Wednesday 23 August 2017

Vale Jerry Lewis - A selection from Barrett Hodsdon's new book THE ELUSIVE AUTEUR

What follows below is an extract from critic Barrett Hodsdon's new critical study titled The Elusive Auteur. There will be a separate following post devoted to details of the book and where you can obtain a copy. Barrett writes "By way of explanation, this section occurs in the part of the book where I classify, under 5 categories, 15 classic director-auteurs. The intention was to position these filmmakers into the work relations and real politique of Hollywood under the old monolith of the Studio system. The purpose was to highlight the ability of these filmmakers to manoeuvre or not within the system or, in the case of the “Mavericks or Outcasts”, to react against the system. The other key auteurs in this category are Von Sternberg, Welles, Nicholas Ray and Sam Fuller. I also try to briefly reference their abstract status as auteurs."

I am very grateful to Barrett for the privilege of publishing this extract from his major new critical study. The numbers in the text refer to the book's footnotes.
Jerry Lewis – Triumphant Comic/Idiosyncratic Auteur
“I am multi-faceted, talented, wealthy, internationally famous genius.  I have an IQ of 190 – that's supposed to be a genius.  People don’t like that.  The answer to all my critics is simple.  I like me.  I like what I’ve become.  I am proud of what I’ve achieved, and I don’t really believe I’ve scratched the surface yet.”

(Looking back on more than 60 years of show business) – “I was about as discreet as a bull – taking a piss in your living room." (72)
                                                                                                            Jerry Lewis

“His life has been a continuous parade of public and private faces, some the world has loved, while others have been universally loathed.” “Jerry acknowledged all the conflicts of his life – the gaps between Jester, Thinker, and Private Man.  He, more than anyone else, knew that behind the clown, the showman, the director, the philanthropist, stood another person altogether – “the real” Jerry Lewis.”

Yet love it or hate it, Jerry’s best work is the product of a completely unique sensibility.” (73)

                                                                                                        Shawn Levy

Jerry Lewis at 90
How should we classify the case of Jerry Lewis as an auteur-director?  Some would be surprised that he might qualify for the auteur stakes at all. Yet, in the early sixties, Parisian film critics from both the Positif and Cahiers camps granted him special canonical status, much to the chagrin of many American reviewers and critics. (74) Lewis does, however, hold an idiosyncratic and semi-unique place in the history of Hollywood directors.  From Lewis's centrality in a cult comedy duo with Dean Martin, to solo performer and producer, to a remarkably free and experimental period as performer/director (with studio backing), then followed by many decades in the wilderness on the fringe of Hollywood. The later phases of his career possessed an air of a legendary displaced figure trying to recapture an echo of his past glories.

Lewis, Auteur
Apart from Lewis’s strange career trajectory there is a problem of how to treat Lewis as a serious artist and comedy innovator when many critics could not come to terms with the tenor of his physical projection or his restrictive personal preoccupations. Lewis’s career and status hardly conform to the notion of the uncompromising, solitary, self-conscious creative auteur genius who was suppressed by the Hollywood system.  Rather, he graduated through the Hollywood structure as a cult figure of popular culture only to burn his bridges as he acquired more and more creative freedom.  As a mainstream comic and entertainment phenomenon, Lewis had a bank of commercial and cultural capital that ultimately enabled him to sit in the director’s chair. The relatively brief but rich phase in the director’s chair for the first half of the sixties (with full studio support from Paramount Pictures) allowed Lewis a cutting edge creative freedom on the frontier of Hollywood while relying on a traditional audience base he had established over a decade earlier in his partnership with Dean Martin.

Lewis as Buddy Love (with Stella Stevens) The Nutty Professor
There is no doubt Lewis’s self obsession and vanity were the driving elements in the unfolding of his career and his fetish with the duality and reversal of his public image, as witnessed in the ultimate schizophrenia of his most celebrated work – The Nutty Professor. Thus, the Jerry Lewis saga in relation to auteur criticism and canonization is a tricky and difficult one.  For Lewis’s film work, as individualistic as it was, does not readily comply with any traditional notion of expansive vision or world view.  Indeed, Lewis’s  preoccupation with the self and his vanity were central to his development as an entertainer and comic from his start with Dean Martin, through the various phases of his movie career,  his ascension to the director’s chair, and the long term vagaries of his directorial path.

Lewis, Dean Martin
According to Hal Wallis, the famous Hollywood producer, who had brought Martin and Lewis to Hollywood, Lewis wanted to take over the leading man role from his very first film with Dean Martin, My Friend Irma (49).  This was but a symptom of the bizarre tensions which beleaguered the Martin-Lewis comedy team until they split in 1956.  Further, Wallis observed that “Jerry developed an ego as tall as the Empire State Building talking to Paramount executives as if he were running the studio, demanding more and more scenes alone, trying to push Dino into the background.  He began to write his own dialogue, argued with the directors, and tried to take over their work.  He suggested musical themes to composers and wanted to edit.  I fought this constantly and we had many arguments. The more he screamed and threw his arms about the quieter I got. It was all very difficult”.  Wallis also commented that Lewis and Martin were "strangely ill matched". (75)

Lewis developed an ‘idiot boy’ character that violated the bounds of performance linked to normal emotional reactions.  His performance traits were a repertoire of exaggerated and demeaning physical responses - gauche, literal and asexual behavioral interaction with people – resulting in an extreme character confinement that was an odd comic phenomenon when set beside the suave Latinate lover image of Dean Martin, as the straight man of the duo. Relative to Lewis’s repressed ego, this was only part of the Lewis story, which he moved to rectify when he went solo as a performer and finally as a director.  But he still reprised the limitations of his former comic incarnation while also refining the image to one of innocence, breaking out into displays of self-confidence (as manifested in his remarkable directorial oeuvre for Paramount in the early '60s), and culminating in the extremity of his schismatic and schizoid performance in The Nutty Professor. Through the conduit of Lewis’s longstanding entertainment persona he found himself in an unusual position (under a major studio rubric) of having the freedom to explore his highly personal concerns and idiosyncrasies as an actor cum director on his own account.  He broke the boundaries of classic comic form to toy with illusion and reality gag structures possessing abstract undertones.  This was achieved through Lewis’s keen sense of formal invention in realizing his bumbling and inept characterizations, and structuring his gags around them.

Lewis, publicity still for The Bellboy
Lewis seemed very engaged in an oddball form of personal deconstruction and of comedy itself.  Sometimes, this was construed by critics as a quasi-Brechtian strategy but it is doubtful that Lewis perceived himself as working in this realm of critical self-consciousness.  Jerry Lewis was fully informed by the great comic figures and traditions and would pay homage to them (as in The Bellboy with Stan Laurel). But he would push beyond conventional comic form with conceptual plays on gags combined with gross multi-person characterizations (e.g. The Family Jewels), or carrying his own physical dysfunctionality into the sphere of bathos on the path to ego assertion (The Nutty Professor, The Patsy). The performative body and its incongruities - uncoordinated, fractured and asexual were overturned in favor of slick performative finesse and symmetry. Undoubtedly, Lewis was able to shift the register of classical physical comedy based on sadism and victimhood to one of attenuated pain and embarrassment combined in his persona and performance.  At times, his character traits could be extended to an insular Jewish sentimentality which Lewis would convert into a form of poetic solitude (e.g. The Bellboy, The Errand Boy, The Patsy, and The Nutty Professor).

Ultimately, Lewis’s oeuvre represented a series of paradoxes reflected in his actual career trajectory (and its fluctuations), and how his oeuvre correlated with his self- perception as comedian, entertainment celebrity and unfettered directorial expression. These paradoxes can be reduced to a set of antinomies-:

  1. Cultural phenomenon versus directorial ambition.
  2. Compulsive idiosyncrasy versus public acceptance.
  3. Regressive behavior versus indulgent egoism.
  4. Comic master versus transgressive obscurantism.

Lewis, The King of Comedy
For more than 30 years, Lewis has remained in the filmic wilderness with a couple of directorial comebacks (relatively minor and unnoticed) and occasional film appearances in others' works, most notably in Scorsese’s King of Comedy, where he reverses his image as a comic persona with the most serious and severe character of his entire acting career. Although Lewis’s film career faded into oblivion, he still maintained his public image as a live performer at Las Vegas clubs (reprising his past performances) and continuing his charity fund raising profile with his Muscular Dystrophy TV specials.  He also imparted his expertise with how-to books and college lectures. In 1995, he made a performance comeback as the Devil in a revival of the musical Damn Yankees on the Broadway stage.

As a Hollywood maverick Lewis was certainly unusual in moving from such a high profile centre of the entertainment world to long term marginality. His desire to willfully blaze his own trail has a touch of Sternberg’s unbounded creative ego.
Late Lewis, The Day the Clown Died

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