The Unexpectedly Not-Bad.Posted: February 24, 2009
I was in pre-cringe mode — ready to run out of the room if necessary — when Jerry Lewis came out to accept his Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award at the Oscars. I happen to think Jerry Lewis is a genius, as a performer, scenarist and director (the French are not always wrong), but his public pronouncements in the role of Jerry Lewis have tended to give egomaniacal narcissism a bad name. To my relief his speech was brief and gracious.
The child-man hybrid that Lewis created in his nightclub performances and movie roles (with Dean Martin and without) did not come out of nowhere — you see the precedent for it whenever you see Lou Costello. But Lewis took it to the next level, a level both more exquisitely funny and discomforting. It couldn’t be the first without being the second. Watching Costello, you laugh at someone else. Watching Lewis in character, your gaze turns inward, to see the child within you that never quite grew up, the child you never quite left behind — you remember the loneliness, you remember the desperate need for acceptance, you remember the sexual longings you didn’t know what to do with; it all comes rushing back, in a manner that whispers to you in a voice you don’t necessarily want to hear that it never went away. When Lewis goes into his manic “conducting the swing band, dancing wildly” mode, he is every child alone in his room, living out a private fantasy of happiness. The Lewis movie-role persona is a character unique in all of film, and yes, it does deserve recognition as genius.
For an appreciation of Lewis the artist — an appreciation with which I am in sympathy — read this essay, “Jerry Lewis Wins an Oscar at Last,” by Time movie critic Richard Corliss. He makes the case that Lewis deserves not just the Humanitarian award for his good works, but a Life Achievement award for his good work.