JERRY LEWIS: THE FILM BUFFOON RETURNS

(In 1981 I wrote a newspaper profile on Jerry Lewis and subsequently sent him a copy. Not long afterward, I received a personal letter of thanks from him. This is the original article.)

jerry lewis letter--

 

Genius is childhood recalled at will.

–Baudelaire

 

If Baudelaire’s definition holds even a speck of truth, therein lies the clue to the European view of Jerry Lewis as a comic genius on par with Chaplin.

“I’m 55, but I’m really nine,” said Lewis in a recent Tomorrow interview. “The key to my whole lifestyle is mischief, and I cannot, as a 55-year-old man, really think mischievously because that demeans my being. But there’s nothing wrong with a nine-year-old thinking that way. I cherish that nine-year-old because he’s everybody. He keeps me young. He keeps me thinking young. He’ll be at my next birthday, and he’ll have the most fun.”

Jerry’s kid, that mannish boy who has bumbled, mumbled and mugged his way through more than 40 films, is about to return to the silly screen for the first time in a decade in Hardly Working, which opens this week. Like it or not, the film buffoon is back.

The French toast Lewis’ comic brilliance. Director Jean-Luc Godard expressed his admiration to an incredulous Dick Cavett not long ago. But in America, there’s a split-decision. Statesiders generally find his juvenile Jerry-atrics either hysterical or grating. And it is the red, white and bluenosed critics who are Lewis’ most vicious detractors.

The reason for the animosity may be simple enough. Like Peter Pan, that impish, jerky, wonder-struck little kid who resides in the body and soul of Jerry Lewis has never aged. Therefore, he has remained unshackled from the rites, wrongs and constraints of society. On one level, he represents freedom. People not so free, people squeezed into role-modeled behavior, people who act the way society says they ought to act are likely to feel threatened by that kid and the freedom he represents. Hence, the jeerleaders.

Lewis’ self-imposed 10-year stretch away from filmmaking was provoked by some overexposure of flesh flicks in the early ‘70s. When the cinematic tide turned from boffo to porno, Lewis took a cab.

“I love the film industry,” he told Tom Snyder. “I took it as a personal affront that they were getting shabby. And it happened with a film I made for Warners, Which Way to the Front? a film I was really in love with. I put two years of a lot of blood and a lot of sweat into it.”

The skin-toned times created a condition which shocked Lewis out of his director’s chair—and right out of the industry. Driving by a theater one disenchanted evening, he spotted the marquee which had double-billed Which Way to the Front? with Deep Throat. That odd coupling resulted in Lewis’ giving Warner Brothers a shouting-room only performance of Hellzapoppin’sans jokes and music. But the Warner Brotherhood had a cop-out: they were so involved with their then-smash Woodstock that they gave the distribution rights of Lewis’ film to other companies.

“Well, I don’t want to know from explanations,” said Lewis, “’cause I was shattered by it. In the mail I got, I was the heavy. The mothers and fathers were writing me, ‘You are someone we allow the children to go to see, and you have a responsibility’ and all that jazz. And I got really turned off, really cold.

“Now the capper was Dick Zanuck comes to see me and he wants me to direct and star in Portnoy’s Complaint. I said, “Dick, that’s not my style. I don’t think I know how to make that kind of film.” Then I got a script where they wanted me to play a homosexual who had committed matricide.

“I said, hey, let me get back to Vegas. I’ll play concerts, I’ll go back to The Palladium in London, I’ll do my thing. And I said it’s got to turn. If it doesn’t turn, at that point I really didn’t ever want to make a film again. And it did turn, starting in ’78.”

Jerry Lewis has always been a G-man; family-oriented films have always been the Lewis trademarquee. Yet, despite all those Jerry-vanilla comedies, he is not about to march behind that other Jerry, the pulpit politico Rev. Falwell, and wage war on pornography. (That would make a hilarious scene, though: the unsure-footed stumblebum Lewis character traipsing behind the preacher like a spastic marionette, yelling in that chalk-screechy voice, “Hey wait for me, Mr. Fellman! Uh Rev. Failsafe! I’m comin’ Rev. Fallout!”)

“I don’t believe in censorship,” said Lewis. “If you want to see a porno film, an audience should have a place to go see it. But it’s a little incongruous and it’s hardly sensible to run Bambi with The Devil in Miss Jones just for the sake of Barnum and Bailey showmanship. The theater should run The Devil in Miss Jones for that audience, but leave Bambi where it belongs. It’s that simple.”

As Lewis hoped, the packaging of flesh and funny bone was a short-lived phenomenon which, he said, “had probably the same chance that the Edsel did, thank God.”

In spite of his predilection for tomfoolish behavior, Lewis is a slapstickler for professionalism. As a director, writer and actor, he takes his comedy seriously. He doesn’t suffer fools gladly—or any other way. He said, “I hate incompetents. I get very difficult when somebody shouldn’t be in the job they’re holding because they’re keeping it from a man who’s qualified. Moreover, they’re contagious. They’ll run through your crew, and they will dismember that crew.

“I’m making a film that I hope one day my great-great-grandchildren are gonna see. They’re gonna examine my work, and the fabric and character of this man is gonna be up for grabs. I’m not havin’ some moron on the set looking at his watch yawning ‘cause it’s just a job. He’s outa there. That’s only happened twice in 41 films.”

Lewis’ upcoming attractions include roles in Martin Scorsese’s drama, The King of Comedy (which also stars Robert DeNiro), and the screen-bound adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slapstick, being directed by Lewis disciple Steven Paul.

The Day the Clown Cried, Lewis’ own dramatic film (his sole to date), has been gathering Swedish dust, along with two Ingmar Bergman films, since 1973. Like the Bergmans, it was shot in Sweden as a Swedish-French co-production. When the political deal soured, the films were stopped dead in their soundtracks. A Godard picture, also part of the (mis)deal, was similarly thrown a French curve and lies in limbo in his homeland.

“They tell us,” Lewis said, “that this year, it looks like they’re gonna make nice with one another, and we can all finish our films.”

However, for the present, comedy comes first. Sight-gagging and language-mangling are back in vogue, and the maestro has returned to show ‘em all how it’s done. Hardly Working has Jerry Lewis heartily working. Maybe he is 10 years older. But that kid is still nine.

 

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THE LAST SITTING (& LUST SETTING) OF MARILYN MONROE

 

marilyn-keyhole
Photo by Bert Stern/Illustration by Jim George

(In all my years of freelance writing, I only ever had one article rejected, and that was because it was deemed too “suggestive.” It was a review of a book entitled The Last Sitting by Bert Stern which featured some of the last photos taken of Marilyn Monroe and the photographer-author’s personal account of the experience. Having reviewed it for my hometown newspaper, The Reading Eagle, in late 1982, I was fortunate enough to have a very progressive editor in Al Walentis, but he still had to answer to the powers-that-were. One of those powers—let’s call him Donald Dim—vetoed the piece after reading only the first paragraph. He then took a Dim view of every word thereafter in which he could infer something salacious—even objecting to the innocent phrase “makes no bones about it.” While I’m no stranger to double entendre, in the context of the review, wouldn’t “makes no bones” mean the very opposite of what he was accusing the phrase of connoting? My illustration, a keyhole-view of Marilyn, was also nixed. Interestingly, during the same period, the paper was happily accepting X-rated movie ads ($$$$), one of which included a small drawing of a bare-breasted woman (UU). To his credit, Al offered me the chance to edit out the offensive bits and rewrite the piece, but since I felt I did a good job of accurately capturing the tone of the book and the author’s state of mind, I declined, and so it never ran. Until now. For the record, my original title was “New Books Feature the Flesh and Flash of Marilyn Monroe”–plural, because I reviewed two others at the same time. At long last, here is the one which ruffled the Eagle’s feathers.)

Pussyfooting was never Bert Stern’s style. In The Last Sitting (William Morrow and Co. 192 pages), the photographer makes no bones—or bons mots–about his intentions circa 1962: “To get Marilyn Monroe in a room, with no one else around, and take all her clothes off.”

Much of his near-obsessive desire certainly could be attributed to artistic lust. Stern was unquestionably lens-horny to shoot Marilyn. Besides craving to snap that one immortal portrait, a picture the equivalent of Edward Steichen’s famous black-and-white of Garbo, Stern was dreaming of a white chrysalis—a glowing, pale, blonde beauty whose metamorphosis into her ultimate and definitive stage of au naturelism he could orchestrate and forever capture with his camera.

Should, however, MM’s accessibility extend beyond the realm of photography, should layout evolve into laydown, Stern was ready and welling.

The aesthetic side of Stern’s steamy fantasy was realized. In vogue with Vogue, he managed to get himself commissioned to shoot a fashion spread of the world’s most famous blonde for the publication—a coup he felt would be the magazenith of his career.

Whether by the intervention of a helpful hand of fate, his own shrewd manipulation of circumstances, or the utilization of the persuasive powers of Dom Perignon, Stern did indeed get his subject alone in a room, with no one else around. And while he shed light, she shed clothes.

Three highly charged sessions in the summer of ’62, some six weeks before Marilyn’s death, yielded the Steichen-caliber smiling black-and-white Stern aspired to as well as fashion shots of MM wrapped in rich furs and slipped into elegant black gowns, along with dozens of exquisite nudes.

Tame by today’s standards and practices, the nudes, in both color and black-and-white, are of two main groupings. In one, a topless Marilyn, shot through sheer silken scarves, is wearing a year-old scar (from gall bladder surgery) like a gash on a fresh peach. In the other set, a completely naked Marilyn is lying under, over and around cloud-white sheets on a bed. With stitches and without a stitch.

She is suspended in whiteness. Horizon is non-existent, as ground and background melt together in what Stern calls “a clear nowhere,” much like the dream sequence from Ingmar Bergman’s From the Life of the Marionettes.

Whether Marilyn is undressed or dressed to keel over observers, the photographs in The Last Sitting are superior. Made of Sterner stuff, as it were, the images spectacularly accomplish what their creator set out to do: “match his art of seeing to her mastery of the art of being seen.”

Stern’s desire to lay more than eyes on Marilyn, however, went unfulfilled. His knowledge of her was decidedly more corneal than carnal. But just barely, he claims. At the conclusion of the second marathon session, Marilyn was reportedly—cue up Glenn Miller–in the mood.

But Stern says something stopped him, and the seemingly imminent consummation was nipped in the bed. Stern backed off, Marilyn fell asleep. Gentlemen prefer blondes with all their faculties.

Some will undoubtedly find the very notion of such a prestigious artist as Stern deciding to nearly-kiss-and-tell tasteless. Granted, the luscious photos, not the reminiscences, are the essence of the book. But this is no mere tryst-and-shout exercise in sensationalism.

Stern rarely drools into these pages. His text has a distinct peeking-through-a-keyhole quality, but the voyeurism is more poetic than licentious. He always speaks of MM in exceedingly worshipful tones, even bucking those who chastised her notorious tardiness, stating, “I never understood that attitude. Goddesses don’t play by the rules.”

Since Annie Gottlieb is co-credited with the text, it is impossible to discern just how much of the straightforward yet lyrical tenor is her doing. Giving Stern the the benefit of the doting, however, there is in his strange brew of no-nonsense candidness and pulse-racing fantasizing an almost Tom Ewell-like (in The Seven-Year Itch) neurotic bent. More frank than funny, though, this stripe of insecurity humanizes what could have been, with clumsier treatment, general braggadocio.

The specifics of the experience cannot be substantiated, since only one of the victorious principals of the fateful, fruitful shooting is alive. But taken with a grain of salt—or saltpeter, as the case may be—Stern’s charged account is a fascinating adjunct to a portfolio of photographs every MM admirer will cherish.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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