Jerry Lewis: The Man Behind the Clown

Appropriate for such a complicated topic, I expected very little from the 2016 documentary Jerry Lewis: The Man Behind the Clown (2016), and was rewarded with unexpected riches. The film showed up recently on one of our streaming services. I was ready for one of those crappy hagiographies that proliferate so extensively in this business that thrives on superficial praise and enthusiasm. Don’t get me wrong for a second: this is eminently a pro-Jerry movie. I just mean to clarify, right off the bat, that the movie is the farthest thing from crappy. It makes a very reasoned argument for the worth of this artist, both as a performer and as a director.

As I indicated here, I vastly prefer the latter aspect of Lewis’s overall career, for many of the same reasons that are laid out in this movie by no less than guys like Jean-Luc Godard, Louis Malle, Pierre Etaix, Robert Benayoun, and Martin Scorsese. The latter, using characteristically careful language, refers to him as a “visual artist” and Godard talks about his eye for geometry in composing shots. When I think of what I love about Lewis primarily, it’s usually a PICTURE, full of bright, bright colors. He inherits this from his mentor Frank Tashlin, and it connects him very snugly to cartoons. (As for HEARING Lewis, unless he’s playing Professor Kelp or Buddy Love, I generally want earmuffs.) Rae Beth Gordon, author of the insightful, even indispensable, Why the French Love Jerry Lewis is naturally on hand, reminding us of the traditional French affection for the grotesque in comedy, ever since the days of Rabelais, even comparing him to gargoyles. She is on much surer footing, I think, than Benayoun, Lewis’s rashest French apologist, who talks of Lewis’s “satire” and compares him to Moliere. Benayoun goes entirely too far. Lewis was a creature almost entirely of instinct, and like I say, his metier is visual art. Any time he speaks or writes about his work, it strikes me as unfortunate. I don’t think he is guided terribly much by “thought”, only gesture and movement. It is interesting to me for this reason that he always claimed to hold up Chaplin and Laurel as his heroes. His art seems much more like Keaton’s to me — mathematical, in a savant-like way, as opposed to contemplative.

A shout-out here too to Ted Okuda, co-author of The Jerry Lewis Films (1995) and many another fine comedy cinema book. Also Sean Hayes, who played Lewis in that great Martin and Lewis tv bio-pic is in it, and several other comedians and Lewis impressionists. Not to mention some great interviews with the man himself, probably some of the last he participated in. And copious clips of his work, in film, television, and live performance. So, three cheers to film-maker Gregory Monro. I don’t know if this film will convert any Jerry-haters (my wife was safely out of earshot when I watched it) but for the open-minded cinephile who is willing to hear his champions out, it’s bound to set them on the path to greater appreciation.