Jerry Lewis: Clown prince of arrested development or the most cerebral Hollywood funny man since Buster Keaton? Either you find Jer’s manic outbursts funny, or you don’t (and if you don’t, Anthology’s nine-film retro is not for you), but there’s no disputing his ambition.
Lewis’s first three directorial efforts, each pegged to a specific milieu and a menial job, represent his most sustained comic filmmaking. His nearly silent debut, The Bellboy (1960), shot on location at the fabulous Fontainebleau on Miami Beach, is a surreal succession of sight gags. Its more elaborate follow-up, The Ladies Man (1961), is a tour de force of studio filmmaking for which Lewis constructed his own Grand Hotel, a Hollywood rooming house that suggested a G-rated brothel. The Errand Boy (1962) turned brilliantly self-reflexive, locating the Lewis character’s touching stupidity within the greater institutional stupidity of the Hollywood studio system.
Following these classics, The Nutty Professor (1963) confirmed Lewis’s status as auteur. This Jekyll and Hyde psychodrama in which the star plays an overbearing, self-regarding Dean Martin type (suggestively named “Buddy Love”) to his usual dithering idiot is certainly Lewis’s most richly pathological film. But once Jer dropped the mask, there was no turning back. As noted by Chris Fujiwara in his lucid brief, newly published by the University of Illinois: “Identity in Lewis is always performed; there is no private self.” The Nutty Professor was also Lewis’s last substantial hit. After a decade-plus as one of Hollywood’s top 10 box-office stars, he fell off the list in 1964, never to return. Lewis began to take himself seriously—and wanted the audience to as well. In Three on a Couch (1966), made the year he turned 40, he cast himself as an actual artist, appreciated by the French and affianced to a professional therapist (actual star Janet Leigh).
While the later films have their fans (see Fujiwara) and their moments, if fewer and further between, they were made under the spell of Buddy Love—the undercurrent of megalomania contaminates the fun. Still, Lewis never lost the capacity to regress. While his 1983 swansong Cracking Up (a/k/a Smorgasbord) is predicated on gags more conceptual than funny, he triumphantly embodies a nerd so neurotic and klutzy that only a brand-new Yiddish epithet could characterize his haplessness.
‘Directed by Jerry Lewis’ runs November 12 through 19 at Anthology Film Archives
Also at Anthology: As part of the Performa 09 festival, “The Polyexpressive Symphony: Futurism on Film” series winds up on November 16 with Futurist Life Redux—a modern reconstruction of the only film produced by Italy’s pioneer vanguard movement. Lost during World War II, this anthology of 11 shorts (“Futurist Lunch,” “How the Futurist Sleeps,” and “Futurist Walk”) has been “reimagined” by a gaggle of Bay Area media artists. George Kuchar, who treats “Drama of Objects” as a florid parody of a mid-’60s underground movie, sets the tone. There’s a lot of entertainment value here; I particularly appreciated Shana Moulton’s hilariously literal-minded “Sentimental Futurist” and the Matthew Silver–Shoval Zohar attack on “Dance of Geometric Splendor”—a lurid shpritz pitting a female revolutionary against a bearded sissy in a wedding dress with a mix-master demon for good measure, it has a manic brio that a real Jerry Lewis fan would surely appreciate.