Whether you believe Jerry Lewis is a comic genius, a braying clown, a shrewd show-biz pro who carefully cultivated a popular stage and screen persona, a hopeless egotist with a cringing need for attention, or simply a comic with a gift for manic physical humor that clicked with audiences in the fifties and sixties, most people agree that The Nutty Professor was his greatest film as a director and his most interesting variation on the child-man figure he had transformed into Hollywood gold.
Lewis’ fourth film as a director is a reworking of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde brought into the modern world by way of Lewis’ cartoonish take on the institutions and social cultures of contemporary life. His Jekyll is nebbish college professor and chemist Julius Kelp, the child-man of his previous films grown up from boy to adult, no more capable of the social world but clearly educated and perhaps even brilliant. His adenoidal juvenile voice has tempered into something oddly lived in and the spasmodic, childlike body has slowed and slumped into a walking shrug, acknowledging his inability to take on the world on its own terms. Julius is smitten with Stella Purdy (Stella Stevens), a curvaceous co-ed who sits up front of every chemistry class and looks up wide-eyed at every lecture. It’s not clear if she likes him, respects him, or just feels bad for him, but there is something about this harmless social grotesque that makes her care for his plight. Attraction is another matter, however, so Kelp goes on a self-improvement kick at Vic Tanney’s gym (one of many glaring product placements in the film; Lewis was a pioneer in this aspect of production, a dubious achievement to be sure). When that fails to produce measurable results, he falls back on his specialty: better living through chemistry.
Where Stevenson’s good doctor is a humanitarian and moralist who unleashes the suppressed id within as an experiment and gets addicted to the rush, Kelp’s experiment is a bit more self-centered and pointedly directed. He concocts a formula specifically to transform him into his imagined ideal of what women want: the confident, popular, aggressive ladies’ man that the shy, stammering, socially awkward Julius can never be.
I have a complicated relationship with Jerry Lewis, who reigned supreme as the prince of popular culture during his heyday with Dean Martin and went on to be hugely popular as a solo act in films directed by Frank Tashlin, Norman Taurog, and then in films that he directed himself. As a performer he can be brilliant or cringingly spastic and infantile and as a director he was far more than a punchline to a swipe at French cinephilia but less than the complete genius some of his supporters might claim. He had a habit of slathering a gooey sentimentality to the kind of anarchy and chaos that the Marx perfected, yet at his best (and sometimes even his worst) he barbed his humor with an unsettling cynicism. And he could be inventive, even downright surreal.
It all came together beautifully in The Nutty Professor (1963), Jerry Lewis’ almost universally acknowledged masterpiece, and The Nutty Professor: 50th Anniversary (Warner, Blu-ray) gives the film its Blu-ray debut in a special edition.
Lewis directed, produced and co-wrote this bizarro take on Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, turning his familiar child-man figure into nerdy college chemistry professor Julius Kelp, a buck-toothed social misfit with Lewis’ adenoidal voice aged to a curious adulthood and spasmodic, childlike body slowed and slumped into a walking shrug. When this Dr. Jekyll reaches deep inside to release his Mr. Hyde, he unleashes Buddy Love, a creepy lounge lizard as confident, popular, aggressive ladies’ man, a monster so self-absorbed and full of contempt for his adoring fans that his popularity itself is a perverse joke. While the standard take in 1963 was that Love was a rather nasty satire of his former partner Dean Martin, most fans realize that Buddy is really Lewis’ flip side writ big and pushed to extremes.
Jerry Lewis cited director Frank Tashlin as his mentor when he finally stepped behind the camera. You can see what he brought to the Lewis persona in Rock-a-Bye Baby (Olive), Tashlin’s third film with Lewis, but his first with Lewis as a solo act.
Ostensibly a reworking of Preston Sturges’ great 1944 comedyThe Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, writer/director Tashlin spins an entirely new story from the premise. Lewis is likable small town goof Clayton Poole, whose unrequited love for local girl turned Hollywood superstar Carla Naples (Marilyn Maxwell) makes him the perfect secret babysitter when she discovers that she’s pregnant just before taking her role in a Hollywood costume epic. Like its inspiration, the film insists that she’s married (she just can’t prove it), but then it exiles her to focus on Lewis as a doting guardian of three orphaned girls, with a little help from the babies’ grandfather (Salvatore Baccaloni, playing the hot-tempered yet sentimental Italian immigrant father of two independent daughters) and young aunt Sandra (Connie Stevens in her first major role), a lively all-American girl with a hopeless crush on Lewis’ goofy child-man.
Tashlin, an animator before he turned to live action filmmaking, was all about the gag and helped define Lewis as a walking cartoon, the rubberface spastic adolescent in a grown-up body. And yes, he is a walking disaster, but here he’s also oddly sweet as he watches over triplets. Sure, they’re mostly props, but they also become a kind of audience for performances he plays directly to them, child-man to infant, and in these sequences Lewis starts to take over. Where Tashlin tends to unleash a succession of one-off gags, Lewis riffs and builds on them, such as a scene of Clayton in a cloud of baby powder. The jokes themselves aren’t always as funny as Tashlin’s sight gags, but they follow one from another more organically and Lewis plays them like a sustained series of variations that build to an actual narrative conclusion. Tashlin’s hand is more evident in his pop-culture lampoons: Lewis as an wild-eyed rock and roll singer with no actual talent beyond energetic shouting and gesticulating, Marilyn Maxwell’s Egyptian costume epic transformed into a silly musical with a cheesy nightclub number. (For a film not considered a musical, there are plenty of musical numbers sprinkled through the film, some serious, some straight-out spoofs.)
The Academy gave us Hugh Jackman, both a song and dance man and a costumed superhero, to host the 2009 Oscar ceremony and it was still the dullest on record. The big musical number was actually tackled by talented folks doing a respectable job, but the old-fashioned show-biz tribute was decidedly lacking in imagination or electricity. The “Best Song” had no credibility when Bruce Springsteen’s song didn’t even make the cut. I liked the classy touch of bringing out five previous winners for each acting category not just to introduce each nominee but to offer them praise directly – even if you didn’t win the statue, you got high praise indeed from Oscar royalty. But it was still probably better for the nominees than it was for us at home. The closest thing to an upset was Departures taking the Best Foreign Language Film (most of us had money down on Waltz With Bashir, but then again, most of us have never seen Departures), Sean Penn showing a sense of humor in his acceptance speech and Jerry Lewis, in contrast, showing great restraint in his.
But being a blogger I’m obligated to offer some opinion of the awards. So beyond the fact that 2008 was a thin year for American cinema (especially put up against the meaty line-up of nominees last year) and that Slumdog Millionaire is another overrated underdog story with glib social politics only marginally more interesting than those of Crash (Haggis, not Cronenberg), I’d like to say that the Academy did right in its performer awards. Mickey Rourke gave a hearty and beautiful performance as The Ram and his off-screen story only feeds the character onscreen. But Sean Penn’s performance was inspiring, a transformation that finds the heart and soul of a historical figure and sends blood pumping through a man who has become practically deified over the decades. His Harvey Milk is not a crucified messiah but a human being who found his calling and his passion. His Harvey Milk is not just an out-and-proud gay man, but a man who is no longer embarrassed at being himself, bad jokes and all. His greatest revelation: the way this goofy gay nerd won folks over with his sincerity, his passion and his complete lack of self-consciousness, and the way he showed them how to become a political force to stand up for their rights.
As for Kate Winslet, who Time Magazine proclaimed “Best Actress” on the cover of the issue I received the day before the Oscars, I say that she is very good in two 2008 movies that are not, and that she won for the right performance. In Revolutionary Road, she is the sensitive would-be artist/intellectual with fantasies of a life beyond suburbia, married to a blithely self-aggrandizing husband (DiCaprio) who just doesn’t understand, or even notice, her disappointment at the compromises of their lives. After all, they’re living the middle-class dream, aren’t they? Winslet plays her character as a dam holding in the building waters of frustration and discouragement and discontent until the walls burst and everything flood out in a torrent of furious rage and hostility directed at her shallow, self-absorbed husband. Those scenes are explosive. The rest of the film is a glib commentary on lives that are not lived so much as acted as illustrations of unrealistic dreams and stifling conformity and even Winslet rarely breaks out of the quotation marks that Sam Mendes puts around the performances.