sick and needy--I never bought the 'he's only doing it for his image' response. And I also believe he'd fire his own kid if he felt like it. (In fact I think he's estranged from more than one of his children). In Peter Bogdanovich's new book about actors, "Who The Hell Is In It", the Lewis section (which is for my money the most interesting section of this very interesting book) contains several rather...strange lines that one could only imagine Lewis saying. For instance, he talks openly about his womanzing in his early days (despite his famous "perfect marriage" to Patty that produced his first six kids) and off-handedly mentions having sex with a different woman every morning in his dressing room before getting down to work. "Just to get the poison out...", he adds. Whaaaat? This Jerry--bigshot-take no prisoners-it's all about me Jerry--is best reflected in this brilliant bit from "The Errand Boy".
And then there is the much contested "Buddy Love", his supposed send-up of former partner Dean Martin but in fact a rather naked portrayal of Jerry's dark side--his "King Of Show-Biz" manner circa 1969. Viz his brilliant entrance in "The Nutty Professor", directed, conceived and LIVED by Jerry:
Even if he won't cop to it, it's all here: the swagger, the slick (and slightly greasy) hair, the overwhelming desire to humiliate underlings. Do you still buy that Buddy Love is based on Dino? Buddy is Jerry. And Jerry knows it. Kind of.
Clearly the negative image drowned Lewis in the public opinion polls--by the late sixties he was finished as a movie star and his directing career never really took off. The telethon became his main gig. It took the Eddie Murphy remake of "Nutty Professor" to bring him back to the zeitgeist--and it apparently bailed him out financially. Lewis's deal with Paramount gave him the ownership of his old movies back after thirty years, which means that Paramount had to pay him a fortune to remake a film that they'd produced in the first place.
Lewis and his craziness can't really be seperated. With Sinatra, one must ignore the images of his thugs beating up his fans for looking at the Man the wrong way and just listen to the voice. But with Lewis, the ugliness is part of his charisma--danger is very much a part of his act. Or was. His appearance on the Oscars last night (see below clip) was tame, polite and perhaps apologetic; protestors were gathered outside the auditorium specifically to object to his being given a Humanitarian award (I'm unclear as to why and frankly don't care). Nonetheless, he gives the Oscar audience a "crazy kid" face at the end (the camera cuts away too quickly) just to show that the old Jerry is buried somewhere within. And I, for one, find it just a little sad that the best Hollywood can offer Jerry Lewis is a deserved but sanctimonious "Humanitarian Award". How about a good old fashioned "Lifetime Achievement" award for a comic, writer, actor, director, producer who life and work have spanned a vast amount of the show-biz experience and who has never truly been properly recognized...or, when he has, has had to endure unnecessary apologies from his supporters for loving him, warts and all.
Congrats on the Hersholt, Jerry. It's better than the "Don't Let The Door Hit You On The Ass..." award that most of us get. Maybe next will come the Buddy Love "Prick Award". And then, finally, perhaps the two faces of Jerry Lewis will finally meld into one and we can celebrate this complicated clown for who he is. Before it's too late...
Posted by Raymond De Felitta at 6:54 PM