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4 minute read
Bruce Handy

“For almost half a century,” begins a fine new biography of one of our best-loved/least-loved entertainers, “America has had more of Jerry Lewis than it has known what to do with. Indeed, it has had more Jerry Lewises than it has known what to do with.” O.K., let’s see. There’s Jerry Lewis the assaultively maudlin telethon host, choking up as he sings You’ll Never Walk Alone to “his” kids. There’s Jerry Lewis whose bitter falling out with former partner Dean Martin is probably better remembered than the duo’s actual body of work. There’s Jerry Lewis the director and star of the original The Nutty Professor and, relatedly, Jerry Lewis the punch line to easy jokes about the inexplicable taste of French people. For most of his own countrymen, this is what they think of when they think of Jerry Lewis. If, in fact, they think of Jerry Lewis much at all.

One of the goals of Shawn Levy’s astute and absorbing King of Comedy: The Life and Art of Jerry Lewis (St. Martin’s Press; 512 pages; $24.95) is to remind us that for almost two decades, from the late ’40s to the mid-’60s, Lewis was a virtually unprecedented force in American popular culture. As nightclub performers, the anarchic Martin and Lewis were a cutting-edge act, their eagerness to violate convention paving the way for the likes of Lenny Bruce and Woody Allen (who, according to Levy, asked Lewis to direct both Take the Money and Run and Bananas), Steve Martin and, of course, Jim Carrey. As a solo act, Lewis has at various times been the highest-paid performer in film, on television and on Broadway. Levy, a film critic for the Portland Oregonian, does a skillful job of putting Lewis’ career in historical context, from a creative as well as a business standpoint (the shift in power from the studios to stars and their agents was a major factor in Lewis’ rise). Levy readily acknowledges the sloppiness and indulgence of much of Lewis’ movie work, but he also makes a case for Lewis’ importance as a physical comic and, when he was at the top of his form, an innovative and stylish director.

Levy conducted a series of interviews with his profane and grandiloquent subject (favorite quote: John F. Kennedy was “one of the great [extremely vulgar synonym for ladies’ man] of all time. Except for me”) until the famously volatile comedian blew up at a semitough question about The Day the Clown Cried, his unfinished 1972 film drama about the Holocaust. (Disclosure: Levy’s chapter on the making of The Day the Clown Cried relies heavily–and with due credit–on a magazine article I wrote on the subject for Spy.) Levy certainly doesn’t shy away from psychobiography: Lewis’ demanding though mostly absent parents, who toiled with marginal success on the vaudeville and burlesque circuits, are the obvious villains of the piece; Dean Martin is the beloved but withholding father/big brother substitute. Armchair analysis is notably warranted here, and Levy notably restrained in providing it, given that one of Lewis’ salient attributes as a performer is that he exudes a palpable sense of self-satisfaction coupled with an unslakeable, almost scary thirst for adoration–not to mention, as his career progressed and then faltered, an underlying rage. In fact, Levy argues convincingly that Lewis’ Nutty Professor alter ego, the suave, egotistical and nasty crooner Buddy Love, is more a knowing self-portrait than, as is generally assumed, a satiric jab at Martin.

Can the likes of Jerry Lewis really be “explained”? Probably not. But King of Comedy should deepen and fix the public conception of Lewis much the way Nick Tosches’ definitive Dino: Living High in the Dirty Business of Dreams did for Martin. On one’s bookshelf, at least, the partners can be linked more comfortably than they ever were in life.

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