Thursday, September 6, 2007
I thought that Jerry Lewis would be a temporary stop on Monday--his telethon having drawn my attention etc. But there is much more to say (and see) than I properly would have imagined. And, 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 the other night, apparently, at hour eighteen on his telethon, he called somebody's son a "fag." (Glaad got on his ass immediately. He apologized immediately.) Still, I believe deeply 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. WHHHAAT?
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. Below is from the "Colgate Comedy Hour." This is brilliant, vintage, truly out of control (and scary) Lewis--the highs and lows of his vocal gymnastics, the never-ending facial contortions, the bossing around of the floor staff (you can see he's the boss even when he's doing his little boy shtick) and the very clever camera-switching routine which feels more Ernie Kovacs-like than Jerry Lewis-like. But that's another thing about Jerry that just doesn't get mentioned enough. He didn't just rely on shtick; he tried ideas--often quite sophisticated (for their time) visual ones, more and more as he began directing. But that's for another day.
Posted by Raymond De Felitta at 1:55 PM