Last Thursday night (8.25) the legendary Jerry Lewis, 90 and undimmed and snap-dragonish as ever, conducted a 45-minute q & a inside Santa Monica’s Aero theatre. It followed a screening of Daniel Noah‘s Max Rose, in which Lewis gives a somber, nicely restrained and often moving performance as an elderly widower coping with a discovery that his deceased wife (Claire Bloom) had a secret boyfriend on the side for decades.
The film (which I’ll review tomorrow) is satisfying, well-honed, meditative. Lewis conveys a fair amount of solemnity but the film isn’t overly maudlin or doleful, which is what you might expect from a tale about a cranky…okay, blunt-spoken old guy.
The respect and satisfaction I felt for Max Rose was a tiny bit surprising given the film’s difficult experience at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival. After negative reactions were heard following an early screening, a decision was made to cancel a press screening. And that was over three years ago.
But I wasn’t the least bit surprised that Lewis was his usual snippy self during the q & a. No withered old codger, he. Most people become kinder and gentler as they get into old age. But not Lewis, bless him.
He was witty and corrosive at the Aero, obliging and polite in response to some questions but impatient with or dismissive of roughly 65% or 70% of the others, often critical or puzzled or unable to hear clearly or otherwise irked (“Why are you shouting?”) and getting laughs in any case.
If you ask me Lewis’s irritability is glorious. This is his act, what Lewis does. If you ask me he’s raging against…well, a lot of things. But I love that he’s not just sitting there grinning and talking about how happy he is and how lucky and blessed his life has been and yaddah yaddah.
Lewis will eat you alive if you ask a stupid question, or if you haven’t done your homework. You need to have your shit wired tight.
If you don’t want to be whiplashed, ask smart questions that can be voiced within 15 or 20 seconds. Speak clearly but don’t shout. Don’t bore him. Don’t ask for amusing anecdotes about anything, especially about Dean Martin. Don’t ask Lewis what makes him cry. Don’t go on and on about how you and Lewis became friendly with each other 25 years ago — he won’t remember. One guy asked about the current political circus and Lewis said, “Don’t vote for Trump.”
A young guy asked if Max Rose is his last film, and Lewis said he hopes not. He said he’s been typing a screenplay about something to do with his stage in life. He said he’d like to get something going, “soon.” I’ve said before I’d like to see him in a film called Jerry Langford in Hell.
21 years ago I sat down with Lewis at the Sundance Film Festival to talk about Funny Bones. The interview happened at the Stein-Erickson. Right away you could feel the testy fear-factor vibe, but I enjoy that. It sharpens your game. Several people (publicists, etc.) were sitting and standing around us in a semi-circle; it was almost like we were performing together.
A year or two earlier I’d read and enjoyed Nick Tosches‘ Dino: Living High in the Dirty Business of Dreams, so I asked Lewis if he’d read it. He had, he said, and I knew right away I’d stepped in it. The book was hurtful to a friend, he said, and that was the end of it.
“Ask me something else,” he said, steam literally hissing out of his head like a radiator, “before I get pissed.”
But I liked Lewis overall. I always will. He’s tough, shrewd, funny, been around, done it all, seen it all.