Sunday, November 19, 2017
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Hollywood lost a serious filmmaker in Jerry Lewis

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The day the clown died, Hollywood lost a serious filmmaker in Jerry Lewis.

Laugh if you wish. It would be the first laugh Mr. Lewis never earned.

When Mr. Lewis passed away Sunday in Las Vegas at age 91, comedians hailed him as a vital influence. Memorials understandably focused on his phenomenal pairings with Dean Martin and the Muscular Dystrophy Association, raising more than $1.5 billion over decades of Labor Day telethons.

Let's not forget the cinema genius drowned out by "Hey laaaady!" and teary versions of You'll Never Walk Alone. Numbers don't tell the whole story.

True, Mr. Lewis directed only 14 movies including the notoriously unreleased 1972 drama The Day the Clown Cried, set in a World War II concentration camp. The lone print remains locked in a vault, rarely shown and ridiculed each time.

1963's The Nutty Professor is Mr. Lewis' sole bona fide comedy classic, sneaking into the American Film Institute's Top 100 ranking at No. 99. His slapstick adventures were consistently among their year's top grossers until Hollywood and audiences matured during the counterculture era of Easy Rider and The Graduate.

Mr. Lewis told me as much in 2009, before a Clearwater concert date.

"The comedy creative process is battling everything that's happening with the world," he said. "You can't tiptoe like a kitten when you just had a g--d--- Bengal tiger do the joke. You really have to look at what's happening outside. There is such a speed with which the technology is moving that I think wonderful things are being missed, not acknowledged, taken for granted. But this is the same thing that happened when we went from silent (movies) to sound. Same thing. Now that sound is in, that's dead? It depends on the culture, what's happened in the world today. One has a tremendous impact on the other and always has."

Still, Mr. Lewis' innovation and audacity resonate in an industry that eventually left him behind.

He's the thinker who literally taught Spielberg, Scorsese and Bogdanovich in USC film school, then turned 480 hours of lecture recordings into a director's bible. The Total Film-Maker has been out of print for decades yet is always in demand, snatching hundreds of dollars per copy. "It's mandatory teaching in Europe," Mr. Lewis told me.

He's the visionary who perfected an indispensable on-set tool, the video playback assist system. Mr. Lewis' claim to have invented the idea of attaching video monitors to cameras is arguable — other patents exist — but he made the system's an efficient staple of production.

He's the studio-system-buster modern highest-paid actors like Emma Stone and Mark Wahlberg can thank. Mr. Lewis parlayed his post-Martin popularity into a $10 million Paramount Pictures contract giving him total creative control, an unheard-of price for unprecedented clout.

On top of that, 30 years later, complete ownership of his Paramount movies were turned over to Mr. Lewis. Artists would love that perk in today's streaming video environment.

At Paramount, Mr. Lewis used his clout in cutting edge fashion, employing new twists on conventional pan and crane shots. For 1961's The Ladies Man, Mr. Lewis constructed a four-story, dollhouse-style set to resemble a mansion boarding house for young women. The $375,000 price tag was then largest-ever for a comedy.

On both sides of the camera, Mr. Lewis was a trailblazer. We spoke in 2009 a few weeks after he accepted an honorary Academy Award, not for his movies but for his humanitarian work. Mr. Lewis insisted otherwise, but the difference seemed to matter.

"I didn't think it was wrong; it was right," he said. "I worked very hard to be recognized and they recognized me. A lot of people thought it should've been sooner but, you know. If it never happened nobody would've thought anything. My recognition in film festivals around the world could never, ever compare to what one mention from (the Academy) would've been."

Maybe it's time for the Oscars to get serious about Jerry Lewis.

Contact Steve Persall at spersall@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.

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