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Jerry Lewis Is a Brilliant Comic Artist, a Technically Innovative Filmmaker and an Enduring Creative Influence in Hollywood -- and for That He Deserves an Oscar

An Open Letter to the Academy

February 27, 2005|David Weddle | David Weddle last wrote for the magazine about the journalistic ethics of swag.

Jerry Lewis. No comedian since Charles Chaplin has been so loved and so reviled. He is America's Dark Prince of Comedy--brilliant, bitter, passionate and deeply conflicted. A man of many demons, his cockiness conceals a labyrinth of doubts and self-destructive impulses. An American original whom Americans have never quite come to terms with, he also happens to be one of the greatest filmmakers of the latter half of the 20th century. And for this he deserves an Academy Award.

It's not surprising that he's never even been nominated for one. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has a tradition of snubbing comedians. The list of those whose movies failed to win a single Oscar is appallingly long and distinguished: Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, Harry Langdon, Mabel Normand, the Marx Brothers, W.C. Fields, Abbott and Costello, Bob Hope, Red Skelton, Lucille Ball, Bill Cosby, Richard Pryor, to name a few. The academy finally gave Keaton an honorary Oscar in 1960, and one to Stan Laurel in 1961 (after Lewis lobbied passionately on his behalf), and even one to Charlie Chaplin in 1972, bringing the once-demonized "un-American" director back to Hollywood after 20 years of exile in Europe.

Now it's time to honor Jerry Lewis.

Lewis was a superstar in the 1950s and early '60s, the I Like Ike era of "The Organization Man," when a Wonder Bread corporate monoculture force-fed an entire generation a bland diet of conformity. In a time of crew cuts and bouffant hairdos, of TV dinners, suburban tract houses, gleaming new supermarkets and the homogenized nuclear family paradigm set forth by "Father Knows Best" and "Leave It to Beaver," Lewis' archetypal character, "the Kid," served as an escape valve--a personification of the American id, cavorting across TV and movie screens, acting on the anarchistic impulses his audiences felt obliged to repress.

"We used to hang out on street corners, and guys would do Jerry Lewis imitations," says Philip Kaufman, director of "The Right Stuff" and "The Unbearable Lightness of Being," who came of age in the 1950s. "The way that Jerry Lewis walked, that staggering, uncoordinated adolescent walk--you could feel the American youth culture being born. . . . Lewis and Elvis had this primordial American energy."

Lewis gradually filled his comic archetype with nuances and complexities, so that it continued to resonate on deeper and yet deeper levels. He did this by becoming what he calls "a total filmmaker," as Chaplin and Keaton had been. When Lewis began appearing in movies in 1949, he set about learning the technical intricacies of every aspect of production. "After about a year and a half I was able to load a BNC [35mm Mitchell] camera and do anything on the set that any technician did--maybe not with the quality of a man who's done it for 25 years, but if he got sick, I could do it," Lewis told me in an interview in December 2003. "I know depth of field like you know your wife's first name. . . . I therefore proceeded to own every union card in the picture business." Along the way, he also managed to invent the video assist, which allowed him to instantly replay scenes he'd just shot--now standard equipment on most Hollywood sets.

Once he'd mastered the filmmaking process, Lewis dared to declare his independence from the studio system. He wrote, directed and starred in a series of features that he also co-financed with his own money. "I mortgaged my house a couple of times, sold two cars, I remember that!" Lewis told me. In exchange for putting up half or sometimes the entire budgets of the films he directed, he got 50% or more of the profits and a level of creative autonomy that no screen comedian had commanded since Chaplin. "I had final cut on everything," he said.

"I would love to have achieved the level of independence that he had," Kaufman says. "The opposite is Orson Welles. He's a half a generation before Jerry Lewis, but he gets destroyed because he can't control the films."

The movies Lewis directed--including "The Bellboy" (1960), "The Ladies Man" (1961), "The Errand Boy" (1961), "The Nutty Professor" (1963) and "The Patsy" (1964)--were bizarre stream-of-consciousness concoctions packed with brilliant pantomime set pieces and surreal comic nightmare sequences, moving Rorschach inkblots that reflected Lewis' deeply conflicted psyche. "They were not regular Hollywood films," says director Martin Scorsese. "There were no stories. No plots. They were very dreamlike, going from one free association to the next, almost like the later Luis Bunuel pictures, like 'The Phantom of Liberty,' which was a dream within a dream within a dream. You know you're in the hands of a master; you just let him take you along. His films were almost avant-garde."

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