Jerry Lewis? As we were saying only a few weeks ago:
His first films were made as one-half of "Martin and Lewis": the straight man got top billing, the comic was a child-man a decade younger. But young Jerry Lewis was the act's strategist, the guy who worried about scripts and directors, while Dean was content to string along. Jerry always called him "Paul", which was his middle name - Dino Paul Crocetti - as if to remind him that both the Anglified Dean and the Italiano Dino were stage versions of a guy who'd otherwise be a Steubenville schlub. At MGM, Louis B Mayer passed on the act: 'The guinea's not bad, but what do I do with the monkey?'
The guinea broke up the act, and the monkey had the problem of what to do with himself. On the big screen, the child-man persona got harder to take as middle-age set in, and, unlike Dean, Jerry thought of himself as a great artist and auteur, pathologies that culminated in his unreleased masterpiece-monstrosity about a funnyman at Auschwitz, The Day the Clown Cried. On stage and TV, Lewis proved more durable, at least until the Muscular Dystrophy Association screwed him over a couple of years back. He had some memorable guest-shots: a few weeks ago my kid and I caught him teaching Andy Williams how to sing "Moon River" more excitingly, and it was pretty funny. But I liked him best on stage, because there was a faint sense of resentment that gave the performance an unsettling and potentially perilous tension. It was that quality, one assumes, that persuaded Martin Scorsese in the early Eighties to offer him The King of Comedy.
Scorsese originally wanted Johnny Carson for the role of the late-night TV host stalked by a besotted Sandra Bernhard and a covetous Robert De Niro. Carson wisely said no: it would have been too cute a joke. As it is, the show's producer is played by real-life Carson producer Fred de Cordova and the show's second banana is played by sometime "Tonight Show" announcer Ed Herlihy. The show's bandleader is real-life bandleader Lou Brown, and the network president is real-life ABC vice-president Edgar Scherick. Also along for the ride are Scorsese's real-life attorney as the TV star's lawyer, De Niro's then wife as his girlfriend, and Scorsese's mom as the voice of De Niro's mother. And the TV show's director is played by real-life director Martin Scorsese. Etc.
But, despite all these trivial-pursuit cameos, it's Lewis' performance that gives the film its verisimilitude. He brings a palpable whiff of Vegas obnoxiousness to the talk-show star "Jerry Langford", walking out for his nightly show with rote put-downs for his sidekick ("Sorry to wake you up") and give-it-up hands faux-milking the applause. It's not a Johnny Carson impression: "Jerry Langford" is both more fluid and minimalist, but he's as cocksure and controlled. Carson would have been Carson very particularly; Lewis gives a beautifully detailed performance of a very general idea of late 20th-century celebrity.
Outside the stage door, amid the throng of adoring fans, are hardcore regulars Rupert Pupkin (De Niro) and Masha (Bernhard). In the chaos as Jerry exits, the situation briefly spirals out of control. Pupkin steps forward to protect the star, and somehow winds up in the back seat of the limousine with him. He explains to Jerry that he's an aspiring comedian and all he wants is a few moments of his time. Grateful to be out of the mĂȘlĂ©e, the star indulges his fan as the car whisks him homeward. Many years later, my sister was trying to get Jerry Lewis to appear in a TV documentary and Lewis agreed to hear the pitch on a similar limo ride. She explained what she wanted from him. "Okay, but don't push it," he said. She continued her pitch. As her requirements grew, he looked away and out the opposite window and murmured through her demands: "Pushing... pushing..."
Almost everyone's pushy with the talent - because it's so lopsided: one party knows everything about the other, and you're just this minute's passing stranger. Rupert Pupkin has modeled his comedy style on Jerry, and would like a guest shot on the show. Jerry has heard this tedious plaint a thousand times, obviously, and responds that, although show business is not a normal business, nevertheless it is still a business "and there are certain ground rules. You gotta start at the bottom."
"That's where I am," says Pupkin. "At the bottom."
"Well, that's a perfect place to start."
I don't know whether that's a line from Lewis himself or from the screenwriter Paul D Zimmerman, but the actor delivers it with a brilliantly blank deadpan. The limo pulls up smoothly to the Ziegfeldian stairway at the foot of Jerry's apartment building, and the star glides nimbly up the steps, with Pupkin a half-dozen treads below, unable to tear himself away and anxious to prove how funny he is. "Let me show you a picture of my pride and joy," he says, and produces a card from his wallet showing a bottle of Pride furniture wax next to a bottle of Joy dishwashing liquid. An unsmiling Jerry takes the card and resumes his ascent. Five steps further up, Pupkin beckons again from below and offers to take the star to lunch. Only at the door do the half-dozen goodnights become final.
Rupert Pupkin thinks he's made a connection - like millions of other fans of thousands of other stars do all around the world every day. They don't realize that a genuine connection is all but impossible, because, long before the Jerry Lewis level of stardom, a certain wariness sets in - because almost everyone, just like Rupert does, wants something from you. When I was very young and met big stars, I thought I'd connected, too. When I was a little older and thought I'd figured it out, I affected a kind of blasĂ© nonchalance, which irritated them even more. So Rupert goes back to his room, where he has a fake TV set with giant cutouts of Jerry and Liza Minnelli (from a previous De Niro film, New York, New York) and fantasizes out loud about Jerry asking him to guest-host for six weeks, while his mom yells from downstairs, "What are you doing in there?"
He drops off a cassette of his comedy at the show's offices, already anticipating Jerry's enthusiastic reception: "You've got it. And you're stuck with it. Even if you wanted to get rid of it, you couldn't."
But, of course, Rupert doesn't have it, and, although the low-level staff employee who actually listens to the cassette does her best to let him down gently, he doesn't take it well. Confronting the star at his country house, he rages at Jerry's indifference to the little man: "That's how all you guys are when you reach the top!"
"No, I was that way before," says Jerry. And thus he sets in motion Rupert's scheme to kidnap the star and prove to the world once and for all that he has indeed got "it" - even if it involves jumping the celeb, hustling him into a car, and tying him to a chair to spend the night staring at Sandra Bernhard writhing in her panties on the dining table while serenading him with "Come Rain Or Come Shine".
They found Rupert Pupkin's signature red tux and bow tie in a menswear store on Broadway - and borrowed the character's mustache and hair from the mannequin. Which is fun. But it was more critical to the picture that Lewis brought a lot of himself to the role, including the loping, limber celebrity walk with which he pads the streets of Manhattan acknowledging the greetings of admirers. The payphone encounter with a disenchanted fan who yells after him "You should only get cancer!" was drawn directly from life. But equally vital is the fact that Jerry Lewis was, to put it mildly, a somewhat polarizing celebrity, and presumably Scorsese understood that there were plenty of people who'd enjoy seeing him immobilized and forced to read his kidnap note from badly organized cue cards.
When we finally get to see Rupert Pupkin's comedy routine, it is, in fact, a tragedy routine: an unwitting recitation of a brutal childhood, heartless parents, schoolyard bullying, etc. And yet, because it has the form and rituals of a stand-up act, everyone laughs uproariously. When Rupert explains that Jerry can't be there because "he's tied up. I mean, I literally tied him up", they laugh even harder.
Despite terrific performances by Lewis and De Niro, the film bombed on its first release. Jerry Lewis felt that the film had no ending - or at any rate an insufficient resolution to the relationship between star and stalker. An alternative explanation is that, as happened with the original Broadway production of Chicago, the movie's exploration of celebrity culture was a little ahead of the public's interest in the subject. But its reputation has grown over the years, and was confirmed when De Niro returned to the frustrations of the funnyman to play an aging "insult comic" in the 2016 film The Comedian. The later picture is fouler and coarser, but shallower and far less dark. And De Niro certainly missed the presence of Jerry Lewis. I don't know how long audiences will continue to watch Martin & Lewis or The Nutty Professor, but The King of Comedy is a great Jerry Lewis turn - and for once it's the other guy who's the freak.
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