Jerry Lewis is the only Hollywood star to whom I ever wrote a letter. This was over twenty-five years ago; I was studying film in England, and we all had to write an essay on an aspect of Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy, which we’d studied in depth (literally shot by shot). I decided to focus on Lewis’ character of Jerry Langford, a Carson-like talk show host kidnapped by Robert de Niro’s aspiring comedian, and I enterprisingly contacted the man himself to ask for his perspective. He sent me a copy of his book The Complete Filmmaker (in a very cool Jerry Lewis Films envelope bearing a caricature of the younger Jerry) and the following communication, dated June 10, 1986:
Thank you for your letter, and your interest in me and my films.
King of Comedy was a fascinating film to work on. Mostly because of DeNiro and Scorcese (sic)…talented people. The character itself was also interesting. Langford was a combination of all talk show hosts, and the loneliness of it all!!
I’m involved working on the TELETHON again this year…and in September I’ll be filming the Nutty Professor – II in North Carolina.
Good luck on your essay
This was too short really to be that useful, but I obviously appreciated it immensely. The Nutty Professor II never happened though, just one of many late-career frustrations for Lewis, the largest being his buried Holocaust movie The Day the Clown Cried, which I wrote about here in the past (http://torontomovieguy.blogspot.ca/2010/11/tracking-down-clown.html). Of course, he kept on going with the Telethon for years, and finally won the humanitarian Oscar for it in 2009. But the Academy had made him wait a long time, seemingly held back by the same reservations that temper almost any assessment of Lewis’ place in popular culture. He and Dean Martin were voted number one box office stars for a few years, and Lewis became a fairly innovative director…but, you know, how many people ever choose to watch those films over something else? Some may claim (the French, most famously) that his work is formally, thematically and psychologically complex, but to get to that, you’d have to stop cringing and rolling your eyes. And even the undoubted altruism of the Telethon was tainted by streaks of arrogance and self-righteousness, by allegations that the whole thing was exploitative, too dependent on soliciting pity.
His casting in The King of Comedy drew on all this of course, but kept it suppressed; you only glimpse Lewis’ trademark goofiness in there a couple of times, so fleetingly you might not register it. The rest of the time, the film allows you to sense the proximity between “classic” show business jocularity and cold, self-denying vacuousness; Lewis embodies the overlap scarily well, maybe better than anyone should have been capable of. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve seen the film. But despite that and the letter, I’ve never spent much time on his earlier work. I’ve seen most of it, but so long ago it barely sticks in my mind, and on the rare occasions I think of trying out The Errand Boy or The Patsy or whatnot, it’s always instantly supplanted by a better idea. I did rewatch The Nutty Professor a few years ago, but was disappointed (I realize you may roll your eyes at that).
It occurred to me recently though that I’d never seen Cracking Up (also known as Smorgasbord), his last film as a director, which he made around the same time as King of Comedy. Once this entered my mind it stuck, mainly because of my curiosity to see how much Jerry Langford might be visible in the movie. So I went ahead. And the experience pretty much embodied the duality I was talking about. On the one hand, the film was far more fascinating and provocative than I’d expected. On the other hand, it was so dumb that I’d have little need to watch anything else like it for years to come.
Lewis plays Warren Nefron, seen in the opening scene checking into a hotel room with a suitcase full of suicide tools. He tries to hang himself from the light fitting; the ceiling collapses. He rigs up a gun to shoot him in the head when the bell boy opens the door; instead it fires into the TV, which is showing an old cowboy movie; the TV cowboy shoots back, killing the bell boy. Warren goes to a psychiatrist, where the office is so slick and polished he can’t get any traction, and helplessly slides around. The problem, he eventually tells the shrink, is that he’s always been a nerd and a loser; the film depicts some low points from his life and those of his equally inept ancestors, while his troubles continue between subsequent appointments.
Some of Warren’s challenges fall broadly into the “social observation” brand of comedy, such as a waitress who recites the menu options at such length that he ultimately leaves without eating anything. Brief appearances by Milton Berle and Sammy Davis Jr. speak to the aforementioned tradition of talk show kibitzing. But in many ways, the film is rather disconcertingly radical. Warren goes to a museum and looks at pictures of animals; a horse takes a leak on him; a bull leaps out and busts a hole in the wall. A plane to London is powered by a hold full of cycling slaves; cars fall apart or explode at the slightest provocation. When the doctor takes him to the roof of the building to help cure his fear of heights, Warren is fine, but a giant ape hand grabs the doctor. Sometimes these episodes, for all their outlandishness, seem to form part of a vaguely linear “plot”; sometimes they seem entirely disconnected (I couldn’t follow at all why Lewis was suddenly playing a cop in one scene).
Cracking Up has an aggressively take-it-or-leave-it kind of air. Lewis bills himself as “Jerry…Who Else?” and there’s no sign he took much input from anyone else – if he thinks a line or a demented pose is funny, it stays in. In some ways the film looks crude and ugly, but at times this gives it a piercing, unflinching quality. At the end it turns self-referential – Warren appears “cured” (the doctor’s now crazy, or maybe it was that way all along?) and takes a date to a movie, which turns out to be the movie we’re watching; Warren/Jerry starts to tell the people in line for the next showing what they’re about to see. The credits conclude with a shot of Jerry in the director’s seat, making a car explode. Just like God!
Is it good? Not particularly, by any normal measure. I can’t say it changed my stance on revisiting the earlier films. And yet, it’s a vision. It was in my head for days afterwards. Fact is, I guess Jerry Lewis has been in my head more often than I usually acknowledge. Make of that what you will…