By John H. Foote
For nearly all of his career, Jerry Lewis was seen as a buffoon, always portraying the monkey to his co-star’s organ grinder. When he was young it was refreshing to see such an energetic, dazzling talent who was fearless, willing to go as far as one can go. When he and partner Dean Martin split, Lewis lashed out, directing and starring in The Nutty Professor (1963), a Jekyll and Hyde comedy that was also a lacerating statement about their long-term friendship and partnership. Many critics missed it at the time, but through the years it became most evident that the smooth ladies’ man Buddy Love, portrayed by Lewis, was Dean Martin, while the goofy professor, Klemp was very much the Lewis persona.
Lewis became a filmmaker in the days after the Lewis-Martin split, creating the now universally used camera assist (or video assist) on film sets.
By the eighties, Lewis was best known for his 24- hour televised telethon raising funds for Muscular Dystrophy. My brothers and I laughed ourselves to tears watching him as a young man in his man fifties comedies with Dean Martin, he truly was hysterically funny.
Martin Scorsese offered him the Johnny Carson-seque role of talk show host Jerry Langford after Carson turned down the part. Lewis proceeded to give the finest performance of his career as a dark, lonely man who success has made him a prisoner. He tapes his show, goes home in a limo to his apartment, towering above the city, where he eats dinner alone, watches a wall of TV monitors for a moment before retiring to bed, alone. His only respite from a world in which everybody knows who he is will be his country home in upstate New York, though even that is invaded.
A desperate, dangerously unbalanced comedian Rupert Pupkin (Robert de Niro) has begun focusing and obsessing about Langford after helping the star get a wild fan out of his limo. Langford gives Pupkin career advice, asks him to drop a tape off at his office and sends Rupert into the night. You can feel the rage building in Langford as he just wants to be rid of this guy. Little does he realize how unbalanced Rupert is.
Arriving unannounced at Langford’s upstate estate, with a date, Langford has Rupert thrown out, but it never stops. In his mind, Rupert believes he and Langford are colleagues, even friends, daydreams we are privy to seeing. Finally Langford is kidnapped by Rupert and his rich, however nutty partner Masha (Sandra Bernhardt), in love with Jerry. The producers of the show are told Jerry will be returned safely once Rupert does his act on the show.
His is the best performance in the film, surpassing De Niro’s masterful work as the deranged a Pupkin, displaying great range in the fantasy sequences taking place in Langford’s mind. He has become the bird in the gilded cage, trapped by his own fame and wealth, no real friends, just a lonely, miserable very sad man. Brilliant. How was he not a nominee for Best Supporting Actor when he so clearly deserved to be?
Martin Scorsese’s film spoke to the perils of celebrity just three years after John Lennon was gunned down by a fan, who just a few hours earlier sought his autograph. Timely, urgent, the film was a dark look at being famous and becoming famous by being infamous. A box office failure upon release, it has grown in stature through the years and is now considered a masterpiece.
Lewis has never been this dour, this melancholy on screen before, and given his public appearances later in his life, I was left wondering if he indeed became Jerry Langford? Or was he already there?
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.