Jerry Lewis Wins an Oscar at Last

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Alan Band / Keystone / Getty

Jerry Lewis in The Nutty Professor

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The two clicked immediately. In less than a year, they were earning $30,000 a week at Manhattan's Copacabana night club. In live appearances at movie theaters they stoked ardor of Beatles intensity. But it was on the infant medium of TV that Martin and Lewis were awesome. Their appearances on NBC's Colgate Comedy Hour made the viewer a co-conspirator in their anarchy; they broke the "fourth wall" as blithely as if it were a cardboard prop, and incorporated their famous arguments into gag lyrics for their duets. Their jokes became instant catchphrases, like the running gag where Jerry would hand Dean an ice cream cone and then plead, almost bray, "But doooooon' lick it!"

Some of this got into the 16 movies they made together in eight years. At their infrequent best, they had the sharpest mixture of foolery and character of all movie comedy teams. In the 1951 Sailor Beware, Jer has been suckered into boxing a much bigger guy. Dean, the kid's trainer, dispenses pre-fight advice (with many sly slaps to the gut and face) while Jer does such an acute impersonation of a punch-drunk pugilist that the tough guy and his team are scared away. In their seemingly artless but perfectly timed badinage, the two are slick, robust and funny funny funny.

Seen today, their work, especially on TV, is startling not just for its inventiveness but for its almost erotic intensity. They worked literally nose to nose: Jerry would snuggle into Dean's shoulder; Dean would flick his cigarette ashes in Jerry's mouth (and lick Jer's face). It was primal therapy on the 12-inch screen, stripping bare a volatile marriage in all its grotesque intimacy — a bizarre comic display of love and resentment. No way it could last. In 1956, 10 years to the day after they had first paid, Martin and Lewis split, In a decade of famous divorces, this was the most seismic.

The Nutty Director

Lewis the solo movie star quickly found a comedy mentor: Frank Tashlin, whom Jer will surely thank tonight. A writer-director who had worked on some of the best wartime Warner Bros. animated shorts, Tashlin made his mark in feature films by turning such pliable stars as Bob Hope and Jayne Mansfield into, essentially, cartoon characters. Lewis, already rubberized, was the ideal clay for Tashlin to mold, stretch and cheerfully mutilate; he directed two Martin-and-Lewis comedies, six more just with Jer, Geisha Boy and Cinderfella being the ones fizziest with anarchic ideas.

On his own as a director, Lewis put on film some of the most complex comic constructions — The Ladies' Man's open, multi-story set, The Bellboy's plot-ignoring series of sight gags (with Jer as the unspeaking hotel employee) — since the early masterpieces of Buster Keaton. Where Lewis went wrong was in also trying to be Charlie Chaplin: laying on the ennobling sentiment, but with a trowel. What the movies lacked was an audience interlocutor; without a figure like Dean Martin, viewers could laugh at Jerry but not always root for him.

Some say Martin showed up in Lewis's most coherent film, The Nutty Professor, in 1963. A vamp on the Jekyll-Hyde story, it has Jer as ultra-nerd Julius Kelp, who sports goofy bangs (the following year they'd be cool, when the Beatles wore them), prominent teeth, and thick glasses — your basic Mo Rocca look. In love with adorable student Stella Stevens, Julius evolves chemically into Buddy Love, a stud crooner with hair glistening like a patent leather handbag. But this doppelganger was not the lush, uncaring satyr Dino (Martin played that role the following year in Billy Wilder's Kiss Me, Stupid). No, Buddy was more likely the Jerry Lewis id: the imperious, demanding, borderline-obnoxious personality Lewis displayed the same year on his short-lived, low-rated ABC variety show.

In the late '60s, Lewis's film popularity waned. In his 40s, he had not found a maturer version of the crazy kid audiences had once loved. The low point came in 1972, when he starred in and directed The Day the Clown Cried, a sort of Bozo at Auschwitz drama that was never released and remains a very tantalizing lost film. Comedian Harry Shearer — whose report on the 1976 Telethon is one of the finest pieces written on Lewis, and who may have seen the movie — described it as "the Holocaust on black velvet." In what must be another painful twist for Lewis, Roberto Benigni did the same shtick in 1998, starring in and directing Life Is Beautiful and won a Best Actor Oscar for it.

Jer, we sympathize; we admire; we're grateful. Your career has been a magnificent, traumatic ride, for you and the people who worked with you. And tonight, even if it's not the one you deserve, you finally got an Oscar. Hold that statuette with pride. But don't lick it.

See Richard Corliss's Guide to the Oscars.

Read "Best Actress: Kate Winslet's Moment."

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