The French are no longer alone. The Los Angeles Film Critics Association voted Saturday to bestow its lifetime achievement award on Jerry Lewis, 78, the comic actor and filmmaker whose “idiot” character made him something of a cultural hero in France to the general incomprehension of American critics.
Lewis’ frantic misfit, who offends the world with his infantile behavior — Lewis often describes him as a 9-year-old — achieved popularity with a string of successful comedies in the 1950s and 1960s. Yet Lewis himself took filmmaking very seriously.
Functioning as a writer, producer and director as well as star on many of his best comedies, Lewis studied the components of filmmaking to such a degree he was asked to lecture graduate film students at USC, a series of lectures later collected in his book, “The Total Filmmaker.”
During a lecture 20 years ago at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Lewis said he screened Buster Keaton’s “The General” 50 times “to watch his body and timing.” He journeyed to Geneva three times to visit Charlie Chaplin and discuss comedy with him. “That was as close to being with God as I know.”
He said that he studied the great sketch comics: Jackie Gleason — “He had the most grace” — and Sid Caesar — “He had confidence that defied you to tell him he was leaning on a take too long.”
On the other hand, Lewis has had nothing but disdain for American critics. “The critics in this country are whores,” he told a Los Angeles Times reporter in 1981. “They’re worthless. They don’t mean anything.”
'A little man attempting to cope'In such films as “The Ladies’ Man” (1961), “The Errand Boy” (1961) and “The Patsy” (1964), Lewis played a little man beset by a cruel or incomprehensible world. His response is to go berserk as a 9-year-old would. Noted one French critic, Jean Domarehi, “He is a little man attempting to cope with the way of a mechanical civilization about which he understands nothing. It is necessary for him to escape, and this he can manage to do through dreams and fairy tales.”
His Jekyll-Hyde comedy, “The Nutty Professor” (1963), considered a hilarious high-water mark in his career, deals with the transformation of his loony, cross-eyed idiot into a finger-snapping hep cat. His underappreciated “The Bellboy” (1960) was an ambitious comedy with the form of something by Jacques Tati in which conventional narrative is replaced by a series of interconnected slight gags.
The French — and to be accurate, the Germans, Dutch and Spanish — perceive Lewis to be the ultimate auteur as writer, director and performer and the natural successor to Chaplin, Keaton, Laurel and Hardy. So great is his popularity in France, he enjoyed a smash engagement in 1971 at the Olympia in Paris, playing to sellout crowds in 16 performances. He was presented the French Legion of Honor in 1984.
After a slump in his moviemaking career, Lewis remained in the public eye on a variety show and on his hugely successful annual telethon benefiting the Muscular Dystrophy Association. In 1983 he achieved something of a comeback by acting in Martin Scorsese’s “The King of Comedy.” He played a talk-show host and late-night personality who becomes the bewildered object of the obsessions of a would-be comic played by Robert De Niro.
As an actor in the ’80s, Lewis took on chancy projects including “Smorgasbord,” an almost-silent comedy in which he played 67 characters, and a cinematic adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s surrealistic novel, “Slapstick.” Perhaps his most daring project has yet to see the light of day. “The Day the Clown Cried,” shot in 1974, a story about a circus clown employed by the Nazis to assist in the killing of children in concentration camps, has been tied up in legal problems for years.
Coincidentally, Paramount has released nine Jerry Lewis films for the first time on DVD as well as a special edition of “The Nutty Professor.” Many have extras as well as commentary by Lewis.
The critics group will hand out the award Jan. 13 at the annual LAFCA awards dinner at the St. Regis Hotel in Century City. In a related development, the group voted to move its annual awards voting up a week to Dec. 11 from the previously announced date of Dec. 18.