While I am relatively new to the Jerry Lewis’s work as actor and director, it’s pretty clear how his dynamic with Dean Martin functions—Martin is charismatic and street-wise, Lewis is the sympathetic goofball. This contrast is accentuated in Frank Tashlin’s Hollywood or Bust (1956), since the film is an emphatic (or should I say cartoonish?) erotic fantasy. By the end of the film, Lewis’s clumsy, childish protagonist ends up with his Hollywood crush, Anita Ekberg. If this, by itself, requires a great effort in suspending disbelief, it’s also worth mentioning that before the Martin & Lewis characters settle into their monogamous relationships, they get a lot of female attention. Literally dozens of women wave to them as Martin & Lewis drive through the USA smiling and singing, and in their every scene that’s set in a populated space (backstage, casino), they end up surrounded by fresh-faced female onlookers.
It may have influenced my take on Hollywood or Bust that I was working on the video essay in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal, which I believe seriously calls into question Hollywood norms, be they industrial or aesthetic. In the light of what we know now, the fact that women in this film are taken for granted—seducing them is not a matter of if, but when—can’t seem inconsequential. The Lewis/Ekberg romance is sparked by a ridiculous plot twist: his hound promptly seduces the actress’s lap dog, and their owners eventually follow their mating call. However, if we were to see the film as a satire of precisely this script-guaranteed female attainability of Hollywood cinema, it becomes a pretty interesting text. In this sense, Lewis’s romantic plot is the more progressive one—he certainly embarrasses himself often enough to let us conclude that he gets the girl through sheer, Forrest Gump-level dumb luck. Martin’s romantic plot remains more problematic throughout. He ends up seducing a chorus girl—a less glamorous, proletarian and implicitly less deserving woman—and in spite of the jolting near-rape scene of his early attempt to get into her favors, her caution toward him inexplicably gives way to warmer feelings. By casting Martin—the presumed object of many female spectators’ fantasies—in the role, this development seems less troubling: after all, regardless of plot evolution, what woman would turn him down?!
To structure this video essay on the contrast in the two actors’ film personae, I devised a voice-over that initially delivers information but, later on, takes up personal characteristics of its own—by its tone and content, it (hopefully) sounds like a girl with a crush on Martin, partial to him to the point of missing the obvious about the clips it refers to. By giving a skewed reading of the visual evidence, I intend to suggest the complexity of consuming a a traditional Hollywood narrative—how the cognitive work of watching it (and evaluating it, for merit and plausibility) intertwines with personal biases and indulgence in wishful thinking. Since infatuation and lucid observation are often antithetical, I needed a second line of discourse—a colder, crisper, written “voice”—to carry the commentary further than the voice-over could possibly take it. Hollywood or Bust is about the two men’s conquest of women, but also about the spectators’ privileged access to these two men—and it is due to Hollywood’s cunning exploitation of desire that it took so long to clear up the haze.
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