Friday, September 22, 2017

In Search of Jerry Lewis

Since the death of Jerry Lewis on August 20, I’ve been debating about what to say in his memory. I can’t pretend I was a number-one fan, and like most of Hollywood I don’t share in the passion of French critics and audiences for this hard-working multihyphenate (comedian-actor-writer-director-producer-philanthropist). In the name of research, I went back to two of his best-known films.

The King of Comedy, from 1982, is an unusual Martin Scorsese film both because nobody gets violently blown away and because the leading man is, of all things, a would-be comedian. He’s played by Scorsese favorite Robert De Niro, in the pathetic role of a nebbish who’s convinced he has the comic chops to score as a Johnny Carson-type TV comic. He’s so desperate to ingratiate himself with the reigning king of late night, Jerry Langford, that he resorts to kidnapping (not exactly an ideal career move). The role of Langford, I’m told, was originally offered to Carson himself, and other comic actors were also considered before the part fell into the hands of Jerry Lewis. He plays Langford as a powerful but exasperated figure, all too weary of the hangers-on (like De Niro’s Rupert Pupkin) who complicate his personal life. There’s a memorable moment that’s apparently taken from Lewis’s actual experience: when he rebuffs an old lady who demands an autograph during a high-pressure moment, she screams after him, “"You should only get cancer," 

Lewis plays his role convincingly, but I don’t understand the hoopla surrounding it. Some of his devoted fans insist that in The King of Comedy he really reveals serious acting chops. Lewis never grasped their enthusiasm, maintaining that he was pretty much playing himself. And so it seems. Lewis’s reputation in Hollywood was that of a tough taskmaster, though one who could also be hugely generous to his inner circle. Remarkably, I was once told by Scott Wilson, who made his mark as one of the killers in In Cold Blood, that early in his career he was offered the chance to be Lewis’s regular stand-in. Wanting to succeed as an actor, he turned the gig down, though he knew this was a great opportunity: Lewis’s stand-ins were well-treated, and often graduated into producer positions. 

Continuing my exploration of Lewis’s career, I watched what is considered his very best comic role, The Nutty Professor. In this 1963 triumph, a brainy but nerdy scientist concocts a potion that turns him into a handsome lounge lizard named Buddy Love. It’s all pretty silly, but Lewis—influenced by his youthful admiration for Spencer Tracy’s transformation scene in the 1941 version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde—has a nifty moment when suave Buddy Love evolves on-camera into the clumsy but lovable Dr. Julius Kelp. It’s remarkable how seamlessly he evolves from the cocky and surprisingly handsome Buddy to the tongue-tied, hunched-over Kelp (who, amazingly enough, manages to win the love of a voluptuous but sweet co-ed played by Stella Stevens).

What I remember best about Jerry Lewis is how much my family loved him when he appeared on early television. He was at his funniest when his goofy antics played off against the suave presence of Dean Martin. They made some great movies as a duo, but I went in search of a catchphrase I’d almost forgot: “Donnnn’t lick it.” Thanks to YouTube, I ultimately found a sample of the early Jerry Lewis who had my parents and me in stitches. You don’t have to be French to be tickled by this skit from the Colgate Comedy Hour, circa 1951. It’s live TV at its looniest. 

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