Critic's Notebook: Jerry Lewis, a Comic Genius by Turns Sweet and Bitter

The king of slapstick comedy mined the darker side of his own career for his finest work, satirizing hollow fame and celebrity ego.

For much of his seven-decade career, Jerry Lewis was the butt of endless jokes, not all of his own making. Once his box-office star waned in the '70s, his early screwball comedies were routinely mocked for their mawkish sentimentally, their desperate eagerness to entertain at all costs and their unforgivable crime of being popular in France. But Lewis, who died Sunday at 91, was also a sharp-eyed satirist of hollow fame and outsized ego, including his own. From the start, his best work had an agreeably bitter streak, offering self-lacerating insights into celebrity culture which now look strikingly modern. Even post-modern in places.

Graduating to the big screen via nightclub and TV work, Lewis and his early sparring partner Dean Martin became a movie double act thanks to Paramount producer Hal Wallis, appearing together in more than a dozen comedies between 1949 and 1956. The relationship unraveled in acrimony, and these formulaic odd-couple star vehicles lost their charm soon afterwards. But they left Lewis with the contacts, the insight and the box-office muscle to found his own production company and seize greater control of his career.

Once Lewis got his hands on the full filmmaking toolbox as star, writer and director, his projects took an inspired and sometimes strikingly self-referential turn. Shot at the smart Miami hotel where he was performing his stage act, his boldly experimental directing debut The Bellboy (1960) is a virtuoso string of Chaplinesque stunts in which Lewis keeps silent until the final scene. It became a huge box-office hit and, tellingly, it also featured Lewis playing an asshole movie star called "Jerry Lewis." This self-aware streak content with The Errand Boy (1961) and The Patsy (1964), in which Lewis plays childlike nerds who infiltrate the cynical upper reaches of Hollywood celebrity almost by accident. The tone of the latter is almost Brechtian at times, with Lewis even breaking the fourth wall to offer notes to his cast.

A more conventionally impressive work in the early Lewis canon is The Nutty Professor (1963), in which he plays dual roles as both geeky scientist and boorish womanizer. A masterpiece of polished slapstick, the film feels like a snarky satirical dig at Lewis' former screen partner Dean Martin, though Lewis denied this was his intention. In any case, his snappy beatnik-era update of Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde stands up remarkably well more than half a century later, as Eddie Murphy proved with his boorish but hugely successful 1996 remake and its 2000 sequel.

For film fans of my generation, however, Lewis is more noteworthy for the handful of serious dramatic roles that helped revive his flagging reputation in middle age. Chief among them, of course, is Martin Scorsese's bracingly sour parable of hollow celebrity, The King of Comedy (1982). Lewis plays Jerry Langford, a Johnny Carson-like talk show host who is stalked and kidnapped by Robert De Niro's desperate, fame-hungry amateur comedian. Lewis took the role after Carson himself declined. His old screen partner Dean Martin and fellow Rat Pack legend Frank Sinatra were also considered. But it is hard to imagine anybody else achieving the same granular, confessional, self-skewering tone as Lewis.

Mining his own autobiographical experience, Lewis gave script suggestions to Scorsese, including the memorably brutal scene in which a snubbed autograph hunter wishes cancer on Langford. The shoot was fractious, with De Niro reportedly goading Lewis with anti-Semitic slurs to amplify the tension onscreen. In 2013, the veteran funnyman quipped that co-star Sandra Bernhard was "the reason they invented birth control." But behind the myth-making and mockery, his withering, sullen, passive-aggressive performance in The King of Comedy remains a soul-baring career peak, a prophetic glimpse behind the painted smile of smarmy showbiz bonhomie. More contemporary satirists like Garry Shandling, Steve Coogan and Ricky Gervais owe at least some of their self-deconstructing chops to Lewis' generously unappetizing turn in Scorsese's cult classic.

In his most memorable autumnal roles, Lewis continued to knowingly exploit his own biographical baggage. He played Johnny Depp's flamboyant car salesman uncle as a bombastic showman in Emir Kusturica's surreal all-star misfire Arizona Dream (1993). But he fared much better in Peter Chelsom's baroque Anglo-American oddity Funny Bones (1995), oozing double-edged charm as a beloved veteran Vegas stand-up who effortlessly upstages his struggling son through a quixotic mix of narcissism, misplaced concern and natural comic talent. There are shades of Jerry Langford here, but with warmer tones and sharper Freudian undercurrents.

During his twilight years, as he battled multiple health problems, Lewis became increasingly infamous for his prickly outbursts and cantankerous public appearances. In 2014, Vice ran a caustic profile titled Jerry Lewis Is Still Alive (and Still a Piece of Shit), though the piece was more nuanced and affectionate than that headline might suggest. But in a 2016 interview with The Hollywood Reporter, seven excruciating minutes of monosyllabic hostility, Lewis appeared to be consumed by the kind of monstrous celebrity ego he might once have mocked. The joke was still funny, but sometimes he just forgot to laugh. 

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