Screened August 7 2009 on Paramount DVD in New York , NY
Maybe it’s only in America where a man can act like an unrepentant juvenile and become a multimillionaire megastar… and a master filmmaker. Moreso than Spielberg, Lucas or early Judd Apatow, Jerry Lewis takes the boy-in-a-man’s-world ethos to heart, and it powers his moviemaking at every level: not just in his performance, but in the very way his films are constructed. Here his trademark nebbish cowers in a boarding house full of women; it’s less a coherent story than a series of one-offs riffing on Lewis’ klutzy gynophobia. While the results range from flat misfires to riotous genius, the relentless repetition of these set-ups amount to as much of a compulsive ritual as Wile E. Coyote’s pursuit of the Road Runner, and just as captivating in its flurried variations.
But unlike the Coyote’s Sisyphean purgatory of ambition-cum-self-torment, what gets Lewis enacts again and again is a spasmodic rebelliousness that champions the eternal wellspring of boy-like wonder. It’s a world where adult concerns for structure and story give way to childlike free play with objects in a seemingly elastic space. Something as rudimentary as narrative is regarded like a rigid schoolmarm that both threatens and gives form to Lewis’ playtime. And for all his undeniably male preoccupations with the terrifying spectre known as woman (in this instance, an entire house full of them), the fact that Lewis’ legendary million-dollar set amounts to a super-sized dollhouse suggests a boy who likes to play with dolls. The libido on display isn’t hurtling towards manhood; it’s actively resisting the obligation to fall into the pigeonhole of masculinity.
That said, there’s plenty of male scopophilia on display, with the two knockout musical numbers near the beginning and end expressing breathless pleasure at watching how women move, set to vivacious jazz. It surprises me that in all the articles I’ve dug up about Jerry Lewis and The Ladies Man, not once do I find a reference about Lewis possibly being the most jazz-informed filmmaker of his time. Again, it’s the sense of taking a bare-bones theme and freestyling it to the rafters, unafraid of hitting false notes (and there are not a few in this film) for the sake of striking golden ones (and there are not a few in this film). When Andrew Sarris complained that Lewis “never put one brilliant comedy from fade in to fade out,” he missed the point entirely. Being a Hollywood classicalist, Sarris couldn’t entertain the notion of a post-narrative comedy in the John Coltrane/Ornette Coleman era, where story comes second to the revelations of a spontaneous, inspired moment, as eruptive and unexpected as laughter itself.
Now, four decades later, Lewis’ filmmaking feels even more apropo to the digital age, when classical storytelling, both in Hollywood and the arthouse, is yielding to the impulse for immediacy that rules the day, for better (e.g. Public Enemies) or worse (e.g. Transformers). But championing The Ladies Man as a template for a Cinema of Our Time doesn’t mean we write a blank check to slack, formless filmmaking trying to catch cinematic moments with a torn butterfly net. Ultimately, The Ladies Man does have a profound reverence for form – though it’s not classical story form, but the form of the two-dimensional movie screen. Like a pre-Columbian cartographer, Lewis accepts that the world is flat, but he takes that and goes the distance with it, with brilliant gags that open up new pockets of space within the frame (i.e. falling through his “bunk” bed; the play with non-existent mirrors in the girl-crazed morning number; encased butterflies that come to life). Working within limitations, his revelations hint at limitless discoveries, as well as a few paradoxes. His megalomanical control of spatial and character interactions explodes into a comic free-for all. Likewise, he validates his auteur status, a self-proclaimed “total filmmaker,” by regressing wholeheartedly into a terminally narcissistic childhood.
WOULD YOU LIKE TO LEARN MORE?The following citations were counted towards the placement of The Ladies’ Man among the top 1000 films according to They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They?
Bettina Thienhaus, Steadycam (2007)
Hans-Dieter Delkus, Steadycam (2007)
Michael Althen, Steadycam (2007)
Charles Tesson, Nouvel Observateur: Best Films 1953-2002 (2002)
Jonathan Rosenbaum, Essential Cinema: Favourite 1,000 Films
Jonathan Rosenbaum, Alternative 100 American Movies (to the AFI
Jose Luis Guarner, Genre Favourites: Comedy (1993)
Slant Magazine, 100 Essential Films (2003-2007)
Various Critics, Book – 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die (2004)
They Shoot Pictures Recommended Films
“THE LADIES MAN,” with Jerry Lewis, needs more than just an apostrophe. As Mr. Lewis howls at one point during this color comedy from Paramount, “Boy, what a little imagination can do!” Boy! He can say that again.
Now, in all fairness to a frankly light-headed vehicle that dies on its feet, Mr. Lewis’ latest gets off to a fresh and really funny beginning. And offhand, especially after those early bright moments, it would certainly sound as promising as any Lewis package in a long time…
But after half an hour it all folds like a tent. The remainder of the picture, with everyone else firmly relegated to the background, has Mr. Lewis shuffling and stumbling in full view, as if he and the movie were merely improvising.
- Howard Thompson, The New York Times, July 13 1961
ABOUT THE PRODUCTION
The film’s greatest fame rests not in the slim script nor in the inventive set-pieces, but in the set itself: a massive construct that swallowed up two soundstages at the Paramount lot. Lewis the director shows remarkable patience as he slowly reveals the magnificent construction to the audience over the morning routine of the household. The camera glides from room to room and cranes down the staircase as the girls rise and make their way down to breakfast, the trickle of individuals gathering into a herd of females. Finally Herbert awakens, gawking at the magnificent mansion on his way downstairs while the camera (mounted on a camera crane so big it took up another soundstage) slowly pulls back to fill the screen with the sprawling four story set, a life-size dollhouse with cutaway walls revealing a warren of bedrooms and hallways.
More than merely a visual inspiration, it was an engineering marvel: 60 rooms, each wired for sound with built-in mikes and individually illuminated with hidden lights, on the largest indoor set built up to that time. It gave Lewis the freedom to choreograph action through multiple rooms and follow it with fluid, unbroken camerawork, or to pull back to show the hive of activity in the honeycomb of a house.
Lewis was so proud of his accomplishment that he posted a sign outside the stage door: “This is NOT a closed set.” He even erected bleachers for visitors to watch the shooting. “This was the film that Francis Ford Coppola visited,” remembers Lewis (Coppola was an intern at Paramount at the time). “He was on the set almost every day of the shoot. He loved the set, he loved the girls, he loved the idea, and he was enamored with what I did with the video assist and the shoot.” The video assist was a pioneering idea and Lewis was the first to make use of the technology on the film set. (Coppola took the video assist into the next generation when he brought video technology into his fledgling Zoetrope Studios decades later.) There was no videotape in 1961 but through the placement of monitors around the set, Lewis could see the camera eye while performing.
The ensemble scenes are choreographed (with the help of Bobby Van) as much as they are directed, with numerous scenes playing out wordlessly to the brassy swing soundtrack. Like much of the crew, composer Walter Scharf was a longtime Lewis collaborator and his energetic score helps set the pace and tone of the film. In one stand-out scene, a forbidden door opens into the all-white room of a seductive dancer who descends from the ceiling and as the walls expand and Harry James and his Orchestra perform on a balcony that doesn’t exist anywhere but in Lewis’ imagination. In another hilarious sequence, Herbert drives tough guy Buddy Lester into a quivering mass of jelly, creating a classic twist on the slow burn. Lester was subsequently cast as the bartender in the unforgettable Alaskan Polar Bear sequence of The Nutty Professor (1963).
Lewis bragged about the savings that his technological innovations brought to the ambitious production, but the film still finished over schedule and over budget, costing over $3 million. The set itself cost $1 million, according to Lewis. It was money well spent. American critics were (for the most part) impressed and the French were ecstatic. Yes, the cliché about the French proclaiming Lewis a genius was born here, but there is justification for the claim. While some may cringe at his spastic performance and baby-talk dialogue, it’s hard not to be awed by the technological leaps of this production, and at their best his gags delve in to the realm of the surreal last visited by the Marx Brothers.
- Sean Axmaker, Turner Classic Movies
It’s widely known Jerry Lewis hates to do multiple takes in his movies; if for no other reason, he feels it impedes the spontaneity of the work. This approach is very evident in The Ladies’ Man.
- There are frequent camera bobbles and hesitations as the operator fights to anticipate and follow the hyper comic.
- At the tail of a ballroom dance number, strangely coupling Herbert and dapper screen legend George Raft (as himself), Jerry takes off goofily around the set, leaving an unprepared spotlight technician with the actor in the dark.
- In the movie’s running gags involving a ferocious pet named Baby, Herbert drags a whole side of beef from the kitchen to the animal’s quarters. In the close-up, H. H. H. struggles to push the carcass through the doorway to the waiting beast, although we see Lewis is only pretending to hold the meat. His hands are empty, inadvertently caught in the picture.
- In a ballet sequence, clumsy, energetic Herbert prances with several ballerinas. He slips and takes a comedic pratfall. We see (but not hear) Jerry the director switch gears to yell “Cut!” to his crew at the same time a ballerina also falls down; his head jerks around to her in complete surprise. It’s obviously a blooper, but the ballerina’s stumble helps the scene, nonetheless.
I enjoy this looseness. What’s important to me, first and foremost, are the laughs. Everything else is secondary. Besides if Lewis had deleted all the blemishes, we might not have the funniest sequence in the movie.
Hard-faced character actor Buddy Lester appears as tough guy Willard C. Gainsborough (the “C” is for “Killer”). Willard intimidates Herbert, until our hero accidentally sits on the man’s hat. Herbert tries to repair the damage and reshape the brim after he places the hat on Willard’s head. Lester’s blank, exasperated facial expressions and delivery are hysterical as Jerry manipulates the hat and restyles the gangster’s hair into as many unflattering positions as possible.
The camera is shooting over Lewis’ shoulder, so we see most of this footage from the back of his head. The amazing thing to note is Lewis breaks character, cracking up at Lester’s performance. We see and hear Jerry snort as he struggles to continue with the scene. Then, regaining his composure, Herbert plucks a thread dangling on Willard’s forehead. He tells the man he’s removing the thread. Willard deadpans, “That’s my eyebrow.” Jerry goes off again, expels air through his nose in burps and blatantly turns his face further away from the camera in a desperate attempt to save the shot.
All of this action is quite hilarious — but, hey, we’re looking at an A-list major motion picture. What other director would be so bold as to include a crack-up outtake? And get away with it!
With Jerry, these blemishes are business as usual. One of his strongest lures as an entertainer is danger, not playing by the rules. His meteoric, literally overnight, rise to stardom and cultural sensation with former partner Dean Martin was heavily indebted to frequent breaking of the “fourth wall” between the performers and their audiences, wherein lurked the tantalizing promise and fulfillment of uproarious ad-libs and asides. This device alone made him a household name and put untold millions into his pocket.
- Mike Durrett, About.com
Let us look briefly at that extraordinary tour de force of mise en scene, The Ladies’ Man. Here, Jerry Lewis — Herbert Heebert — is kept prisoner in a spectacular set of his own making. He has built his maze, even employed video cameras behind the scenes (a Jerry Lewis invention) to spy on his every move. As in The Bellboy, he is here too a victim. But rather than being set in the swanky resort location of the Fontainebleau — the stomping grounds of Jerry Lewis the star — The Ladies’ Man occurs clearly on a Hollywood set. Were this a populist film, we would expect to find in the cross-sectioned set a representative sample of humanity. But this cross-section is uniquely “Lewisian” in being a glossy, plastic house full of aspiring performers (into which walks George Raft, as he does also in The Patsy, a film directly about Hollywood). Herbert Heebert compulsively remains on this set with these Hollywood people. He is even drawn to the lair of the ultimately dehumanized performer — the woman in black. He is, in short, a prisoner of his own fascination with this extraordinary make-believe world.
The Ladies’ Man shows Hollywood the trap once removed in the fictional context of Helen Welenmelon’s house/set. It is a gigantic distortion of reality, threatening to consume and destroy the mild-mannered guy who cannot leave it.
- Michael Stern, Bright Lights Film Journal
Anyone wondering why Lewis is often cited for his technical prowess with a camera and a crane need only look at The Ladies Man to determine the filmmaker’s dexterity with a dolly. Lewis’s lens moves in and out of his man-made half-mansion, passing around absent walls and shooting through glassless mirror frames to give the story a kind of crazy, fairytale quality. Combining primary colors with intricate artistic touches, The Ladies Man is a marvel to behold, a film rich in visual flair and even more powerful production value.
Combined with the massive amount of narrative and visual invention is that same old Lewis desire to entertain and enliven. There is very little dead space in The Ladies Man, as if the filmmaker was trying to cram as much craziness into the story as he could. From the hilarious joke names given to the cast (Herbert Heebert, Helen Wellenmellon) to the reliance on cameos (by the likes of George Raft, oddly enough) and that comedy mainstay, drag (Jerry is one fugly female as Herbert’s beloved “MA!”), this is a master class in old fashioned Hollywood hijinks. Add in the brilliant supporting performances (opera diva Helen Traubel is just terrific, as is Lewis regular Kathleen Freeman) and Jerry’s own unique brand on brainless mugging, and you’ve got a sight gag filled frenzy that barely lets us rest.
There will be some who point out that Lewis never gives us a clear set of characters here. Performances are driven by personality quirks (the quiet girl, the lazy girl, the eccentric girl, the musical girl) and that the comic’s typical overt sentimentalism is surprisingly kept in check. But the reality is that these are elements that actually make The Ladies Man a better movie. As long as we are centered on Herbert and his quest for perpetual bachelorhood, this film is a bright breeze of buffoonery. But the minute we drift off into to heart-tugging territory (for a couple of brief minutes at the end), the movie seems to go sour, if only for a second. It is this last-second dash for the melodramatic that keeps The Ladies Man from launching into a stratosphere of pure comic bliss. Unlike The Nutty Professor, which gave us a romance to root for in Professor Kelp and Ms. Purdy, Herbert has no such honey to hope for. Instead, he wants to avoid all the women in the hostel. So when Pat Stanley’s Fay finally makes her play, it’s far too little, way too late. Thankfully, Lewis avoids the obvious love affair to keep the film focused on the crazy and the crackpot. The result is something both sincere and very silly. Right up there with his best, more beloved works, The Ladies Man is pure, potent Jerry Lewis.
- Bill Gibron, DVD Verdict
It opens in a studio re-creation of tenuous order (“a very nervous little community”) razed by a daisy-chain of comic catastrophes — Jerry Lewis’s forthright declaration of modernism is further elucidated at the graduation-day assembly, a composition unsettled by the spazzing Jerry. As Herbert H. Heebert, he declares everlasting bachelorhood after seeing his beloved with another; Lewis on a red bus-stop bench wearing a gray suit that shows a good few inches of socks and cuffs is a grand sight, thrown into the world after a Freudian embrace from his mother (played by the total filmmaker himself). As if in danger of focusing exclusively on performance, Lewis rolls out his technical marvels: A jerky zoom that steers the protagonist towards the boarding house evolves into the tilt up Mona Freeman at the door and, finally, into the quicksilver floating crane that surveys the vast edifice as an ocean of femininity fills it. Herbert gazes at the 30 shapely occupants in horror, but the tears of the trilling owner (Helen Traubel) convince him to stay, next he’s being spoonfed porridge in a high chair. Buddy Lester supplies a fearsome deadpan under a crushed hat and George Raft flubs his coin-flip yet aces his tango, but the majority of the gags are aimed at the estrogen overflowing in every room, and only Fellini and Peckinpah can rival Lewis as artists working through their misogyny via their art. Even after its transparency as a movie set is foregrounded when the TV crew crashes its atrium, the boarding home remains a dollhouse of the mind, its screens-within-screens hiding audacious sexual routines — the offscreen, roaring pussy(cat) that splashes Herbert with milk and chews his offer of meat till there is only bone left, as well as the forbidden chamber where bat-laaaaaady Sylvia Lewis welcomes him with Gothic slinkiness and Harry James’s orchestra. Pat Stanley spells out the treacly moral (“how nice to be really needed”), but this masterwork of demasculinization hinges much more trenchantly on the subversive despair of the Lewis schnook, always “alone with noise.”
- Fernando F. Croce, Cinepassion
In a career with its fair share of public relations blunders, probably the most notorious faux pas made by Jerry Lewis was his 2000 proclamation that he has never liked any female comedians and that he considers women’s function in the general scheme of things “as a producing machine that brings babies in the world,” either the woeful words of a severely disillusioned man battling various physical and mental ailments or a misguided, Andy Kaufman-esque attempt at performance art stand-up. At any rate, the comment isn’t so radically out of step from the Jerry Lewis who made the masterpiece The Ladies’ Man, which even though it could undoubtedly be taken as a manifesto on machismo, also happens to be a bizarre, sexually ambiguous, cantankerously skeptical burlesque on the ascent of feminine independence and the resulting commodification of masculinity, especially of the domesticated variety.
Lewis stars as a disconnected graduate from Milltown (“a very nervous little community”) magnificently named Herbert H. Heebert (more than once, the shrill manner in which some of the female characters yell out his name ends up more closely resembling the epithet “pervert”). After discovering his girlfriend making out with a letterman, Lewis seems to regress on the spot into a total presexuality, an adolescent form of misogyny that dictates that he can’t be around women, period. (Ten minutes in, Lewis is already wallowing in a Freudian quagmire of repressed homosexuality, amplified by Lewis’s one-shot cameo in drag as his own mother.)
So where does he find his first job? In a women’s boarding house, naturally. Lewis (the director) effectively validates Herbert’s mistrust of women by having the boarding house’s owner, the regal Miss Wellenmellon (Helen Traubel), and maid, Katie (Kathleen Freeman), go out of their way to obfuscate the nature of their establishment during Herbert’s “job interview,” which consists mainly of an impromptu psychoanalytical session wherein Herbert gets his disappointment in women off his chest. (It’s worth noting that both women are portrayed as being emphatically past their sexual prime, so Herbert isn’t threatened.) They hire him and sneak him up to his room through the back hallways. It isn’t until the next morning that Lewis reveals not only the throng of 30 gorgeous women with whom Herbert will be sharing living space (the film’s on-screen universe), but also the mind-bogglingly immense dimensions of the ant-farm set that is meant to represent Wellenmellon’s mansion.
Lewis pulls the camera out as far as it will go while keeping the strutting lines of women in perspective, but he also cannily reveals the edges of the set to accentuate its artificiality, in effect showing the audience that the on-screen space isn’t meant to be taken concretely, but also as an extension of Herbert’s entrapped psychological state. There are basically two rooms that are emphatically privileged as “off-screen space,” the room in which Wellenmellon and her girls keep “Baby,” a roaring, unidentified creature (which almost surely represents its namesake: the consequences of heterosexual discovery), and a mysterious room belonging to a “Miss Cartilage” that Freeman nebbishly demands Herbert never enter.
- Eric Henderson, Slant
From its very first scene, depicting a mechanistic causality in which everyday life is figured as a linkage of moments of chaos and catastrophe, The Ladies Man signals its status as a calculated and rationally built object. Quickly, this depiction of the constructed nature of the narrative universe becomes a full-fledged self-reflexivity in the famous shot where, to a musical fanfare, the camera pulls back and reveals the ladies’ boarding house as a large-scale cutaway. The set manifests itself explicitly as a set: lateral to the camera, the rooms of the boardinghouse are sliced open so that we can see into each and every one of them at the same time. This set, legendary in its status in film history, speaks of the act of creation in several ways. First, obviously, its artificiality and unreality signal the constructed nature of this narrative universe: this is decidedly, emphatically, a set. Secondly, the resemblance of the set to a dollhouse resonates with the thematics of the latter: the dollhouse is a form of creativity in which its owner manipulates reality as a godly figure lording over a controlled universe. The dollhouse set of The Ladies Man speaks not only of the creation of its narrative world but of the omnipresence and even omnipotence of its creator, the auteur who generated this fictional universe.
In keeping with these larger functions of the cutaway set, the division of the boardinghouse into a series of individual rooms allows for a self-reflexive commentary on the nature of narrative. As Herbert enters each room, a new story, a new sketch, can begin and signal the constructed nature of all such scenes, the way they are called into being by a narrational agent. (The set here bears obvious comparison to one used by another famous director whose films are often also about the director as a veritable authoring god: the courtyard of Hitchcock’s Rear Window, where what Jeffries peers into is the world of narrativity itself, each window that is facing him a mini-story of life, love, or death.) Additionally, the multiplicity of rooms goes beyond narratological function to enable formal experimentation: each room has its own look, its own design, and its own coloration arranged according to unique and irreducible palettes. At the same time, it is important to note that each of the bedrooms reveals not any-story-whatsoever but stories or scenes specifically connected to a world of spectacle and showmanship, thereby signaling self-reflexively the film’s emphasis on a world of performance: for example, in one room a woman auditions for the theater, while in the strangest of rooms, Herbert dances with a batlike woman while a band plays hip music, all of this in a decor that is highly stylized, offering hyperaware commentary on its own constructedness. When, toward the end of the film, a TV crew comes to the boardinghouse to film a documentary, the self-reflexive function of the set comes full circle and we participate in a film filming a filming (with Herbert Heebert then mimicking Jerry Lewis when he looks through the viewfinder and plays with the sound-recording technology).
- Dana Polan, “Working Hard Hardly Working.” From Enfant Terrible! Jerry Lewis in American Film. Edited by Murray Provenance. NYU Press, 2002. Pages 219-220.
Two moments of fantasy in The Ladies Man are prime Lewis. In one scene, Herbert, dusting a living room, opens a case displaying a group of exotic butterflies, which take wing and vanish past the camera. Conscious of having done a bad thing, he whistles them back; miraculously they return to their places, and he shuts them back in their display case. This scene is a great metaphor both for the story of The Ladies Man and for Lewis’ own activity as a director: a discoverer of beauty, he animates beauty by beholding it, but this animation is loss, so he summons the beautiful objects back to their place and resolves to keep them there.
Later in The Ladies Man, Herbert enters the forbidden room of the mysterious Miss Cartilage (Sylvia Lewis). Within the artificial universe of the boarding house, this room is a universe unto itself, with its own all-white decor; it also has its own spatial laws, since it proves to contain not just Miss Cartilage’s bedroom but a vast ballroom with a bandstand, on which Harry James and his big band are gathered to give a private concert. Lewis reveals the ballroom to us by a cut that transforms not only space but costume: Herbert leaves one shot wearing his usual casual attire, to emerge in the next shot wearing a snazzy suit. The Miss Cartilage sequence encapsulates the whole film: a private episode for Herbert, self-contained and without antecedents or consequences in the narrative; a dangerous encounter with the figure of Sexual Woman, from which he has been in flight since his sweetheart’s traumatizing betrayal; and a fantasy in which he momentarily asserts a mastery of performance (and a slick wardrobe) not revealed in the rest of the film.
This fantasy reveals Lewis’ cinema as one of pure pleasure, expressed through the control of colour, decor and camera movement in a studio environment, and expressed also through dance and through the indulgence of his love of big-band swing (which features in many Lewis films, notably Cinderfella[1960, produced by Lewis and directed by Frank Tashlin], The Errand Boy and The Nutty Professor). In Lewis’ work in general, all these elements are linked to the free exercise of the imagination, and they point to a conception of film as a medium of transformation and escape, aligned with a tradition of Hollywood luxury and artistry – a conception that prevails from his first film, The Bellboy, to his last feature to date, Cracking Up.
The characters of The Ladies Man have no exit from the film’s world, and yet the exit is available at all times to the audience, who are granted the privilege of perceiving the constructedness of this world: it’s a stage set, a doll’s house, a charged space of libidinal drives surrounded by an emptiness that Lewis sometimes pulls his camera back far enough to let us see (as he nearly does again in the astonishing overhead crane shot in Kelp’s laboratory in The Nutty Professor – in which the camera reaches a distance hard to reconcile with the supposed real dimensions of the space, letting us know explicitly that this is a fantasy space, a movie set, a space of transformation).
- Chris Fujiwara, Senses of Cinema
In the films of Lewis, the carefully delineated narrative situations and conflicts that constitute the logic of the syntagmatic chain inevitably fall victim to a degeneration into a series of isolated sketches unrelated to the main narrative. The discursive operations of these films are dominated by digression and repetition, rather than by causal logic and narrative closure, and are thus more easily linked to the associational language of the patient than to the telos of the narrator. This tendency is most emergent in Lewis’ most “total” productions: the carefully prepared scenario of The Ladies Man, with gradually introduced characters, settings, and conflicts, disintegrates into a series of blackout sketches unrelated either through chains of causality or the impetus of narrative functions. In The Ladies Man, architectural structure replaces narrative structure, as the massive cutaway house (which is simultaneously open and closed) operates as the merest gesture of containment toward the multitude of frenetic actions taking place within.
- Andrew Horton, Comedy/Cinema/Theory. University of California Press, 1991. Pages 202-203
Jerry Lewis‘ second film as director is one of his greatest, with its star almost overwhelmed by his one major set, the split-level interior of a Hollywood boarding hotel for aspiring actresses, where one Herbert Heebert, practising misogynist, has been taken on in all innocence as a houseboy. Lewis’ camera performs some virtuoso movement around the rooms (Jean-Luc Godard and Julien Temple were to borrow this device), and the ultra-loose plotline allows for some hilarious sequences, and even a touch of surrealism in one entirely white interior. Highlights include Lewis breaking up a television show and dancing a tango with George Raft.
- David Thomson, Time Out Film Guide
Jerry Lewis conjured up one of his simplest concepts for this 1961 hit, but it required a lot of scaffolding. The Ladies Man puts love-scarred Jerry (who has sworn off women) in an all-girl boarding house, infuriated by the constant temptation. Except for the opening sequences, the film is entirely shot in the four-story-high, cut-away set of the boarding house, one of the most elaborate indoor sets ever made in Hollywood up to that time. Lewis, as director, finds dozens of angles to shoot within the set; this movie is one of the reasons the French are always talking about his directorial genius. (Jean-Luc Godard, who once called Lewis “the only one in Hollywood who’s doing something different, the only one who isn’t falling in with the established categories,” borrowed the cut-away building idea for his film Tout va bien.) There’s some great physical stuff, such as Lewis trying desperately to save the crushed hat of visiting tough guy Buddy Lester, plus a lot of Lewis vocal whining, especially concerning his name: Herbert Heebert, not Herby Heebert. The film has its share of gags falling flat, but for Lewis fans it’s prime stuff, not far from the high-water mark of The Nutty Professor.
–Robert Horton, Amazon.com
Never mind that The Ladies Man isn’t all that funny. (And to be fair, it’s much funnier than anything else so far in the Paramount collection.) A gag involving Herbert destroying a visiting boyfriend’s hat goes on so long and is so demeaning that your eyes pop out of your head, while a sequence involving a black-clad resident and her all-white apartment (with accompaniment by Harry James) is so deeply strange that you can’t believe it’s from the same guy who does that telethon every Labor Day. Colour is used sparingly but shockingly, and I swear that the wide shots of the cross-sectioned house were the inspiration for the opening of Tout va bien. For once, Lewis himself is calling attention to the jokes instead of himself, making even the de rigueur saccharine interludes inoffensive. Weirdo cineastes, your ship has come in; see this one twice for sure.
Jerry Lewis’ The Ladies Man (1961) is yet another work of genius, featuring Lewis as a girl-hating bachelor who winds up working in a boarding house packed with sexy, available young women. Most of this virtually plotless film is set in the astonishing three-story set with open walls and winding staircases and Lewis’ camera glides freely up and down, in and out all the rooms. Some of the gags go on too long, notably one in which Lewis deals with a tough guy gangster waiting for his girlfriend in the lobby, but others are pure delight. Lewis even plays a touching scene in which he cheers up one of the girls, depressed after a failed audition. As with The Nutty Professor, the richness of color makes this a visual feast.
- Jeffrey M. Anderson, Combustible Celluloid
The film ran out of gas well before the finish line, ending in Jerry’s usual sentimentality–this time he must get confirmed that all the gals really needed the nebbish around because he’s such a nice feller and not just to run errands. The episodic film had much energy early on and scored well, even though the gags were uneven, which showed me if you can reign Jerry in he could be funny without being too annoying. But for me, too much of Jerry is not a good thing; he does wear out his welcome, even in this above average Jerry film.
- Dennis Schwartz, Ozu’s Movie World
In Lewis’s work, identity is always performed; there is no private self, and an audience is always present. In The Ladies Man, Herbert refuses to believe guest star George Raft’s claim of who he is and demands that Raft prove his identity by, in effect, playing Raft. Lewis uses Raft as an ideal masculine image in order to show that the image is not just “only” an image but first and foremost an image, one that not only the Lewis character, but George Raft himself, has trouble living up to. Lewis’s direction of actors insists on an exaggeration that implies the awareness of an audience, suggesting that his characters (like those of John Cassavetes) are constantly involved in performances of themselves.
ABOUT THE DVD
Video & Audio
Originally printed by (though not filmed in) Technicolor, Paramount’s DVD of The Ladies Man looks very good, well above average, with great color and a sharp 16:9 anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1) image. The Dolby Digital mono sound is likewise very strong; English and Spanish subtitles are included, as well as an alternate French audio track.
- Stuart Galbraith IV, DVD Talk
Something of a disappointment on this disc is the remarkably dull commentary track from Jerry Lewis and Steve Lawrence. Lots of silent gaps (I think at one point they may have left), and the conversational tone is very, very low key, with Lewis interjecting very little of substance. A few bits of salient insight on the large supporting female cast, but overall a snoozer.
Under the heading of Archival Materials Paramount has gathered up a curious mix of old promotional and studio footage that while low on content is at least interesting to look at. Included is a pair of deleted scenes, including a nearly nine-minute opera selection from Helen Traubel that is played completely and utterly serious. There is also a shorter scene entitled “Jerry Rains Confetti on Girls” (01m:27s), in which the female cast gets a mountain of torn paper poured on them by a very spastic Lewis. Outtakes has a couple of pure space fillers in the form “Jerry Asks Helen About Opera” (01m:44s) and Jerry Demonstrates the High Chair (:53s), two bits of behind-the-scenes clips that are essentially pointless aside from getting a quick glimpse at Lewis the director. A fast-motion Construction of The Ladies Man Set (:54s) shows the creation of the memorable dollhouse set, and an MDA Public Service Announcement (01m:52s) that features the same locale with Lewis using a stopwatch to make a genuinely heartfelt 60-second plea. Dance Rehearsal (:37s) shows Lewis hoofing it with one his co-stars, while the Auditions segment has the on-set tests for Pat Stanley (01m:03s) and Sylvia Lewis (03m:28s).
- Rich Rosell, Digitally Obsessed
ABOUT JERRY LEWIS
Jerry Lewis’ favorite films, according to They Shoot Pictures Don’t They:
The Adventures of Robin Hood
An Affair to Remember
All About Eve
Breakfast at Tiffany’s
On the Waterfront
Shadow of a Doubt
Was there ever a man or movie star less ordinary than Jerry Lewis? Even among screen comics, he would win few votes if we were electing that personality who best incarnated the common man. His public image is that of a gargantuan mutant outgrowth of the hot-house borscht-belt world of stand-up comedy. Listed in critical ledgers as either a sanctimonious retardate or an inspired genius — or both — Jerry Lewis is clearly and self-consciously extraordinary. But somewhere between the infant-fool and the towering renaissance film-man (both images that Jerry Lewis himself has promoted) is the notion of Jerry Lewis the average guy. And central to an understanding of his work is the myth that threads its way through his films with Frank Tashlin in the mid-1950s, and is developed with parabolic dynamism in his first five self-directed films, from The Bellboythrough The Patsy. That is the myth of the ordinary man in an extraordinary world — more specifically, of Joseph Levitch in Hollywood.
Because he did learn so much during the 1950s, it is worth a brief examination of Lewis’ most fortuitous apprenticeship with Frank Tashlin. It is in Hollywood or Bust and Artists and Models, coming at the end of his partnership with Dean Martin and the start of his collaboration with Tashlin, that the dominant Jerry Lewis myth begins to clearly emerge. Jerry the simple idiot-boy of films like Scared Stiff orJumping Jacks starts to develop a self-consciousness. In Artists and Models he is — if only in his dreams — a creative comic book genius. And in Hollywood or Bust, the awareness he reveals of Dean Martin’s duplicity is not merely a revelation pulled from Tashlin’s hat. It is a sign (albeit still submerged) of an increasing self-awareness and distance from his stereotyped screen persona. Placed in Tashlin’s surreal universe, where everything is a caricature of itself, Jerry’s increased consciousness serves to reveal the world’s (Dean Martin’s) hypocrisy.
It is as commentaries on psychological dementia in the 1950s (bosom fixation, infantilism, obsession, regression, popular culture) that Tashlin’s films succeed where Jerry Lewis’ personal directorial efforts only tangentially venture. Although a wide range of socially determined targets is set up and blasted in Jerry Lewis’ movies, it is Jerry who becomes the center of interest and the raison d’etre of his own films.
The central, developing issue in the self-directed films, from The Bellboy through The Patsy, and even to Which Way to the Front?, is the main character’s attempted “normalization.” Each film is an elaborately choreographed movement around the problem of Jerry’s uncertain relationship to the world around him. It is revelatory to see this man’s grappling with his own being in each film in terms of the conflicting concepts of Jerry the ordinary guy — or extraordinary genius — in a Hollywood world of complete insincerity — or of noble aspiration. The complexity of the problem assumes schizophrenic dimensions when, in order to deal with the extremes of self-awe (for his genius) and self-hate (for his insincerity), as well as sanctimonious self-love (for his ordinary humanity), Jerry Lewis begins to spin off personalities — up to seven in The Family Jewels — each of which forms one perspective on the central structure of his films — the dilemma of a life-sized man trapped on the larger-than-life Hollywood movie screen.
- Michael Stern, Bright Lights Film Journal
In American Cinema, in a section titled “Make Way for the Clowns,” Sarris compared Lewis unfavorably to Blake Edwards, whose “The Pink Panther, A Shot in the Dark, and What Did You Do in the War, Daddy are funnier than all the Lewis-Tashlin movies.” Among the twelve reasons for his skepticism about Lewis’ “talent as a creator” Sarris listed that Lewis’ “aspirations exceed his ability;” that his work reveals a disjunction between a “verbal sophistication in nightclubs and sometimes on television and… [a] simpering simplemindedness on screen;” and that his comedy lacks “verbal wit” and appeals mainy to “audiences in the sticks and to ungenteel audiences in the verbal slums.” Sarris faulted Lewis for his weaknesses of narration and found “the feature length film an appropriate vehicle for farce,” also commenting that in Lewis’ remakes he has played “the innocent” with themes of “effeminacy and transvestitism.” Critical as well of Lewis’ “conformist, sentimental, and banal dialogue,” he suggested that “he has never put one brilliant comedy together from fade in to fade out.”
Gerald Mast wrote in The Comic Mind, “Jerry Lewis’ primary failure is that he never discovered who he was.” His gags “do not flow from any human or personal center” and he “cannot manage a plot.” In one sense Mast’s comments, and Sarris’ even more, are neither wrong nor arbitrary. Rather, they are indicative of the substitution of judgment for analysis. They stop at evaluation where they should begin with examination. As John Russell Taylor summed up “Anglo-Saxon” critics in the 1950s, “When they were not moralizing about the overstressed sexuality of Elvis Presley and the dangers of his effect on the young, [they] were likey to be tut-tutting about Jerry Lewis’ spastic humour and claiming that his moronic screen persona made cruel fun of the afflicted.”
The philosopher Gilles Deleuze has written eloquently on Lewis’ ingenious and unique contributions to the cinematic image, particularly pointing to the ways in which the comedian’s films can be seen to belong to the post-World War II regime of the “time-image.” Here, “the image no longer refers to a situation that is globalising and synthetic, but rather to one that is dispersive. The characters are multiple, with weak interferences and become principal or revert to being secondary.” This cinema of the time-image no longer expresses the character to determine and overcome situations. Instead, character and situations constantly splinter (as in a dream) and metamorphose into different perspectives and mlieux. Deleuze also sees Lewis taking up “the classic figure of American cinema, that of the Loser, of the born loser, whose definition is ‘he goes too far.’ But it is precisely in the burlesque dimension that this ‘too far’ becomes movement of a world which saves him and will make him a winner.” The new burlesque with which Deleuze associates Lewis belongs not to the Bergsonian comedy of the mechanical but to the electronic world: it “arises from the fact that the character places himself (involuntarily) on an energy band that carries him along… The comic is no longer something mechanical.” Lewis is situated not as a star, personality, or individual but as a process. In comparing Lewis’ films to those of Tati, Deleuze – like Bergson – seeks to identify the character of this new automatism that seems to transcend a national context. For him, Lewis becomes post-modern; his work precludes certain kinds of analysis (e.g., psychoanalysis) where unconscious motivation continues to play a role and reveals a dream world where boundaries between the real and imaginary dissolve. This regime of the time-image is symptomatic of a different form of cinema that exposes, if not undermines, the classical cinema of action and character of the pre-World War II era.
- Marcia Landy, “Jerry Agonistes.” From Enfant Terrible! Jerry Lewis in American Film. Edited by Murray Provenance. NYU Press, 2002. Pages 64, 64.
What is it, then, that Jerry Lewis contributed to show business? I wouldn’t deny that his ability to cause irritation is part of what he is doing as a comedian. Even back when I was a kid, Jerry’s funny voices and facial contortions had the rare power to drive my parents out of the room. What grated on them, as it still does on viewers today, was the relentless infantilism of Jerry’s act. Think of a small child’s short attention span, its underdeveloped motor skills, its manic hyperactivity, its lack of inner restraint, its inability to acknowledge the needs of others or to resign itself to deferred gratification. These are the very elements that make up Lewis’s comic persona. His slapstick routines have none of the grace and elegance that we find in the work of Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, or for that matter Jackie Chan. Instead, Lewis wallows in klutziness. He has a very strange relation to machines and other physical objects. The slightest touch is enough to make everything go awry. The effect is always wildly disproportionate to the cause. Jerry pushes a button, and triggers an alarm clock that won’t stop ringing. He pulls at a loose thread, and an entire fabric unravels. He sings a wrong note, and glass shatters everywhere. He takes a photo with a flashbulb, and night is suddenly transformed into day. I find these routines funny, but I suspect that they are also the very thing that many people find excruciating. Because they depend on a set-up in which everything is ever-so-slightly off. Lewis is a master of doing things just precisely at the wrong time. His body seems to flail about at random, triggering chain reactions of chaos in his surroundings. His personality, just like his body, has no center. Jerry is always teetering on the brink of complete disorganization.
All this is to say that Lewis’s humor has a high discomfort factor. Often I laugh, but just as often it makes me nervous. That Jerry is infantile also means that he’s excessive. Anything goes, without regard for norms of intelligence or taste. Even when Lewis has a good comic idea, you get the feeling he doesn’t know when to stop. He pushes everything just a little too far. This excess is not an artistic mistake; it’s the very point of Lewis’s act. Most comedians create a sort of magical world, in which their particular brand of insanity rules. Such is the case for film comedy on nearly every level, all the way from the Three Stooges to Woody Allen. Lewis is nearly alone as an exception to this rule. His persona is never able to rearrange the world to his own liking. As a result, you don’t get a sense of freedom from his films, the way you do, for instance, with the Marx Brothers or Monty Python. You never escape from that voice in the back of your mind that keeps on telling you how stupid this all is. There’s always an air of shame and embarrassment to Lewis’s films. The nerdy, wimpy Julius Kelp of The Nutty Professor can only escape his sense of inferiority by turning into something yet more obnoxious: the conceited bully Buddy Love. In Smorgasbord, Jerry’s character is so messed up and so incompetent that he cannot even kill himself successfully. The film’s a series of gags built around the fears and humiliations of an unsuccessful psychoanalytic treatment. But it is precisely this sense of discomfort, of being a square peg in a round hole, that Lewis’ comedy captures so successfully.
To note that the films of Jerry Lewis are a rich, pleasurable and endlessly fascinating meditation on their medium is to say little. With Lewis, it’s necessary to specify which medium. Film, of course; but this is a medium that Lewis’ work has changed and redefined – through such inventions as the video assist, which he introduced in 1960, and through the inventions of sound, image and performance that proliferate in his films. Then there’s the medium of selfhood; and as Lewis’ selfhood is public, intensely so, as well as private, his films meditate deeply on (and through) celebrity. He himself is a medium, a total one, to borrow the adjective he placed so significantly in the title of his book The Total Film-Maker, and no director has done more than Jerry Lewis to exploit the meaningful possibilities of that medium.
Isolating for commentary Lewis’ work as a director is no simple procedure. Complications arise, in part, from Lewis’ multiple status as actor, comic, entertainer, humanitarian, writer and producer; and trying to determine where Lewis leaves off in one of these roles and where he begins in the next can seem a pointless task. Merely establishing the corpus of Lewis’ directorial work is difficult. If we see (as much urges us to) the Martin and Lewis films, though signed Marshall, Walker, Taurog, Pevney or even Tashlin, as having been co-directed by Lewis, we can’t exclude the probability that Lewis also co-directed Martin and Lewis’ many appearances on The Colgate Comedy Hour. If we hear “direction” as synonymous with “authorship”, then Lewis is, by his own completely credible claim, the director of the duo, having come up with its formative conception (“a handsome man and a monkey”) and guided its development. Moreover, after the break-up of the team, Lewis exercised creative control over his innumerable film, television and stage projects at a level evidently deserving the name “directorial”, even though frequently the credit, and many of the functions, of director were delegated to others. Who will deny that Lewis is the creator of the Muscular Dystrophy Association Telethon which, despite advanced age and a raft of health problems, he continues to host every Labor Day? Is not then each Telethon part of Lewis’ directorial work?
- Chris Fujiwara, Senses of Cinema
Jerry Lewis was born into a world of cinema, of images that fascinated him. Brought as a performer and star to the place where films are made, he learned film as a child learns the ways of the world. Like a child, obsessed with finding out things, he took apart the toys he was given, trying to see what was inside them and how they worked. When he won the chance to direct his own films, he used the opportunity to launch a relentless examination of his own relationship with filmic and verbal language.
Taking his curtain call (in character as goofy Professor Kelp) in The Nutty Professor(1963), Lewis stumbles and falls into the camera lens. Lewis’s understanding of film is such that the lens is never merely a point in space, an abstract function that organizes images, or a metaphor for consciousness grasping the world. The lens is a physical thing, part of the great big mess of material existence. In The Family Jewels (1965), the photographer Julius (Lewis) repeatedly presses his finger onto the lens of his camera, to show his niece (Donna Butterworth) where she should look (“You’ll have a face full of fingers,” he even remarks). In The Bellboy (1960), Stanley (Lewis), realizing on entering a room that he is surrounded with female models in negligees, crosses to the foreground and prudishly covers the camera lens with the palm of his hand. In the ball sequence in One More Time (1970), the eruption of a long-suppressed sneeze causes Charlie (Sammy Davis Jr.) to lurch forward, Kelp-like, into the camera lens. The cut shows a reverse field where already—in the instant of the cut—the exaggerated force of Charlie’s sneeze has toppled a group of party guests, who slowly start picking themselves up from the floor, like the animated suits of armor in a magnificent gag in The Errand Boy (1961).
In all these scenes, Lewis is concerned with two fundamental questions of cinema: How to see? and What should be seen? He uncovers the logic that makes seeing aggression, the logic of the look that topples the object (like Kelp’s out-of-focus look in the bowling alley inThe Nutty Professor, when he mistakes a group of people for bowling pins) or of the object that topples the look (Herbert [Lewis] witnessing the infidelity of his beloved Fay in the graduation-day sequence of 1961′s The Ladies Man). The look confronting its object (taking or mistaking it, or being taken by it) is one of the basic structures of Lewis’s work, from which he forms spiraling long-term patterns of conflict, avoidance, and reversal, welcoming or ignoring contradiction, violating the premises of a scene or even a whole film in search of new experimental truths (as in the classic hat scene in The Ladies Man, the nightmarish Copa scene in 1964′s The Patsy, or throughout the breathtaking entirety of 1970′s Which Way to the Front?).
- Chris Fujiwara, The Moving Image Source
Lionized by the French critics as a comic auteur equal to Chaplin and Keaton, Jerry Lewis has seldom found much favor with critics in his own country. While other comedians such as Abbott & Costello (even The Three Stooges) who were similarly dismissed by contemporary reviewers but have since achieved a degree of artistic respectability—in some quarters, more than that—with the passage of time, Lewis has yet to experience such reappraisal. He remains more honored in Europe—especially France, although Germany and Spain have showered him with honors, too—than at home despite a career as prolific in its output as those of his more esteemed comic colleagues.
The reason for this may be that Lewis’s style of comedy—which, in its post-Dean Martin period, focused almost exclusively on Lewis himself, almost never the characters or events surrounding him—strikes people as self-indulgent, self-centered, even egotistical; this is a major turnoff, particularly to critics. Also, the screen character he created and lavished so much attention on—the child who never grew up, a mugging simpleton Lewis dubbed “the Kid”—is very much an acquired taste. Children, especially young tots, find the character amusingly simpatico. But many older viewers, from age 20 on, find it forced, grating, shallow, stupid, and excruciatingly witless.
—John McCarty, Film Reference.com
In 2003, in Bertolucci’s The Dreamers, there is a discussion on films between the French and American boys. At one point, the Frenchman says, “You Americans don’t understand your own culture. No wonder you never got the point of Jerry Lewis.” The American replies, “Don’t even get me started on Jerry Lewis.” This exchange crystallises the dichotomy that is supposed to exist between the attitudes of anglophones and francophones towards Jerry Lewis: American no-bullshit pragmatism v pretentious French theorising, or American philistinism v French enlightenment.
In fact, it was the critics of the influential magazine Cahiers du Cinema who first directed Americans’ attention to Lewis as an auteur. It was also this same magazine that alerted Americans to the value of their own directors such as Howard Hawks, Raoul Walsh and Nicholas Ray. Plus, it must be remembered that when Francois Truffaut’s extended interview of Alfred Hitchcock was published in 1967, the director, with his best work behind him, was greatly underrated especially by American critics. Gradually, perceptive American and English critics have begun belatedly to reassess and credit Lewis’s work.
As Gilbert Adair, who wrote the screenplay for The Dreamers, argued in his book Flickers, “For heaven’s sake, how can Jerry Lewis be Art? And yet exactly as if a Saturday Evening Post cover by Norman Rockwell were to be exhibited in the Prado, where its usurped prominence would take some getting used to, but once you have got used to it, why yes, yes! It didn’t seem at all incongruous beside the El Grecos and the Goyas and the Velasquezes.”
In 2006, Lewis was presented with the Legion d’Honneur in France on his 80h birthday. But, as the critic Jonathan Rosenbaum has written: “Lewis’s popularity in America is far greater than any French love of Lewis … American denial of the American love of Jerry Lewis is pathological.” In a way, Lewis receiving the Jean Hersholt award at the Oscars could be seen as a back-handed compliment rather than an honour.
It suggests that Lewis, who has never been even nominated for an Academy Award, is being recognised for his annual telethons rather than for the films that made him famous enough to do them in the first place.
- Ronald Bergan, The Guardian
Beneath the struggle to control body, speech, and desire, there exists in Lewis’ work an ongoing but finally failing struggle to control identity itself. Here lies the interest of the career of Jerry Lewis, in both its successes and failures. If the characteristic banality of Lewis’ rhetoric on “love” and “being a somebody” suggests the presence of a recuperative function (which perhaps reaches its apotheosis in Lewis’ role as a healing and uniting force on his annual telethon broadcast along the Love Network), a positivistic attempt to contain and define the subject then the maze of internal contradictions, displacements, and transformations that crosses these texts continually subverts such a function in a deeply and successfully ambivalent manner…
It is now a staple of cinematic theorization that the movie screen serves as a Lacanian mirror, providing the spectator with an ego-ideal. Our experience before this mirror reassures and resituates us at the perfect center of a stable world. The Lewis film, it should now be clear, often presents something quite different, and perhaps it is here that the American resistance to Lewis (text and figure) has its genesis. Jerry, far from the idealized and coherent self we are encouraged to see, is instead more closely aligned with the image of the infant, as Lacan put it, “still sunk in his motor incapacity and nursling dependence.” An image of motor incapacity, sexual ambiguity, and unfixed identity: surely these are the precise phenomena that must be denied by the ego craving reinforcement. And so the spectators are palced in the radical position of searching into the mirror’s depths, only to find reflected back the incoherent and fragmented, multiplied yet elusive image of Jerry Lewis.
- Andrew Horton, Comedy/Cinema/Theory. University of California Press, 1991. Pages 202-203
Though he has long been chided for being abrasive and egomaniacal, Lewis can be uncommonly gracious and outgoing. He has finally reached that stage in his career when he can reflect and inspire others to do the same.
“From 1936 on,” he explains, “I have taken more falls than any other 20 comedians put together. From the time I was 21, I’ve taken them on everything from clay courts to cement to wood floors, coming off pianos, going out a two-story window, landing on Dean, falling into the rough. You do that and you’re gonna have problems. I had pain during the last eight films; I’ve had pain in 37 straight telethons. I’ve never had a day without pain since March 20, 1965.”
That’s when he took a professional fall that chipped a piece of his spine “that would have paralyzed me if it had been another 15th or 16th of an inch.” As it was, the chip led to a much-publicized Percodan addiction at its worst in the early ’70s — and more recently a domino effect of afflictions, including nerve damage and the pulmonary fibrosis that has mandated his taking of the steroid prednisone. The drug contributed to his 45-pound weight gain. Lewis says his longtime friend, famed heart surgeon Michael DeBakey, calls prednisone the “greatest worst drug in America.” This is all atop past double-bypass surgery, prostate cancer, spinal meningitis and pneumonia.something like a TV remote. Manufactured by Minneapolis-based Medtronic, it’s the controlling component of a surgically inserted battery pack that one can see vaguely outlined in his left side when he lifts up his shirt. (“I hate to show you this because I’m so fat,” he says, “but look — see it?”)
Doctors cut bone out of his spine and replaced it with two large electrodes. From the battery pack, he says, “the two electrical leads lock in and are naturally covered with scar tissue. I’m sitting here in pain, but in a minute, I’m not going to have it. When I turn it on like that (beep), I’m vibrating like a vibrator within my skin. I raise the level if it’s not working totally. … I’ve had no pain since April 20.
“It also opens my garage,” he deadpans.
Earlier in the conversation, Lewis has been asked to name the biggest misconception people have of him. The question throws him, but later he returns to it. He doesn’t quite answer it head-on, but what he says reveals something about the struggle to be a professional child but also an adult.
“My misconception,” he explains, “is that I want you to remember I’m a monkey and that Martin and Lewis were ‘sex and slapstick’ unequivocally. That’s my title, I wrote it. But Jesus, both men can have sensitivity, a brain, a point of view and certainly a component that made them say, ‘I am here and pay attention.’ All that is gone if you’re a monkey with a banana on a chandelier. That’s the misconception that bothers me. I’ll be the monkey if you want. But you asked to meet the man, so I’ll give you what you want.”
Did this confuse the public for a while?
“Of course. Terrible confusion. Because when I would be myself, I was being big-headed. I was being egotistical. I was a megalomaniac, when it really was just having not to be a monkey for a few hours a day. And fulfilling the need to be a man.”
- Mike Clark, USA Today
Jerry Lewis on Charlie Rose, March 17, 1995
A few years ago, I thought I might open a chain of eulogy stores where you could go in off the street and, for twenty bucks, they’ll tell you all the nice things they’re going to say about you after you croak.But I don’t want people to say wonderful things about me when I can’t hear them. Tell me now, while I’m still here.
- Lewis, Interviewed by Amy Wallace, Esquire, December 31, 2005