If there is one place Jerry Lewis can go to get an ego boost it is clearly here in France, a country that has had a collective love affair with the comedian his entire career. Lewis, now 87, has been here many times to collect awards and adoration , he’s even made French movies but he hasn’t been in Cannes for about two decades so it was a big deal Thursday at the Cannes Film Festival when Max Rose, the first movie in which he has starred in 18 years, premiered to a standing ovation for Lewis (naturally) and turnaway crowd (filled with many locals). The film is anything but a typical vehicle for Lewis as it is a sentimental and somewhat serious study of the dilemna of old age and how we treat our senior citizens when life throws them a curveball just when they least expected it. Presented Out Of Competition and billed as an “homage to Jerry Lewis”, the film came about when first-time writer/director Daniel Noah approached him to play the role , and much to his surprise, Lewis accepted right away telling the filmmaker it was the best script he had read in 40 years. Clearly it also spoke to him personally.
A press screening that had been scheduled for the movie Thursday morning was abruptly cancelled, though the PR company handling the movie told Deadline it was never really scheduled in the first place (which probably makes sense from a PR viewpoint since Max Rose is hardly critics fodder). They wanted just one screening -with Lewis in attendance – and that took place last night. Lewis , Noah, cast members and Oscar-winning composer Michel Legrand did appear for a scheduled press conference Thursday afternoon, even if none of the press assembled there had yet seen the film, highly unusual if unprecedented in Cannes. In any event it didn’t matter because all eyes were on Lewis and even , in his late 80’s, he was in vintage form drawing big laughs from the normally jaded journalists who attend these things multiple times a day. Here are some of the highlights of what Lewis had to say on various topics after first “directing” the audio engineer, “You need to take the microphone volume up , please so they can hear. Raise the volume. You’ve got a button there that says ‘up’. You came here to work. Move your G–damned hand , and move it up,” he said as the crowd roared. His 1961 classic The Ladies Man also screens in Cannes tonight outdoors on the beach.
On why he chose to return to the screen in a leading role after all these years:
The marvelous thing about this script is that it is about elderly people who have been thrown away, and that’s a very fine line underneath the material. But the thing that got to me was that everything I had done in the business for 60 years , I had to put in the trunk and lock it and go to L.A. and meet with the writer, and he would tell me maybe 20 times a day ‘we saw evidence of the crazy Jerry. Get him out of there’. So I had to bring another ability on my part to stay away from comic values but go for the beauty of the story. It’s the kind of a film that will make you feel good if you saw it. It’s a very difficult thing to do for the crazy clown who has been doing one thing for the past 60 years, and now he asks me to do something else. I was happy to do it because I felt every moment of this film, which I can’t say about any other film.
On former partner Dean Martin when asked to talk about their relationship:
He died you know. When I arrived here and he wasn’t here I knew something was wrong.
On his unseen movie from the early 70’s The Day The Clown Cried:
(It will stay inside the vault) because I thought the work was bad. And because I wrote and directed the film I didn’t make it accessible, I didn’t make it anything. It was all bad, and it was bad because I lost the magic, and that’s all I can tell you about it. You’ll never see it. No one will ever see it because I am embarrassed about the poor work and that’s that. Every creator has the right of choice and he has the right to make final decisions that relate to the work. I don’t have the abilily to send out poor work and get paid for it. I can’t do that. And that’s the only thing I will discuss when that title comes up.
On making The King Of Comedy opposite Robert De Niro compared to making Max Rose:
The experiences were totally different. In King Of Comedy I had to call on all my equipment to play the role as opposed to this film where I had to just be an actor, nothing more and nothing less. And you have to trust what you’re doing to be able to do that. Big difference. I played Jerry Lewis in King Of Comedy and here I played a man that I learned about in the script and a man that I wanted to be part of. And I did.
On the difference between Jewish American humor and Jewish European humor:
Humor is humor. Laughter is laughter. You make the humor funny, people will laugh. If it’s a strain on you and if you push or force they will not laugh…It’s all very simple to talk about it but difficult to put in action.
Reflecting on his life and achievements:
Everything I did took a lot of work so when I reflect on all the years I get tired. But I do reflect on all the work very proudly. There isn’t anything I did with the exception of one film that I wasn’t proud of. That’s a wonderful feeling.
A few years ago you made a comment about finding any women comedians to like. Has anything changed in the years since?
People doing comedy that are females is one thing. But when the female takes that ability and puts it in a single context on a stage doing this and that (demonstrates physicality) and trying to capture the basis of what broad comedy is, I can’t see women doing that. It bothers me just as you see an actor or actress that annoys you and you have no idea why. But I cannot sit and watch a lady diminish her qualities to the lowest common denominator . I just cannot do that.
Your favorite female comediennes?
On the first movie that made you laugh.
Modern Times (with Charlie Chaplin). I saw it 177 times.