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Digging Down Deep: Jerry Lewis in Conversation With Peter Bogdanovich

Peter Bogdanovich spent the evening of November 22, 2008 quizzing the legendary comic filmmaker Jerry Lewis at The Times Center in New York City for an event sponsored by The Museum of the Moving Image and Lewis immediately set the tone by forewarning Bogdanovich, ‘Whatever I’m going to tell you now, it is all bullshit.’ Fisticuffs were up and rapidly followed by a haymaker when Lewis, balking at a Bogdanovich question written on an index card, suggested to Bogdanovich to ‘stick the fucking notes in your pocket.’ Bogdanovich responded weakly, ‘Can I do a Jerry Lewis moment? Help!‘ And this from a man who tangled with John Ford!

Thankfully, Lewis and Bogdanovich were so busy parrying and thrusting onstage so that they couldn’t take a sweep of the audience drawn to an interview with Jerry, for if they did they both would have taken the next flight back to Paris, the audience consisting of a motley crew resembling the Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band album cover — a tall stylish man in a bowler hat with his two droogies; a repugnant Ron Silver-looking fellow attempting to tantalize somebody else’s date with a spastic Lewis impersonation; Steve Van Zandt and David Chase; and, in a full orange-teased pompadour, Joe Franklin, as Himself.

Bogdanovich introduced Lewis as ‘the man who made more people laugh than anybody else alive’ and Lewis entering already the victor, received a two-minute standing ovation — a good minute-and-a-half longer than the pause before Michael Chiklis’s confession in the penultimate episode of The Shield. The two then retreated to chairs center stage with Lewis popping lemon drops and, at 82-and-a-half, looking and sounding sharp, tip top, and ready for anything.

That is, until Bogdanovich made the fatal misstep of asking Lewis how Lewis and Dean Martin met. Lewis bluntly refused to answer his question, explaining that he was tired of being asked the same question and that anyone who asked that question ‘was a moron. Present company included.‘ Exasperated, Bogdanovich, gasping for air, pleaded, ‘But you told me backstage that I could ask you anything.’ Lewis smugly responded, ‘It’s true. But I lied.’

Lewis, then on automatic speaking mode, engaged in a recitation on himself, further flummoxing Bogdanovich and the audience by reciting an incredible list of achievements that, of course, are amazingly true. He mentioned his plans for his 83rd birthday party, segued into recalling the headline of Le Figaro upon Lewis’s returning to France (‘The King is Back’), his nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize, his raising of over two billion dollars for Muscular Dystrophy, and concluding the oration with the declaration, ‘Look what this Jew from Newark pulled off.’

Bogdanovich at that point could have saved the night by asking Lewis about his films but he decided to stay cute and, after a pause, asked Lewis the same question, ‘So, how did you and Dean meet?’ With that, Lewis grabbed the ball and ran the length of the field, reciting the heard-to-the-point-of-pain saga of the formation of the Martin and Lewis act, the popularity of the team (with Bogdanovich pontificating about the four great popular culture phenomena of the 20th century — Sinatra, Elvis, The Beatles, and Martin and Lewis), the trauma of their break-up in 1956, and concluding that as far as Lewis and Martin were concerned, ‘We were awestruck with one another.’ This oration lasted about an hour leaving little time left for Lewis to discuss any of his movies.

Bogdanovich tried to regain ground by prodding Lewis to talk about his early amateur films (films with titles like a parody of Sunset Boulevard called Fairfax Avenue, Come Back Little Shiksa and, unmentioned during the interview, How To Smuggle a Hernia Across the Border) which were made for Lewis’s friends. Lewis talked about his quickie feature film debut as writer/director/producer/star, The Bellboy, shot in 30 days at minimal cost and grossing over $250 million. (The thought of all that moola, even after 48 years, caused Lewis to scream out, ‘Watch the big dog eat!’)

There was a short but interesting discussion of Lewis’s development of the video assist (a video camera mounted onto a film camera that allows the director to see what exactly is being shot in a scene), first used by Lewis in The Bellboy and which now is used universally in film to help directors see what they are getting or not getting in a shot.

Bogdanovich then asked Lewis what his favorite film was and Lewis responded, ‘I always loved Rebecca.‘ But then he admitted to liking The Nutty Professor the best. He then graced the audience with a Julius Kelp impersonation before lapsing, at Bogdanovich’s encouragement, into argle-bargle foreign accents and singing in Swedish.

Then it was all sadly over. Bogdanovich missed his chance. Lewis could have spoken more in depth about his films without referring to Dean Martin even once. There could have been a discussion of Frank Tashlin’s influence on Lewis (mentioned in passing was Lewis explaining that Tashlin always wanted Lewis to shoehorn more sentimental scenes in his films, while Lewis wanted more comedy –but then how would Lewis explain the puppets in The Errand Boy?). Also unmentioned were any of his other great Paramount films. Or his work of the 1980s, particularly King of Comedy with Scorsese and his own unappreciated Smorgasbord. Godard once called Lewis a cinematic painter, but there was not one word about Lewis’s film style. A waste.

The whole thing ended with Bogdanovich asking Lewis how he wanted to be remembered and Lewis remarking, ‘I don’t want to be remembered. I want the nice words when I can hear them.’ Bogdanovich wanted Lewis to give the audience advice for living and Lewis called for the Power of Positive Thinking, to think positive, act positive, and then positivity will spread to others. One could almost hear Julius Kelp’s advice at the end of The Nutty Professor: ‘You might as well like yourself; just think of all the time you’ve got to spend with you.’

Farewell Jerry Lewis! Sultan of the Cinema! Great White Ruler over me!

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