Jerry Lewis 1926-2017

jerrylewisOne of the last has fallen. Jerome Levitch, known to the world as Jerry Lewis, died today at age 91. Since he started performing (along with his show-biz parents) when he was five, Lewis takes with him 86 years of entertainment memories. Such a man, if he remains mentally sharp (and it seems Lewis did), can function as an invaluable living record of the whos and whats of show biz for most of the twentieth century and some of the twenty-first (for instance, in 2003 he did a guest voice on The Simpsons). Unfortunately, age did not improve his prickly (at best) demeanor, and the last interview he gave, to the Hollywood Reporter, was notable for Lewis’ lengthy, surly silences.

Lewis was a man of the mid-twentieth century, for better or worse. That was his peak — his ten-year partnership with Dean Martin, and then his solo career as a performer/director who popularized the video-assist system, a process in which a video camera simultaneously records what the film camera is shooting. The movies Lewis directed — the most acclaimed being The Nutty Professor — have their fans, particularly (and notoriously) in France, where he is lauded as a genius. Dean Martin didn’t think so, informing Lewis near the end of their collaboration, “You can talk about love all you want. To me, you’re nothing but a fucking dollar sign.” This was reported in Nick Tosches’ seminal Dino and corroborated in Lewis’ own Dean and Me: A Love Story.

Those who seek a fair but honest assessment of Lewis the artist and Lewis the man could do no better than Shawn Levy’s biography King of Comedy. Named after the 1983 film in which Lewis gave, arguably, his finest performance, the book allows the star his dignity as a comedian with surprising longevity in an ever-changing entertainment landscape (his last movie, The Trust, was shot in 2015, 66 years after his film debut) while contending with his often difficult personality. Some of that personality flashed like a shiv whenever disability activists criticized him for his yearly muscular dystrophy telethons. In trying to raise money for a cure, Lewis threw political correctness to the wind, infantilizing the disabled and sometimes downright insulting them. Many disabled people don’t have much patience for such “othering,” well-meant or not, and they shouldn’t.

I’m not really a fan (you could tell, yes?), but I respect Lewis’ legacy as a creative, and despite my non-fanhood I find I own the only four books you need concerning Jerry Lewis: the aforementioned two books, plus Lewis’ Jerry Lewis In Person and The Total Film-Maker. The latter book, which I’ve been saying for years needs to be reprinted (the hardcover edition I own is currently fetching $245 and up on Amazon, though that might be a short-lived spike due to his death), is one of the best volumes about filmmaking ever written — or spoken, since the book is drawn from 480 taped hours of Lewis’ lectures at USC. It’s a terrific read, full of common-sense advice that’s still valid 46 years later, as well as a prophetic passage in which he praises some unknown kid named Steven Spielberg on the basis of Spielberg’s 1968 short film Amblin’.

Lewis clearly knew his stuff, the stuff of entertainment. The problem with those who know all about entertaining is that they don’t know how to be when there’s no audience — the cliché of the sad-faced clown. Speaking of which, one of the more infamous Lewis projects was The Day the Clown Cried, a 1972 film in which Lewis played a clown during the Holocaust, forced to entertain children on their way to the gas chamber. You haven’t seen it. Few have. It is perhaps the most famous suppressed film, held from release by complicated rights issues, though Lewis insisted he was the one withholding it from public view. Whatever the case, it seems likely nobody will see it unless the rights issues are squared away. Some film geeks, who may have welcomed Lewis’ death because they thought the movie would now be shown, will have to look elsewhere for their rare-film needs.

In the meantime, I can muster a salute to a man who swung so hard for the fence while having so little self-awareness in his life, in his philanthropy, and in his art. Levy’s King of Comedy theorizes convincingly that the obnoxious alter ego Buddy Love in Nutty Professor was not a parody of Dean Martin, as many assumed at the time, but an unwitting revelation of the real Jerry Lewis — the one beseeching us belligerently for cash all those Labor Days, the one whose anger in the film The King of Comedy feels all too genuine. Rage, I think, is what fueled Lewis, kept him alive for 91 years, and in a lot of ways kept him alone.

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