The real shame about Jerry Lewis

The humanitarian award isn’t the problem. It’s that he’s never got an Oscar for his films.

The real shame about Jerry Lewis

“Protests are coming into the Academy,” wrote Nikki Finke at, and she wasn’t talking about the selection of Hugh Jackman to host the Oscars; the protests are over the selection of Jerry Lewis, comedian, octogenarian and French cult figure, to receive the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award. Lewis has recently been in the news for calling someone “an illiterate fag” in the middle of his annual telethon for muscular dystrophy, and a number of people in Hollywood are wondering what kind of message it sends to give him a prize for people “whose humanitarian efforts have brought credit to the industry.” But the thing that should be really controversial is that Lewis still hasn’t gotten a special Oscar for his film work. Film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, author of such books as Placing Movies and Essential Cinema, says that “American denial of the American love of Jerry Lewis is pathological,” and he might be right. Never mind the telethons or the tasteless jokes: the important thing about Jerry Lewis is that he’s one of America’s biggest movie stars.

The standard joke about Lewis is that he’s mostly popular in France (based on the fact that French film critics love him). But Rosenbaum notes that Lewis’s popularity in America was “far greater than any French love of Lewis then or later”; in his partnership with Dean Martin and then alone, he was one of America’s top box-office stars for two decades, with two hit movies almost every year. He directed or produced many of his own films, becoming a one-man comedy factory that Judd Apatow would envy, while creating gags that, as Pauline Kael wrote in a review of The Nutty Professor, could “hold their own with the silent classics.” In the near-silent The Bellboy or the lavishly designed farce The Ladies Man, he was as beloved for his facial expressions and pratfalls as his idol, Stan Laurel. His best physical routines, like the scene in Frank Tashlin’s Who’s Minding the Store? where he types on an invisible typewriter, are still popular attractions on YouTube.

And though Lewis stopped making movies years ago, James L. Neibaur, a film historian who co-authored the book The Jerry Lewis Films, says that his over-the-top, off-kilter comedy “has inspired virtually every comedian active in movies today.” Among Lewis’s more obvious disciples are Jim Carrey, who has said that Lewis “did some of the most astounding filmic clowning of anybody in history,” and Eddie Murphy, who came up with one of his biggest hits by remaking The Nutty Professor. Directors still use techniques that Lewis invented, such as “video assist,” which allows them to instantly see what they’re filming.

Also at Four reasons why America loved Jerry Lewis

So why is Lewis still Oscar-less, when other stars of his magnitude have gotten something by now? It might be partly because, except for his role in Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy, he hasn’t done many good movies since the late ’60s; his 1972 try at a “serious” film, The Day the Clown Cried, frequently turns up on worst-movies-ever lists even though it’s never been released. And there’s some bad blood between Lewis and the Academy since he co-hosted the show in 1958, and ended the broadcast by inviting the audience up on stage to dance. Ruining the show, it seems, doesn’t get you an Oscar.

But the biggest problem may be that Lewis’s kind of comedy—a spastic, cartoonish, cross-eyed style derived partly from his nightclub act and partly from silent comedians—is not the kind of thing the Academy likes to honour. Neibaur says that the Academy’s respect for physical comedy is “sparse at best,” pointing out that “the brilliant work of Buster Keaton or Harold Lloyd never achieved Oscar contention.” So while Woody Allen has been less popular and influential than Lewis, it’s still more respectable to give him an Oscar for delivering clever one-liners than to Lewis for stretching his arms like rubber, or screaming “Oh, pain! Plenty of pain!” while a massage therapist bends his leg over his head.

That means that when Lewis shows up on Feb. 22 to receive the Hersholt award, it could be seen as a snub rather than an honour. They’ll be saying that he deserves recognition for his telethons, but not for the movie superstardom that made him famous enough to do those telethons. And ironically, the Academy may have caused itself a lot of extra trouble with this backhanded honour. If they’d given him the lifetime achievement award, no one would care about the time he called a woman comedian “a producing machine that brings babies into the world.”