Family vacation, 1963. Never mind how old I was. It’s raining and my parents decide to take the kids to a movie. Now playing: “The Nutty Professor.” I was scared by the poster, which pictured a beautiful woman being menaced by a shadowy figure. “What did he become?” the poster warned. “What kind of monster?” But my father reassured me. “That’s Jerry Lewis,” he said.. “And if Jerry Lewis is in it, it’s going to be funny.”
Jerry Lewis turns 90 today. He is one of the last of the great 20th century show business legends whose career spanned the breeding ground of the Catskill Mountain resorts, radio, movies, television and even Broadway. Lewis, with partner Dean Martin and in his solo films, was for two decades one of America’s biggest box office stars and Paramount Studios’ bread and butter. But American critics tended to dismiss him and his slapstick romps. “Pauline Kael, she’s never said a good thing about me,” Lewis told Dick Cavett in an interview (Not quite true, In her review of “The Nutty Professor,” which is generally acknowledged to be his masterpiece, she praises scenes that “can hold their own with the classic silent comedies”).
The French? You know the joke; Different story. The Cahier du Cinema crowd recognized his genius. No less than Jean-Luc Godard, when he was a critic, wrote that Lewis was better than Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. Check out the French comedy, “Pardon Mon Affaire” (the inspiration for “The Woman in Red”). The scene in which the milquetoast husband transforms himself into a swinger is a shot-for-shot homage to Buddy Love’s entrance in “Professor.”
It is only late in life that Lewis has gotten the recognition and respect so long denied him. Perhaps it started with his revelatory dramatic performance in Martin Scorsese’s “The King of Comedy,” for which he was criminally not even nominated for an Oscar. Critics praised his acting, which Lewis thought was hysterical. “What did they think I’ve been doing all these years?” he asked a biographer.
In the years since, there have been other career highs (an arc on “Wiseguy,” an instant classic episode of “Mad about You”). He received the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award from the Academy (presented by Eddie Murphy) and has been the recipient of life achievement awards and film retrospectives. New York’s august Museum of Modern Art just completed its tribute, “Happy Birthday, Mr. Lewis: The Kid Turns 90.” Curator Dave Kehr wrote in 2004, “Is it finally time to stop with the French-love-him jokes and acknowledge that Jerry Lewis is one of the great American filmmakers?"
All that is academic. I remember growing up with the Kid, as his character came to be called (aka the Idiot, or as the French say, Le idiot). I was a big fan of the Three Stooges and the silly Bing Crosby-Bob Hope “Road” movies, but the Lewis screen persona was even more relatable than the child-like Stan Laurel. With nerdish names like Stanley, Melvin and Herbert, Lewis’s characters were naïve, well-meaning, clumsy, prone to spastic bouts of excitement, and socially awkward. I could relate. But his greatest appeal, as he would say in later years, was that he got paid for doing what children got punished for. And children love that.
Happy birthday, Jerry. He’s considered an elder statesman now, but it is heartening to see in recent appearances that even at 90, he hasn’t outgrown the Kid. And that’s reassuring for someone who is about to turn…well, never mind how old I am.