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Thursday, December 15th, 2005


Dean and Me: A Love Story

by Jerry Lewis and James Kaplan

Buddy Love

A review by David Thomson

Andrew Sarris once said of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis that they possessed "incomparable incompatability." He remembered the night they chased Hope and Crosby off the stage as "rotting royalty being overthrown by the new Zanies." And in those days, when their humor bristled with wordplay and surrealism as well as slapstick, they were like be-bop dismissing swing. It is still the case that the best of their TV show, The Colgate Comedy Hour, is as bracing as the new jazz. Still, were they lovable?

American history is filled with double acts in which the legend of "love" or kinship actually smothered real-life hostilities, or differences, that were as vital to the "team" as any daft togetherness. Groucho, Chico, and Harpo were brothers who seemed purpose-made to offer one another an early view of hell. And if the classic vaudeville pairing of two opposite guys was a reference to the fantastic mismatches that could be made on the frontier, at land or at sea -- think Ishmael and Queequeg, Lewis and Clark, Mantle and Maris, JFK and LBJ -- still the eternal mishaps and misunderstandings of the two guys was an intimation of that domestic bond so full of natural disasters, the one called marriage. And you cannot watch or think about Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello, or Dean and Jerry for long without recognizing the no-man's-land solution to human need and loneliness known as marriage. Why does the gay section of society want to get in on it?

I saw Jerry Lewis the other night, onstage at the Herbst Theatre in San Francisco. He is promoting this book, but he is also using it as an excuse to get his necessary diet of audience. He is nearly eighty, and you can tell that he has had all manner of things wrong with him -- not least a time when he was doing thirteen Percodans a day. Don't try that yourself, at least not unless you were raised on eight stage shows a day with Dean Martin at the Paramount in the late 1940s. Lewis does not look or act eighty. You can believe his credo that one good laugh a day will extend your life. And it is clear that he is still such a domineering perfectionist about playing his character (the one called Jerry Lewis) and being liked, that he could talk for hours about his "love story" and not necessarily trouble the truth.

No, he is not lying. He is a man who still weeps for every kid with muscular dystrophy. His sincerity is a raging fever that no drug can touch. He is a strange, frightening creature, a clown who never stops thinking about the mechanics of that art, a guy who still has a firm grip on the nine-year-old in himself and has this parable for his own life: you have to be very sane to keep control of the crazy kid in you. In his case, control, or sanity, is a matter of unhindered egotism.

It is easy to believe that little Joseph Levitch, born in Newark, New Jersey in 1926, was an ugly kid, a nerd, or, as he likes to say, a monkey. Not really so. He was a kid who had grown up making idiot faces in order to get laughs (or attention). Whether or not he is handsome, he certainly can be ordinary looking -- remember his Jerry Langford in The King of Comedy, where he is stoically bland next to Robert De Niro's demented Rupert Pupkin. Or recall Lewis as he was for a few seasons in the television series Wiseguy. He can act in an interesting yet restrained way, even if he never had an ounce of Dino's charm. He once thought of playing Holden Caulfield.

Lewis was and remains a business. It is extraordinary to realize how much money he and Martin made in the 1940s and 1950s -- about $5 million a year each, with gambling debts to match; and how far Lewis went as an auteur in the movie business, at the very moment when comedy was waning. Asked about the pinky ring he used to wear all the time, he admits it was a sign of wealth. I saw him once walking down a corridor at a big movie studio, and the walk -- it was less a swagger than the gait of unimpeded ownership -- said it all. Jerry always got show business, and he nearly had it all.

As for Dean Martin -- well, if Lewis was Butch Cassidy, helplessly full of ideas, Martin was Sundance, effortlessly magnetic to women, not just cool but chilled, and chronically out of love with himself, the world, and the thing called show business popularity. I don't know that Jerry ever saw it, but Dean -- despite his sleepy good looks -- was the crippled kid who had decided to die. Lewis thinks that the fatalism set in only when Martin's son, Dean Jr., died in 1987. (Dean himself died eight years later.)

But the fatalism was there the first time anyone saw Dino Crocetti, born in Steubenville, Ohio in 1917. One of the many really scary things glimpsed in Nick Tosches's Dino, a great book that appeared in 1992, is that Martin liked nothing better in life than sitting around in gloomy silence with the mobster Johnny Roselli. Roselli, who washed up on a Florida shore one day, cut in pieces and jammed in an oil drum, was also a man who knew he knew too much to last, an Italian dandy, a made man and someone who had seen the heart of darkness (and had arranged some of its worst floor shows).

The best part of Lewis's new book -- which sounds like him: a tribute to James Kaplan's ghosting -- is those early years when the two kids met and fell in love. Or so Jerry believes. Lewis was the son of vaudevillians. His parents loved him, he says, but if he wanted to see them he had to be part of their stage act. It's not an unusual story; Buster Keaton was thrown about like a rag doll as a kid and that stricken face may have come from giving up wondering whether a parent would catch him, or take the big guffaw as the doll vanished into the wings. It is clear that Lewis fell upon Martin with great emotional need. He craved an older brother, a handsome ladykiller -- and Lewis also admits that even with the crewcut, the glasses, and the "Hey, lady!" whine, as well as a pregnant wife, he was a guy who looked at every passing woman until his neck stretched. There was no need for a romantic contest or an infidelity challenge cup. Martin and Lewis lapped up the money and the groupies as they spun their daring routines at the nightclubs.

And they clicked. They were very postwar: they could have been a couple of guys who met at Anzio or Iwo Jima. They were very modern, and to prove it they took on the big new thing in serious acting: improv. They had a skeleton script for their act, but they danced on its bones and they trusted each other enough to go with the moment -- sometimes for hours. I'm sure that Lewis is right: audiences laughed and liked them because they felt the inner trust that sustained the act.

Lewis now says that he always noticed the "innate" comedy in Martin, and the way in which his casual straight man was the backbone of the act, the rock of reliability without which audiences might have been truly afraid of chaos. Maybe. There are other accounts that remark on the unavoidable way in which Jerry's busyness was bound to grate on Dean's ease. If you think of them as Lewis and Clark, Jerry was a hawkeye professional comic who never saw a tree or a bend in the river that he didn't identify as a potential fan in his great journey of exploration. Chop that tree down, make it laugh. Whereas Dean knew that everything had been seen and found or mapped and milked already. Nothing mattered for him. He was a very quick study. His comic timing was masterful. He was good-looking, and he could sing a little. But he was someone who had made laziness the chief virtue or explanation in life. On his dying bed, Jerry will be agonizing over which get-off line to use. Dean let the night's silence sink in very early.

It was when they did movies, I think, that the gulf widened and their comedy coarsened. Onstage, in clubs, on live television, Lewis's antics were pointless without a still, bemused, good-natured center of gravity. It is worth stressing that years later Martin did hold together a very good television variety show, whereas Lewis can rapidly become unbearable as a solo act. The rant is always waiting in Jerry's voice, along with the sanctimony and the self-pity: you can see all this at the telethon, a noble event that has done more than anything else to darken the name of charity.

Lewis recalls that as they began to do movies at Paramount, they came under the fatal control of executive producer Hal Wallis, a giant reputation (he had handled many Warner Brothers pictures in the 1930s and early 1940s) but a man happier with drama than humor. Wallis believed far more in Lewis than in Martin. He thought that Jerry was the guaranteed formula of a string of films. Lewis says that it was Wallis and Paramount that began to give less credit and screen time to Martin, until even the coolest guy alive felt irritated.

You had to be there, I guess, to feel what happened -- and even then you have to note that the partnership flourished for ten years and sixteen movies. But Lewis had an engineer-like mind for comic routines that led him into natural talks with writers, designers, and directors. Martin preferred to turn up and do the job. Lewis was taking the pictures over and working his way toward being a director. He was also earning a reputation for astonishing arrogance with his co-workers. Everything had to be right, or the way Jerry saw it. A lot of bad manners resulted from that drive or ambition, and it culminates in the films Jerry made as a director, after Dean had moved on.

It is still a famous canard that these films are so awful that only the French adore them. But believe me, the pantheon of American cinema owes an enormous debt to French critical judgments, to their loving rescue of figures whom America was ready to pass over. Lewis's films are cold and sentimental at the same time, and they are often just a series of gags and routines; but they are brilliant. It is not an idle boast when he says that he could do every job on a film set: his technical knowledge was immense. To hear him talk about the delicate business of taking a few frames out of a filmed gag so that it will work is to come close to the very heart of film. And Lewis worked furiously hard on his movies, including those they made together, while Martin treated the threat of the strenuous or the committed as if they were un-American affectations.

The breakup was inevitable. That it came so late may have unduly exacerbated the hurt feelings, but that is no reason to claim that love had been offended, or lost. Even so, when you see Lewis it doesn't take long for the autocrat to appear. After he talked to Roy Eisenhardt at the Herbst the other day, the lights came up and questions followed from the amiable crowd. But he had trouble seeing where the questioners were, or waiting for the radio mike to move around -- and then you heard the snarl and saw the impatience that made him a hard taskmaster on films.

But it all worked out. Jerry had a humpback load of his own films to deliver, and he would turn the telethon into an American ordeal, as well as a compulsive insight into our tortured feelings over imperfection. Dean showed he could act in good films (Rio Bravo, Some Came Running); he sang, and did his TV show; and he perfected one of the great drunk acts since Prohibition. It may have been a truer glimpse of American imperfection than Jerry's strident crusade: alcoholism and its white lies are far more destructive than muscular dystrophy and its summoning of more and more money oiled with tears. And Martin became the wistful spirit of the Rat Pack. Sinatra took him over as another kind of brother. In the end, though, the Rat Pack was just one more thing from which Martin could make his retreat. He was a Bartleby doomed to fall into the clutches of Ahabs.

Lewis's book is not too substantial or novel, but it does allow him the privilege of unexamined self-vindication. Martin now stands as a kind of victim in history, and I daresay that Lewis has read enough of the Tosches book to feel the need to establish his own love (and to cover up his real competitiveness). I believe, without a doubt, that it is what he now feels -- but I can easily see that at the time, and over the years, Martin found his partner to be an increasing pain in the ass. Everyone is right: isn't that always the way in America? But this will not be the last book. Martin and Lewis steadily exemplified the notion that people in a team do not need to get on. Marriage is a convenience (and its opposite), a framework by which we perpetuate ourselves, but it is not often an education in understanding. Martin and Lewis were more than we deserved and more than they could handle. They were electric together. But they were also two utterly bizarre personalities, the one rooted in hysterical positivism, the other in languid negation.

One last thing -- the best sign of some self-realization in Lewis. Someone in the audience in San Francisco asked whether we will ever see his film called The Day the Clown Cried. No, said Jerry -- and he can be very firm. But do we want to see it? It is another reasonable question. For this is a picture, written, produced, and directed by Lewis in the 1970s, in which he plays a clown who offends the Nazis and is sent to a concentration camp, where his job is to entertain and pacify children on the way to the gas chamber. It takes a tormented example of the struggle between taste and tastelessness to conceive of such a movie.

Yet we are familiar with that figure after decades of the telethon. I have not seen the film -- though I do not hear the definite word that Lewis has destroyed it. But it is his opinion today that Jerry the actor escaped the control of Jerry the director, so that the film does not work. Is this evidence of a new ability to recognize poor judgment or failed delivery in himself? Or is the film itself proof of the nine-year-old overpowering the mature man? If so, it goes to the heart of what is most sublime and nightmarish about Jerry Lewis.

Of course, there is a film, apparently less daring or dangerous, that reveals the same thing. I am speaking of The Nutty Professor, a version of the Jekyll and Hyde story in which a very homely, nerdy scientist acquires the potion that will turn him into the cocksure crooner named Buddy Love. This film was made in 1963, and it is the most complex piece of drama Lewis ever turned out. He has always denied that Buddy Love was meant as a version of Dean Martin, and thus a shot of vengeance at the departing lounge lizard who was always easier to love. I take him at his word, but that only leaves the rich fields of the unconscious as the source of art. Anyone reading this book needs to see The Nutty Professor and spend about as long alone with Dino as Johnny Roselli ever managed.

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