The last time Jerry Lewis appeared on the Oscars was 50 years ago, as one of the hosts of the 1959 show. In the three years since he and Dean Martin had ended their partnership as the country’s all-time hottest comedy team, each had established successful a solo career: Martin as a dramatic actor in The Young Lions, Some Came Running and Rio Bravo, Lewis in the popular farces Rock-a-Bye Baby and The Geisha Boy. Each man had recorded hit singles, headlined in Vegas, guested on many TV shows. Lewis had also emceed the Oscar event twice before, with wit and dignity and without incident.
The April 6, 1959, broadcast had moved smoothly too smoothly, it turned out up to the closing number: a group sing of “There’s No Business Like Show Business” by dozens of the movie elite, including James Cagney, Bette Davis, Cary Grant, Rock Hudson, Doris Day, John Wayne and Elizabeth Taylor. As they concluded, someone noticed that the show had run 20 minutes short. Cued from the wings, Lewis shouted to the group, “Another 20 times!” Some of the stars danced in couples; others wandered offstage. As the tone grew tenser, Jer announced “We’re showing Three Stooges shorts to cheer up the losers.” He grabbed the baton from musical director Lionel Newman and led the orchestra, ad-libbing, “We may get a bar mitzvah out of this!” The Pantages Theatre audience was already heading for the exits.
NBC finally euthanized the show and filled the remaining airtime with a sports documentary on pistol shooting. Until Nixon’s 18-1/2, Lewis’s 20 were the minutes that lived in pop-culture infamy. Catastrophe would be one way to describe it. Another would be great live television the spectacle of tuxedoed Hollywood pratfalling into humiliation, and handing the banana peel of blame to the one man who tried to keep the viewers entertained. But Jer must have done something right: it was the second-highest rated show in Oscar history.
Tonight, after a mere five decades in the doghouse, after some 50 movies as a star and 13 as a writer-director, Lewis, 82, is being allowed back onstage. He’s getting an Oscar, and, wouldn’t you know, it’s the wrong one. The Motion Picture Academy is giving him the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award an honor recognizing charity work, and given more frequently to producers than to actors. Lewis’s commitment as a spokesman for the Muscular Dystrophy Association, notably in the 19-hour MDA telethon he fronts each Labor Day, has certainly earned him a hearty Hollywood thank-you. But it’s a minor token, almost an insult, to one of the wildest, most imaginative comic talents in any medium and, without question, the definitive showbiz ego of the mid-20th century.
He surely merits one of those Life Achievement Awards the Academy passes out to distinguished film folk who never won a competitive Oscar and might die soon. The slur stings any Jerry Lewis fan especially Jerry Lewis. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Lewis explained the hurt: “Because they didn’t think enough of my work. Because what I did didn’t command consideration because it’s slapstick, because it’s lowbrow, because the Academy’s always been cautious about comedy.”
It’s a measure of his lingering impact that Hollywood is still embarrassed by the very idea of Jerry Lewis, let alone his presence. To the graybeards at the Academy, Jer is not only the demolisher of Oscar’s gravitas but the unkillable specter of his first eminence, in the late ’40s and ’50s, as the goony kid prancing around the cool crooner. . He is the comic whose genius, or even the robust grosses of his movies, nobody in Hollywood took seriously. And because he was championed as an auteur in the pages of Cahiers du Cinema, Lewis’s detractors have made him the derisive punch line to every joke about the French that came after postcards and before Freedom Fries.
That’s so small of them. Lewis deserves an armful of awards as a gifted, if problematic, creator of his ’60s movie comedies and, even more, as the idiot personality and the brilliant creative force behind Martin and Lewis.
The Organ Grinder and the Monkey
Comedy duos had been a staple of vaudeville and movies; in 1942, theater exhibitors voted Bud Abbott and Lou Costello the No. 1 “star” in Hollywood. What Lewis saw in Martin, when they first teamed up in 1946, was something unique: a sexpot straight man, a perfect complement to Jer’s goony girly-boy. Dean was Lewis’s public enabler; by acting as the imperturbable wall against which the kid’s maniacal energy kept bouncing, he translated Jer to the mainstream audience.