Meeting Mr. Lewis

Bill Krohn, the L.A. correspondent for "Cahiers du cinéma", details two in-person encounters with Jerry Lewis.
Part of the Jerry Lewis tribute A MUBI Jerrython. 
Over the course of my forty years as the Los Angeles correspondent for Cahiers du cinema, I wrote about what was happening in American cinema, inventing a way of doing so inspired by Joan Didion’s essay “Having Fun,” which first appeared in The New Yorker. Ironically, Didion’s essay was a blast at the seriousness of people writing about film from outside the business who didn’t understand the inner workings of the studio system. When I met Serge Daney, the editor-in-chief of the Cahiers, at the New York apartment of Jackie Raynal and Sid Geffen on the occasion of the first Semaine des Cahiers in New York in 1977, which I had helped organize, we hit it off immediately. But he was understandably reluctant to entrust to someone who appeared to have been living in a subway the job I really wanted: editing and translating the first volume of the series of Cahiers articles published by the BFI. Instead he gave me the job of correspondent, expecting me to write about what was happening in New York, and as soon as I had my letter of accreditation I moved to California, where I emulated my predecessors Herman G. Weinberg and Axel Madsen by writing “Letters from Hollywood.” He was also horrified when I proposed publishing Didion’s essay in the Cahiers, although her agent had agreed to it over the phone. I was only able to break that embargo by writing a long article about “Having Fun” for Trafic, the magazine Serge started when he left the Cahiers, in the 90s.
Serge and his successors were willing not only to pay me for these articles, but to pay to have them translated, so I quickly expanded my brief to include long articles and interviews. The articles are going to be published in their original form as Letters from Hollywood by Rutgers Press in 2018, but it was the interviews that initially established me as more than a stringer sending news gleaned from the English-language press, beginning with the third interview with Nicholas Ray for the magazine that had proclaimed his greatness, which was done in New York, and the first interview with Roger Corman (known to the Cahiers in 1977 as a filmmaker, but not as a maker of filmmakers), the first interview with Michael Cimino after the calamity of Heaven’s Gate, and the first serious interview ever accorded to the press by Joel and Ethan Coen, after I had spent two weeks with them on location in Louisiana for Miller’s Crossing, all of which were done in Los Angeles.
But my dream interview with Jerry Lewis was ruled out because Positif, the French rival to CdC, had exclusive access to him via Robert Benayoun, who wrote the first book about Lewis in French. My colleague Louis Skorecki broke the embargo by interviewing Lewis at his Paris hotel in 1980 when Hardly Working was opening, but I was never able to get around it. Nor was I able to write for the Cahiers about One More Time, the film Lewis directed in England when he was considering renouncing his American citizenship and moving there during the Vietnam War, with Sammy Davis, Jr. playing the Jerry Lewis role and Peter Lawford playing the Dean Martin role: a film that honored the genius loci by painting a portrait of the British cinema from top (the Lawford character’s castle) to bottom (the castle basement, which harbors denizens of the horror films that had kept British cinema going during the Hammer Years, including Christopher Lee).
Instead I had to content myself with observing Lewis from a distance when he appeared in Damn Yankees at a theater near Los Angeles and later at his temple in Beverly Hills. But no encounter with a genius is ever forgettable. His way of handling Damn Yankees would have pleased Brecht: walking through it in the role of Mr. Applegate (the Devil) originated by Ray Walston while the other performers gave it their all, he stepped forward and out of character in the middle of the second act (performing a slapstick bit with his straw hat and cane being thrown to him from off-stage) and did 15 minutes of shtick. The night I saw him he told an interminable joke about a snail and an angry homeowner who boots him into the woods facing his home, from which the snail painfully returns weeks later to utter the punch-line:  “What was that all about?” Once the audience was rolling on the floor he stepped back into character and finished the performance.
Thanks to my friend Andy Rector I was able to see Lewis at his temple in 2005, where he was concluding what he called the “Jerry Lewis Death March” across the US (named for the 70-mile march the Japanese inflicted on American soldiers after defeating them at Bataan) autographing copies of his memoir Dean and Me: A Love Story. Smuggled in as a co-worker by Andy, I collected copies of the book for Lewis, who was conserving his energy in his dressing-room, to sign. Then I was allowed to stand in one aisle while he did his concluding personal appearance in a temple where members of his family filled the first two rows. People lined up to ask questions, and I lined up with them, preceding my question by a statement (“You’re America’s greatest filmmaker”), to which he politely replied “Thank you.” “When are you going to make another film?”  To which he replied briefly that he was planning to make a film called “Truffes” (“Truffles”) in France. (It was never made, although he did make two films in France: one good, one quite bad.) He answered every question he was asked, however learned or silly, until there was no one left, then exited to a huge round of applause. I’ve heard he could be monstrous on occasion, especially after his travails with percodan, but the man I saw that night was courteous and thoughtful, and extremely intelligent. I’m sorry we never had the opportunity to converse at length. —Bill Krohn


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