Anyone who knows me or knows anything about me knows I am a major Jerry Lewis fan. I have not only seen almost every one of his films, but watched most every one of his TV appearances, and read every possible book or magazine article or interview on the guy.
And so, one day at an audition a few years ago, I asked a French guy who was there, “Why do you guys love Jerry Lewis so much?" He answered that mainly it was the fact that France was a very left-wing, liberal country and it was based on Jerry's work with muscular dystrophy.
Another Frenchman, this one I read about, was asked the same question. He replied, “Whenever people recognize my accent they ask me, ‘how can you like Jerry Lewis movies?’ I lived this last 30 years in France and I never met any Jerry Lewis fan. If you ask 100 people in the street to name one Jerry Lewis movie, you'd have difficulty getting an answer.”
In an interview with the French weekly rock magazine Inrockuptibles in the early 1970's, film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum writes: “They mentioned in their introduction how weird it was that I preferred Jerry Lewis to Woody Allen.”
Do the French really love and idolize Jerry Lewis and if so- why? This subject is so vast (like Jerry Lewis' career) it is hard to answer the above question in one article, but here goes.
First off, as most of us know (as a rule), American critics look down on and generally disdain Jerry Lewis' movies. Jerry was kind of a "critic-proof" comedian in those days, much like Adam Sandler today, i.e. the critics panned him unmercifully, but the general public still flocked to his films.
Although it is not generally realized, Jerry did usually garner rave reviews from American critics during his days as a comedy partner of Dean Martin (1946-1956). The reviews for Jerry, although not Dean, were generally glowing regarding not only his films, but his TV and live stage appearances. Interestingly, it was fairly soon after the split with Dean that American critics started savaging Jerry, his movies, and most of his TV appearances, too.
Jerry knew this and would often compare himself to the great comedy team of Laurel and Hardy, saying that critics didn't appreciate Laurel and Hardy during their movie career, but discovered what great artists they were after they had retired from films. But with Jerry, this never happened... in America.
It did happen, however, in France. And not only did the French loving him not convince Americans, it rather reinforced the view that the French are not-so-bright, pompous, and ignorant.
Another interesting fact, although it is a cliche to say "the French love Jerry Lewis,” Jerry himself disputes that France and the French are his #1 fans. According to Jerry, “Italy is first, Germany is second, the Netherlands are third… France is sixth.”
Although none of Jerry's hugely popular films has ever garnered an Oscar nomination in any category, Jerry has eight times been voted “Best Director of the Year" overseas. Once each in Italy, Germany, Belgium, Spain and the Netherlands. And three times in France.
Rae Beth Gordon actually wrote a book titled Why the French Love Jerry Lewis (2002). I read the book and the gist of her explanation is that French people have always loved "low comedy" and Jerry's humor was much like a French comedy style that began in the 1880's and flourished in stage and film.
There is also a school of thought that Jerry Lewis personifies many countries' concept of "the ugly American.” Gerald Mast, in his excellent 1979 book The Comic Mind- Comedy and the Movies writes: “Where American critics and audiences see (Lewis) as the banal equal of, say Abbott and Costello... for the European critic, Lewis' comic strength is is the comically accurate depiction of the American mentality- it's brash, vulgar overzealousness.” Few countries hate Americans more than the French and no one gets a bigger kick out of ridiculing the USA.
Okay, the fact is that Jerry was, indeed, also hugely popular in other countries. But still, France has that “We love Jerry Lewis" rep.
In reviewing Jerry's 1965 film The Family Jewels, French critic and author Robert Benayoun writes that the film "deliberately severs space-time.” While American author Shawn Levy writes about the same film: “The plotting is utterly arbitrary, the basic story ludicrous, and the filmmaking characteristically sloppy.”
The great French love affair with Jerry seems to have had it's real genesis in 1965. Jerry visited France, where his film The Nutty Professor had recently been named Film of the Year. Jerry was mobbed at the airport by his fans and the press, he was given an award, a three-week Jerry Lewis festival was held and he was the toast of France. There was a seminar discussing Jerry and his work, films, career- and the French, being notoriously "intellectual" and "deep" (or so they themselves think) really got into discussing Jerry over their croissants.
Why the great love?
While hard to pinpoint exactly, one agreed-upon point is the fact that the French really admire Jerry's being talented enough to wear not only the star's hat, but also be the writer, producer and director.
It has been pointed out, quite correctly, that Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd also were brilliant enough to wear several hats, but Jerry was the first comedian of the sound era to go from being merely a performer to becoming a complete filmmaker (Jerry has authored a highly acclaimed book titled The Total Filmmaker in 1971, a wonderful book on every facet of filmmaking).
By an odd coincidence, just as the Jerry cult was hitting hardest in France, his films were beginning a fast decline in America. By mid-1965, Jerry was on a toboggan ride downhill movie-wise, and the slide never really ended. Although he wasn't as popular in the States, Jerry has remained very popular in France (this, in spite of the testimony from the above people).
Okay, maybe Jerry isn't quite as hugely popular in France now as he was then, but in 1984, he was made a Commander in the Order of Arts and Letters, France's highest cultural honor. Two months later, he was awarded the Legion of Honor, France's highest any kind of honor.
Now, maybe he isn't quite as big as a few decades ago, but that is the nature of most artists, even the great ones (the exceptions being the Beatles, Elvis, Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, these types of almost deified icons).
My own personal opinion? I believe I know as much about Jerry Lewis, his films, his career, as anybody in the world. Maybe it's a 50-50 proposition, half and half, six of one and half-dozen of the other.
Maybe the U.S. critics have a point, his comedies can be disjointed, often more a series of patchwork gags, as opposed to "a great film.” And yes, as he aged, he definitely became less and less funny. By the way, this point is true of pretty much every great movie comedian in history. It may have been more true for Jerry because his salad days as a comic were when he played a character he called "the kid." Jerry's comedy was inherently based on him being and acting young, as opposed to say, the Three Stooges or W.C. Fields or Chaplin or Groucho.
The Jerry Lewis magic was pretty much gone by the mid-1960's. but in watching a vintage Jerry Lewis film i.e. The Nutty Professor, The Bellboy, The Errand Boy or Who's Minding the Store?, one sees the French viewpoint. And as loathe we all are to admit it, there are certain points in almost any Jerry Lewis film where it is seems almost impossible to suppress a hearty guffaw- hard as we may try.