Not too long ago, I read something on a conservative website about Michael Moore’s film Fahrenheit 9/11. Typically, this elitist blowhard added nothing new to the debate surrounding that controversial 2004 film except to reiterate that the film won the top honor at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival and (despite this being a history making event) he noted this should not have surprised anyone.
Well, the Cannes Film Festival is held in France and as we all know the French LOVE Jerry Lewis (snicker, snicker). Did he even need to say more?
Yes, actually, he did. Neatly ignoring the fact that the Cannes jury is an international jury of film professionals from all over the world and not exclusively from France, his whole thesis can be boiled down to “How can you trust the judgment of a country that likes Jerry Lewis?”
I have heard this platitude many times, usually by someone who has taken issue with something the Republic of France has done. The snarky attitude makes the person and the people who agree with him feel superior to the French because they haven’t been taken in by the notion of liking Jerry Lewis.
Disagreeing with France is a national pastime (I do it all the time myself and I’m a Franco-phile), but truly, what have these elite Conservatives got against Jerry Lewis? The implication is that liking Jerry Lewis evinces some lack of sophistication or intelligence. It puzzles me that Jerry Lewis is singled out for this ridicule because throughout much of our history, the French have embraced many American artists.
When ordinary Americans stared up at Alexander Calder’s metal mobiles that seemingly floated in space, they were roundly puzzled; not so the French. When singer Josephine Baker and saxophonist Charlie “Bird” Parker couldn’t find work in the USA because of deeply entrenched racism in the music business, they found an adoring audience and a creative outlet in France.
While Americans were clucking their tongues at Edgar Allen Poe for dying drunk and destitute in a Baltimore gutter, the French saw something wonderful in his poetry, essays and stories and celebrated the work of the poor author.
When our sinister detective films that made a fortune for Hollywood lay unseen and ignored, the French saw a darker, more profound side in them about the American psyche. They called it “Film Noir”, and forced us Americans to reevaluate those films. Nobody laughs at the French for those astute observations.
So, what’s wrong with Jerry Lewis? By any standard, he’s a true, blue American phenomenon. Born Jerome Levitch in Newark, N.J., in 1926, he overcame a dismal childhood to become one of the most famous comedians and film directors by shear talent and chutzpah.
After gaining some success as a comedian, things took off for Lewis when he teamed up with the smooth nightclub singer Dean Martin. For many years, their Las Vegas shows, movies and TV Specials were highly rated and financially successful.
After their breakup, Jerry Lewis proved that he had the goods to go it as a solo act, turning his attention to writing and directing his own films. Not only that, but he would act in them as well becoming one of the first and most successful triple threat hyphenates in movie history.
I remember as a child all of us in the neighborhood happily awaited the times when a Jerry Lewis movie would play on TV. We loved the multiple roles he played in The Family Jewels – the goofy gangster or the clueless photographer – although we knew the little girl would eventually choose the decent chauffeur to be her father.
The Nutty Professor was another favorite, although the Jekyll/Hyde references (and its allusions to Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin) went right over our heads. Like it or not, The Nutty Professor and its sequels continue their popularity with audiences only now with Eddie Murphy as the star.
We also loved The Bellboy, a quickie written, directed and starring Jerry Lewis about a silent bellboy at Miami’s Fontainebleau Hotel and put together in a month so the studio would have Lewis product in the pipeline for a Christmas release. One great sight gag: Jerry Lewis as the helpful bellboy puts a fishnet rag over a man’s face as he sleeps in the sun, only to have the distraught man wake up with a pattern suntanned onto his face.
As a director, what Jerry Lewis may have lacked in style he made up for in economy. Keeping things simple, he shot fast, rarely more than two takes. He was also the first director to use videotape playback so he could look at the rushes immediately, now as standard on a set as a camera slate. Jerry Lewis also taught filmmaking at UCLA and a number of notable directors learned under his tutelage.
And whatever you think of his fundraising telethons, whether you think them tacky ego boosts or sentimental hooey, over the years they have raised huge amounts of money to fight muscular dystrophy and earned Jerry Lewis a 1977 nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize.
But the real sticky point for conservative elites seems to be that in 1984 the French government awarded Jerry Lewis its highest civilian award, the Legion of Honor.
Why this particular honor bugs conservatives, I have no idea. Many other Americans, like TV Chef Julia Child, Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, President Dwight D. Eisenhower, composer/producer Quincy Jones and film directors like David Lynch and Martin Scorsese have received the award also, but this doesn’t seem to bother anyone.
So, in the end, we are left with Jerry Lewis – a talented, altruistic, generous, sometimes difficult, funny, self-made American, whose films can be seen by people of all ages – being ridiculed by people who think they are superior to… the French. What parallel world do these people live in?
So, the next time you hear someone try to insult France because the French revere Jerry Lewis, ask them to explain why they hate Jerry Lewis so much.
Michael McGonigle is film lecturer at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. This piece first appeared in a different form in The Philadelphia Daily News.