The thundering success of Roberto Benigni’s Life is Beautiful must have had some film fans around the world shaking their heads in an exaggerated double take. A sentimental comedy in which a clownish chap keeps an innocent child amused so as to hide the looming terror of a concentration camp: isn’t this more or less the premise of the unfinished Jerry Lewis film from the 1970s that the world has never seen, The Day the Clown Cried?
In so many ways, Jerry Lewis is back. A few years ago, Eddie Murphy remade his best known film, The Nutty Professor (1963). Jim Carrey is slated to play Lewis in a forthcoming biopic of Dean Martin to be directed by Martin Scorsese. Videos of Lewis films long inaccessible (except on TV) have finally been released. Internet sites devoted to his name, fame and legend flourish. A less-than-idolatrous biography, Shawn Levy’s King of Comedy: The Life and Art of Jerry Lewis, picks over the evidence of the comedian’s requisite ‘dark side’.
But it is not only Lewis’ memory and legacy that return to entertain and fascinate us. At the age of 73 (born March 16, 1926), his elaborate stage show – about to make another return trip to our shores – has never been more popular. Levy ventures that “the only career like it in this American century, with its five-decade cycle of acmes, nadirs, rebirths, and reevaluations, is that of Richard Nixon”.
Jerry has not always been this big. After phenomenal success in the 1950s and ‘60s – first in his partnership with Dean Martin on stage and screen, and then as a solo career as performer and director – Lewis began to lose his foothold in the firmament of the American entertainment mainstream.
It was around the mid ‘60s that Lewis began to be dogged by the French Curse – the old joke, still dragged out by lazy journalists, that only those esoteric Parisians writing for Cahiers du cinéma magazine could possibly find Lewis’ broad, gross-out, queerly stylised humour interesting, let alone amusing. Once, on a talk show in the late ‘60s, he turned this scenario of ‘cultural difference’ around 180 degrees: in a brilliant (and bitter) impromptu act, he demonstrated how someone from one end of America usually has no chance of understanding anyone from the other end. And his films are, in truth, full of this bleakness of botched or scrambled communication.
But it was not flattery from the French that did Jerry in. American fashions in comedy changed with the rise of Woody Allen. After the milestone success of Annie Hall (1975), screen comedy was for a long time overwhelmingly romantic and psychological, obsessed with ‘relationships’. As urbane dialogue proliferated, the art of the gag – Lewis’ specialty – declined.
By contrast, the characterisation in Lewis’ work is proudly cartoonish, two-dimensional. He learnt from his mentor, the great Frank Tashlin – who directed two Martin-Lewis films and five solo Lewis efforts – what elaborate, subversive fun could be had with characters deployed as caricatures, stereotypes, walking pop culture quotations.
Besides, the traditional notion of a stable screen identity or persona had never really mattered to Lewis. In his films with Martin – especially the magnificent Artists and Models (1955) – Lewis presented himself as a mixed-up patchwork of innocent child, horny adolescent and urbane adult. His character changed as frequently as his voice and facial expression.
The only true relationship Lewis ever enjoyed on screen was with Dean Martin. Once they had split, Lewis sailed like a satellite through a kinky, flamboyant universe of his own devising, populated – as in The Ladies Man (1961) – with every kind of infantile projection arising from fantasy or fear.
Like similarly solipsistic comics – Eddie Murphy, Robin Williams, Mike Myers – Lewis figured in the ‘60s that the best way to compensate for the lack of a partner was to simply multiply himself via bizarre plot intrigues, multiple-identity conceits, and cosmetic masquerades, as in The Family Jewels (1965) and Three On a Couch (1966). In The Nutty Professor, Lewis split himself into the immortal, Jekyll-and-Hyde combo of timid professor Julius Kelp and smooth-talking hipster Buddy Love – a clear stand-in for the long-lost Dino.
In his directorial vehicles projects of the ‘60s – an unbroken line of surreal marvels from The Bellboy (1960) to The Big Mouth (1967) – Lewis went further than any other filmmaker before or since in the devising and execution of gags. The jokes became increasingly detached from the conventional hooks of plot and character; sometimes, even the punchline went missing.
Like Buster Keaton or Jacques Tati, Lewis began to sculpt intricate gags out of the purest, geometric relations of bodies, sets, colours and sound effects – reaching its avant-garde apogee in the zany in-flight movie “Sustenance” featured in The Family Jewels (1965), where props and actors slide around whenever the plane hits a spot of turbulence. Lewis evolved swiftly from being a master of the pratfall to what he proudly called ‘the total filmmaker’, in subtle control of every detail of his craft.
As a tender, teenage cinephile, I was knocked out by the vision of a veritable Pop Art tableau in The Ladies Man, where the camera begins on a girl combing her hair, and then pulls back to reveal a doll’s-house view of an entire dormitory, with each inhabitant engaged in a vast, interconnected choreography of domestic washing, cleaning, folding and packing. I knew it instantly: this was cinema! Such inventiveness and brio gave rise to the abstract, highly formal, even avant-garde side of Lewis’ art which the French admired and appreciated.
Like a true ‘vulgar modernist’ – to use J. Hoberman’s apt term – Lewis also became fascinated with foregrounding the very processes of filmmaking and storytelling. Cameras, sets, crews and showbiz cameos were everywhere to be seen; multiple beginnings, open endings, and baroque plots brought Lewis’ gags closer to Bertolt Brecht than Mack Sennett.
Lewis’ career is, in truth, a bundle of contradictions. He has effortlessly married the greatest vulgarity to the finest craftsmanship; the ickiest, most sanctimonious messages to the boldest, most daring experiments in form and technique. Even his body is a paradox, expressing extreme chaos and discombobulation with the utmost grace.
The qualities of excess in Lewis’ art are another factor that help explain his temporary loss of prestige in the ‘70s. Martin Scorsese recalls an early TV appearance by the star: “One time he walked on and just put his mouth on the lens. Ate the camera. It was bad. Vulgar. But the surrealism of it ... it just worked. It was total anarchy. It destroyed television as we know it”. Such anarchy fitted the gaudy ‘50s, but is only now coming back into widespread favour.
Lewis’ often grotesque comedy evokes, for some, a tasteless riffing on mental and physical disabilities – a critique which eventually moved the comedian to establish his long-running Muscular Dystrophy telethon. And it needles American anxieties about the depiction of Jewishness – especially by Jewish comedians.
In a brilliant polemic, Jonathan Rosenbaum (film critic for the Chicago Reader) compared the standing of Jerry Lewis with that of Woody Allen: the former creates ambivalence and embarrassment because he is “infantile, hysterical, uncontrolled, giddy, uninhibited, tacky, energetic, inarticulate, obnoxious, sentimental, overbearing, socially and sexually maladjusted, and all over the place”; whereas the latter invites sympathetic identification because he is “adolescent, neurotic, controlled, whiny, inhibited, preppy, lethargic, articulate, cynical, wormy, socially and sexually maladjusted, and confined”.
Lewis retained his youthful looks and vigour on screen for a remarkable number of years – even though, as the biographies gruesomely detail, by the end of the ‘60s he was racked with chronic, debilitating pain. Well into his 40s, he was still able to convincingly perform routines in which he mimicked the motions and vocal inflections of a child.
Hardly Working (1981) was the first film in which Lewis truly revealed his ageing self. This strange, sad, disconcerting movie was plainly an allegory about the lack of appreciation that then greeted him in America. Like his current stage show, it used clips of Lewis’ most brilliant screen routines – but juxtaposed them with the tale of a melancholic, unemployed clown, rather than the living proof of a brilliant, veteran performer.
Lewis’ last feature film as director – despite many announcements of an imminent return as ‘total filmmaker’ – was Smorgasbord (aka Cracking Up, 1983), a madcap series of loosely connected sketches. In its most inspired moments, it harked back to the surreal inventiveness of Lewis’ best solo films. But since then he has found his way only to making an intriguing, didactic and creepy short titled Boy in 1990.
The new, mature Lewis was to be showcased elsewhere during the ‘80s and ‘90s – as an actor in the films of others. It is usually a brooding, troubled, even menacing Jerry we see on screen these days – a scary idol, father-figure or super-ego, as in the tawdry comedic world portrayed in Peter Chelsom’s Funny Bones (1995), or the low-life gangster milieu of Susan Seidelman’s Cookie (1989).
In his two finest roles for other filmmakers – as the Johnny Carson-like TV host in Scorsese’s The King of Comedy (1983), and the grizzly patriarch in Emir Kusturica’s extravagant fantasy Arizona Dream (1993) – Lewis’ lonely, black aura is deliberately punctured whenever he suddenly, magically, crosses his eyes, changes his voice or breaks into the old, familiar, boyish, knock-kneed run.
I understood something of Jerry Lewis’ unique magic the day in 1994 when I watched Arizona Dream in a Parisian fleapit – the audience almost completely filled with young teenagers. I figured they were there for Johnny Depp; but their exuberant exhibitions of wonderment and joy reached an even greater level of ecstasy whenever Jerry stepped on screen.
Lewis no longer looks like a lithe, little kid, but his fine art of excess still manages to speak to the unruly, anarchic child in all of us.
© Adrian Martin June 1999