Filmmaker and Mt. Rushmore Comedian Dies At 91
I’m one of those guys who never listened to the critics when it came to Jerry Lewis, not the American ones anyway. He was commonly excoriated for his refusing, no matter his age, to give up the silly little boy routine that was the hallmark and punctuation mark and reliable go-to his entire career. For me, it never got old, even as he alternately bloated and withered in his own old age, and even when he’d cart it out in the middle of a pitch for your cash at his yearly schmaltz-and-pathos parade, the Jerry Lewis MDA Labor Day Telethon, I was the guy still watching at 4:30 in the morning who was secretly cheering for him to spit water out of his mouth or knock over a stool with some vestigial spasm of Borscht-Belt shtick. I don’t want to analyze my love for this stuff too much, but suffice it to say, I could go to my DVD shelf right now and watch from start to finish any of the classic Lewis films I’d find there – and just might, as tribute to his kind of helpless, broad-toothed whining here on the day of his death at the age of 91.
For just about my entire life, but at different times, I’ve been fascinated by all of his several sharply different personas. There is, of course, the wildly energetic club comedian you see preserved in those old Colgate Hour episodes alongside his best friend/babysitter Dean Martin – this Jerry is the enviable man who knows no boundaries and zero fear in front of any audience; there’s the more subdued, contained, somewhat defanged version of same in the Martin & Lewis movies – always fun to watch, but never capturing the same absolute, untethered improvisational energy; there’s the solo Jerry, after the split with Martin, but before he directed his own movies, a period that saw him grope for a steady, warmly embracing, Dean-like foil to his antics; there’s the master-of-my-own-domain Jerry, writing and directing some of his absolute masterpieces and some of the worst comedies ever made, and showing the French just what they loved and hated about America via an outrageously inconsistent, yet still obviously talented comedian; there’s the talk-show Jerry, the one you see, say, in the Dick Cavett interview from ’73, in which he positively drips ego, puffing out a cigarette cloud of stuffiness about his art and an overly-indifferent smugness about his American critics that comes off more bitter than I think he means to openly show – I’m nearly glued to this Jerry when he’s on, mesmerized by the utter opposite it is to any other earlier variation of the man I’d come to know; there’s the Telethon Jerry, an 18-hour ringleader of performers often well past their prime, often from a forgotten era of entertainment, often with a patina of desperation – but it didn’t repel me, it drew me in… something in the gaudy, day-long consummation of loungey, glass-tinkling, end-of-set faux sincerity and exhausted, cause-aggrandizing, humility-brandishing sanctimony – two bad tastes that happen to taste great together; there’s the dramatic actor Jerry, the one that’s the natural extension of the talk-show Jerry, pulling you down inexorably into a state of unsettled, morose, internalizing bitterness, starting with his, yes, talk show host character Jerry Langford in Scorsese’s The King of Comedy (1983) and reappearing several times over, up to and including his great performance in Max Rose (2016) as an aging jazz pianist dealing poorly with his loving children and the memory of his cheating wife – these movies all seem to tap into a real and true part of Jerry that never lets him settle down from some ancient bitterness – it makes Jerry/his characters unpleasantly good. My fascination with the man is really an ever-rolling fascination with each of these Jerrys – when presented with any one of them, the others are forever crowding my view, their insistence for my attention the one and possibly only thing that ties them all together.
And the dichotomy never failed him to the end. I suppose the last two Jerry Lewis cultural moments, and they were very recent, are the news of his legally walling up his allegedly bad, never-released film The Day the Clown Cried from any eyes at all until 2025, a news story that points to the Jerry persona that’s precious and sanctimonious about his vision, his legacy, his cred amongst the great filmmakers like Godard who labeled him a comic god, and, more recently, the Hollywood Reporter video interview that went viral that shows a Jerry so cantankerous in the midst of answering questions from a reporter he thinks is not up to his level of, what?, intellect?, that he refuses to answer questions with more than a word or two – this is a rival Jerry that conversely doesn’t seem to mind showing you the worst side of himself.
He’s famous for his control of the sets of the films he directed, but these sparring versions of who he is, even up to the end, seem to point to a man losing control, and yet you can’t get around the fully open, fully intellectual, fully feeling person he seemed to remain till the day he died. And then you’re left with only one conclusion: more than anything about him, somehow rising high above the less desirable facets of his personality and persona, is the fact that Lewis, like no one else but maybe William Shatner, was a man who was in full command and control of his I-know-I’m-perceived-as-a-raging-goofball persona. Case in point, on one of his last Telethon appearances, sitting on a stool near the end of the broadcast, he crankily asks for a bottle of water, takes in a big sip, then opens his mouth and lets it all spill out over his tuxedo, getting huge laughs – then, in the same two minutes, prepping to sing “You’ll Never Walk Alone”, the song he’d been closing out the Telethon with for fifty years at the request of sick children – openly, even beleagueredly admits to his Las Vegas audience and the watching world that he hates it. This is a man who, by the end, didn’t have to impress anyone anymore, and there’s an inherent charisma in people who’ve reached that point.
He did a lot to help a lot of sick people in the world, and if you count laughter as the best medicine, that makes all of us.