Jerry Lewis a great entertainer passes away

August 22, 2017

Jerry Lewis, born Joseph Levitch to Russian-Jewish vaudeville entertainer parents and one of the towering American-Jewish comics of the 20th century, has passed away at age 91. He combined his film career with a long commitment to community service, including the Muscular Dystrophy Association, for which he raised funds.

Although he acted in numerous film and television shows during a career that began in 1949 through the present day (he appeared in last year’s “The Trust” with Nicholas Cage), during the 23 year period from 1960 to 1983, he also directed himself in 12 films.  All these films screened at last year’s Melbourne International Film Festival – in retrospect, almost perfect timing memorialising a great man of American film: “The Bellboy” (1960), “The Ladies Man” (1961), “The Errand Boy” (1961), “The Nutty Professor” (1963), “The Patsy” (1964), “The Family Jewels” (1965), “Three on a Couch” (1966), “The Big Mouth” (1967), “One More Time” (1970), “Which Way to the Front?” (1970), “The Day the Clown Cried” (1972), “Hardly Working” (1981) and “Cracking Up” (1983).

Although mostly known as a comic and entertainer, Lewis also was an extraordinary film technician: he invented the “video assist”, a technology that enables filmmakers to view a video version of what they have shot.

Two of Lewis’ best-loved films are “The Nutty Professor” and “The Bellboy”, where the video assist was used for the first time. “Professor” (re-made in 1996 starring Eddie Murphy), is a romantic comedy crossed with science fiction parody of “Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde”. Jerry Lewis’ persona as Julius Kelp – prone to accidents, socially awkward and buck-toothed – has never been on better display than on this film, and was so popular that Lewis later reprised the character in both “The Family Jewels” and “The Big Mouth”.

“The Bellboy” – my personal favourite and Lewis’ debut as director – captured another side of the Lewis persona, taking a “bow” to classic silent comedians, in particular the pantomime artist Stan Laurel, who Lewis consulted on the script. “The Bellboy” has a lovely “backstory”:  Lewis – who directed, produced, wrote and starred – shot the film in less than four weeks on location at the historic Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami Beach, filming during the day while performing in the hotel’s nightclub at night. For those of us who grew up in the northeast of the USA in the 1960s and visited Miami Beach, the Fontainebleau personifies that time and place. And Jerry Lewis in turn personifies the hotel. View it for a peek of what life was like there and then, more than 55 years ago.

“Which Way to the Front” – although a minor addition to the Lewis body of work – tackled the Second World War, where Lewis plays a rich playboy who volunteers to fight against the Nazis and impersonates a German general.  It was Lewis’s only overt attempt – in the style of Charlie Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator” – to ridicule the Nazis. Although it failed as a film, it’s worthwhile viewing for both Lewis fans and film historians.

The world will be a much poorer place without Jerry Lewis in it, but we are all much richer for his having shared himself with us.

Jerry Lewis The Bellboy DVD cover

(Note: the post above is an updated and expanded version of my original article, which appeared in The Australian Jewish News Melbourne edition on 28 July 2016.)

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Australia’s first-ever Jerry Lewis film festival opens in Melbourne

July 31, 2016

(This article appeared in the Australian Jewish News, Melbourne edition, on 28 July 2016 in a different form.)

Australia’s first-ever Jerry Lewis film festival has opened in Melbourne, as part of this year’s Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF).

Jerry Lewis, born Joseph Levitch to Russian-Jewish vaudeville entertainer parents, stands as one of the towering American-Jewish comics of the 20th century.  Although he acted in numerous film and television shows during a career that began in 1949 through the present day (he appears in this year’s “The Trust” with Nicholas Cage), during the 23 year period from 1960 to 1983, he also directed himself in 12 films.  All of these films will screen at this year’s MIFF: “The Bellboy” (1960), “The Ladies Man” (1961), “The Errand Boy” (1961), “The Nutty Professor” (1963), “The Patsy” (1964), “The Family Jewels” (1965), “Three on a Couch” (1966), “The Big Mouth” (1967), “One More Time” (1970), “Which Way to the Front?” (1970), “The Day the Clown Cried” (1972), “Hardly Working” (1981) and “Cracking Up” (1983).

Two of Lewis’ best-loved films are “The Nutty Professor” and “The Bellboy”.  “Professor” (re-made in 1996 starring Eddie Murphy), is a romantic comedy crossed with science fiction parody of “Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde”.  Jerry Lewis’ persona as Julius Kelp – prone to accidents, socially awkward and buck-toothed – has never been on better display than on this film, and was so popular that Lewis later reprised the character in both “The Family Jewels” and “The Big Mouth”.

“The Bellboy” captures another side of the Lewis persona, taking a “bow” to classic silent comedians, in particular the pantomime artist Stan Laurel, who Lewis consulted on the script.  “The Bellboy” also has a lovely “backstory”:  Lewis – who directed, produced, wrote and stars – shot the film in less than four weeks on location at the historic Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami Beach, filming during the day while performing in the hotel’s nightclub at night.

“Which Way to the Front” – although a minor addition to the Lewis body of work – tackles the Second World War, where Lewis plays a rich playboy who volunteers to fight against the Nazis and impersonates a German general.  It was Lewis’s only overt attempt – in the style of Charlie Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator” – to ridicule the Nazis, and although it failed as a film, it’s worthwhile viewing for both Lewis fans and film historians.

The Bellboy(poster of Jerry Lewis’ film “The Bellboy”, shot on location in Miami Beach)


In Selma the film, Martin Luther King is a man who listens

March 1, 2015

I am too young to remember Dr Martin Luther King, but I am not that young that I have not been deeply influenced by his legacy as the leading American civil rights campaigner.

“Selma”, the biopic of a slice of Martin Luther King’s life, can be a deeply affecting experience, at least for those of us for whom the American civil rights movement remains an important cultural, political and social touchstone.

Director Ava DuVernay, an African-American woman who seems to have held many roles in film from publicist to writer and director, has arrived without fanfare to show us that she is one of the strongest directors in contemporary film. Her re-creation of historical events – a number of key activities taking place primarily in Alabama in the southern US – and her ability to portray recent historical figures on screen is astonishing, especially African-Americans: King himself (an amazing performance by David Oyelowo), Coretta Scott King (Carmen Ejogo), Andrew Young (Andre Holland), Bayard Rustin, Mahalia Jackson, Ralph Abernathy, Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey) and even a brief appearance by Malcolm X (Nigel Thatch). The white historical figures are equally as good: Johnson (Tom Wilkinson), Governor George Wallace of Alabama (Roth), J. Edgar Hoover (Dylan Baker) and a host of others. But the film’s ability to get “inside” the African-American characters gives them three-dimensionality, substance and coherent identity – that is this film’s greatest achievement.

I am not quite certain why “Selma” is not more popular in the USA, hovering just over US$50 million in the theatrical box office as I write this. While not a flop, this is by no means a success. Part of it may be the mini-controversy over the portrayal of President Lyndon Johnson: the film shows a number of discussions between King and Johnson, and paints Johnson as deliberate, strategic (fair enough) but wanting to hold King back at every turn. “You have one cause to worry about,” Johnson says to King at one point, “I have 101 causes.”

Those who live outside of the USA, unless they have read widely in American history, have no true concept of the enduring stain and trail of social dysfunction and blight that the history of slavery and racism has left on that country. Even today, African-Americans are heavily over-represented in American jails and prisons: six times the rate of whites, and nine times the rate for young black men.rs in jail.

As the film “Selma” points out, institutionalised disenfranchisement of African-Americans did not end with the abolition of slavery by Abraham Lincoln in 1863. As late as the mid-1960s, African-American voting rights were widely ignored, particularly – and especially – in the south. Just to be clear, this meant that in large areas of the south at that time, African-Americans simply were unable to vote, enforced through a wide range of tricks, regulations and petty bureaucracies. In turn this meant that they could not serve of trial juries, with deeply negative implications for African-American interactions with the justice and court systems. The master strategist King understood all of that. In an early scene in “Selma”, an older African-American woman attempts to enrol to vote and is asked a wide range of questions, including reciting the preamble to the American Constitution (she can, can you?), and finally rejected. It’s a heartbreaking moment; the woman is Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey).

It’s a shame that “Selma” will not be more widely seen in the USA or even here in Australia, where it has barely registered with the audience, other than with film critics, who wholeheartedly endorsed it. The American civil rights movement had a direct effect on the cause of Indigenous justice here in Australia, inspiring a wide range of campaigners. But aside from Barack Obama, whose personal story captured the attention of many Australians, African-American stories are not popular here.

And finally, a comment as to why “Selma” is able to transcend the biographical film genre in new and unexpected ways. According to American film critic Max O’Connell, there are six ways to make a biopic live and breathe. I quote them directly from his review on letterboxd, rather than attempting to summarise:

*****

1. Focus on one small part of the character’s life.
2. Focus on the backroom deals, the horse-trading, the deal-making and the compromises needed to make progress.
3. Cast an actor who’s as good a listener as David Oyelowo, who’s commanding without ever feeling pre-bronzed because he’s constantly leaning in to what everyone’s saying and weighing information.
4. On top of that, get someone like Ava DuVernay to direct, as she’ll get the least-showy performances out of both actors that tend to show off (Cuba Gooding, Jr., Giovanni Ribisi) or characters that beg actors to give show-stopping performances (George Wallace, LBJ). Everything is perfectly measured, and with the exception of Martin Sheen as the world’s most dignified judge, none of the stars are particularly distracting (also: props to Oprah for never making scenes about her even in movies that seem to encourage it, a la “The Butler”).
5. Show the violence honestly without ever lingering too much on the brutality, instead showcasing how it affects the people and how they’ll have to adapt (or not).
6. When dealing with questions of whether or not the film’s noble center was a flawed man, don’t dodge the issue (here, it’s MLK’s philandering). Show how it hurt the people around them. At the same time, show how it’s just one facet, not an all-consuming problem, and that it’s insignificant compared to the work he did.

*****
I particularly love O’Connell’s point number 3: David Oyelowo’s King actively LISTENS to the people around him. This is something that a large number of leaders and those in power are unable or unwilling to do. King apparently did this, and in “Selma” Oyelowo illustrates it beautifully, in scene after scene. In his short film career – Oyelowo has also starred in “The Butler” – for me, this actor with the sonorous voice has already earned his place in the pantheon of great screen performances, Oscar nominations or not.

David Oyelowo in Selma


Film review of St Vincent

January 15, 2015

(This review of “St. Vincent” appeared in different form in the Australian Jewish News on 15 January 2015, under the title “Sobering lessons of life”.)

Directed and written by Theodore Melfi
Starring Bill Murray, Melissa McCarthy, Naomi Watts and Jaeden Lieberher

There are a number of certainties about the new Bill Murray film “St. Vincent”. The film is way better than its promotional trailer, unlike some where the trailer is the only thing worth watching. It’s a genuine starring vehicle and a virtually certain Oscar nomination for Murray, who has already received a Golden Globe nomination. He plays Vincent McKenna, an alcoholic down-on-his-luck Vietnam veteran who accidentally ends up looking after his new neighbour’s child, Oliver Bronstein (12 year-old Jaeden Lieberher).

Oliver is the son of a single mom, x-ray technician Maggie (Melissa McCarthy), who has recently had an unhappy split from her husband and moved to the Sheepshead Bay section of Brooklyn for her new hospital job. Maggie enrolls Oliver in a Catholic school, despite the fact that he is Jewish (“I think”), revealed in his first scene with his lovable teacher Brother Geraghty, played by Chris O’Dowd (“The Sapphires”), when Oliver is asked to lead the class in prayer. Oliver’s lack of Catholic prayer knowledge, rather than an embarrassing disaster, becomes a time when most of his class offers their religious beliefs (“I’m a Buddhist”, “I’m an atheist”, etc) – shades of an early scene in Woody Allen’s “Annie Hall”. Brother Geraghty then has one of film’s funniest speeches, in which he talks about how good it is to be a Catholic, “because we have the best clothes and the most rules”.

Although religion plays only a minor role, “St. Vincent” is ultimately a film about redemption, giving and growing, all done in a mostly non-ecumenical manner: the title is a giveaway. There are no prizes for guessing the plot. Grumpy ageing and angry man gets humanised, nerdy picked-on kid gets more confident and his stressed out mom gets more settled. “St. Vincent” is not a surprising film, but a charming one.

Part of its charm is in the performances. Bill Murray shows that he can, indeed, act, although his performance is less about subtlety and more about fully inhabiting a very flawed character. Melissa McCarthy convinces, and Naomi Watts appears in a cute but predictable role as a Russian prostitute with a heart of gold.

There are some odd real-life resonances in “St. Vincent”, which make the film a bit more poignant for those “in the know”. Young Jaeden Lieberher, like his character Oliver, is Jewish. Like Oliver again, he moved with his mother from one city to another – from Philadelphia to Los Angeles to act in films. Numerous people have commented that “Bill Murray must be just like that in real life”. I am not so sure that the crotchety character we see on-screen is anything other than good acting. Murray puts his ability for understatement to good use (think “Groundhog Day” and “Lost in Translation”), giving us a performance of surprising depth in what appears at first to be a broad comedy but ultimately becomes much more than that.

There is at least one unexplored theme in “St. Vincent”, having to do with a bank account opened for Oliver, setting up a deep disappointment that is never realised. That led me to believe that the film-makers did some very judicious editing to make the film flow better. They have succeeded.

St Vincent poster


Do all American history professors really want to be the Secretary of State?

November 5, 2014

A few weeks ago, the American television series “Madam Secretary” premiered here in Australia. It’s being billed as a contender for the “The Good Wife” audience mixing it up with “West Wing”, with a strong and attractive female central character played by Tea Leoni. I am a great fan of Leoni, despite the fact that she has never really had a “great” screen role: my favourite films of hers are “Family Man”, “Fun With Dick and Jane” and “Ghost Town”, none of which qualify as truly memorable, despite their warm hearts and Leoni’s warm performances.

In “Madam Secretary” (which she also co-produces), Leoni plays Elizabeth McCord, a former CIA agent turned history academic who gets tapped to become the Secretary of State. It’s a great set-up, with endless possibilities around the conflict between academia and governmental service, the former CIA connections and the nature of women in the halls of power. Sadly, despite the attractiveness of the cast, I am left underwhelmed. Sadly, I should say. McCord has a wonderful husband, a religion and ethics professor (played by Tim Daly); wouldn’t all professional women want a man like that – he cooks, looks after the three handsome children during her inevitable long days and nights in the office, AND holds a full-time full professorship.

The show is popular, but it plot lines are simplistic and often unrealistic, the supporting cast mostly uninspiring, and – as Woody Allen would say – there are so few of them. Where is the rich panoply of supporting (and one-off) characters that we find in “The Good Wife”? Even the President (played by Keith Carradine) comes across as bland. Where indeed are her under-secretaries, the ambassador to the United Nations, the Secretary of Defense and the National Security Advisor?

There is also a basic issue with Leoni in this role: at age 48 (and a youthful-looking one at that), she is too young to be a Secretary of State. Hillary Clinton made it there at age 62. The current one, John Kerry, is almost 71. Sure, Condoleeza Rice was 51 when she took on the role, but at least she had been the National Security Advisor first. And that’s the natural role for Elizabeth McCord – with a possible elevation later on. But the producers were impatient, and the show is all the poorer for it.

A number of academics have risen to become Secretary of State. Aside from Rice (Stanford University), we have had Madeline Albright (Georgetown University) and Henry Kissinger (Harvard). When I studied at Cornell University in the 1970s, we even thought that my American history foreign policy professor, Walter LaFeber – now 81 years old and still going strong – was aiming at that office. I studied with him for two semesters, three lectures per week, which he did with no notes and a simple chalked outline that he wrote behind him. The third lecture was on Saturday mornings. And here’s the thing – in this day and age you might expect that few students would attend the Saturday lecture (or any, for that matter) – they were the best-attended. Why? Because people brought their friends and visitors. That was how well-respected and impressive LaFeber was on the Cornell campus at that time.

Was it just a rumour that LaFeber was interested in the role? Who knows. But “Madam Secretary” shows that this interest does not fade.

Tea Leoni as Madam Secretary


Jesse Eisenberg – an actor on his way

July 6, 2014

Like me, you may be continually astonished at how the young, physically underdeveloped and slender Jewish actor Jesse Eisenberg has been marking himself as one of the next “go to” Jewish creatives, with a strong and diverse resume that seems it will only get better with age.

David Denby, in the June 2, 2014 issue of The New Yorker, reviews two Eisenberg films – “Night Moves” and “The Double”, and captures something of Eisenberg’s essence:

Eisenberg was the latest smart-boy Jewish movie actor to hit the mainstream, but he wasn’t neurotic, like the young Dustin Hoffman; or self-deprecating, like the young Woody Allen; or bumptious, like Ben Stiller. He’s openly demanding, a nerd hiding his fears behind aggression.  Richard Dreyfuss did something similar, but Eisenberg is more nuanced.  His indelible performance as Mark Zuckerberg, in “The Social Network,” suggested that a new kind of personality had entered the world, a code-based brainiac who deals with life as if it were data. Racing through Aaron Sorkin’s brilliant script, Eisenberg short-circuits or wrong-foots other people.  Yet, on second viewing, you can see that for all his bullying speed, and the smirking put-downs, he ruffles the surface of Zuckerberg’s confidence and reveals an easily wounded temperament underneath.  Eisenberg is an economical actor, often relying on no more than a flutter of his eyelids, or a half smile, or a sweet glance that shades into contempt.  He is unafraid to play jerks, solipsists, narcissists.

He is also an accomplished playwright, contributor to The New Yorker, and has had two of the most noted male film performances in the past decade: playing Mark Zuckerberg in “The Social Network” (my pick for best film of 2010, in large part due to Zuckerberg) and the son in Baumbach’s “The Squid and the Whale” (2005). In fact, he played Zuckerberg so well that it took more than a year for the real Zuckerberg to re-instate his own persona to the public. Now, that’s acting.

(Note:  Zuckerberg grew up in East Brunswick, New Jersey, which is just a short bike ride from my home town of Highland Park.  But, like the best New Jerseyans, he has both kept a certain “New Jersey” core – intellectual, verbal, thoughtful, internal – as well as transcended his childhood.)


Brad Pitt and World War Z – a great hit – who wudda thought?

August 14, 2013

Today’s email brought a fascinating press release from the publicity department of Paramount Pictures Australia.  Here’s the title:  “’World War Z’ becomes Brad Pitt’s highest grossing worldwide release and his biggest domestic grossing film of all time”.

Dated yesterday (August 11, 2013) in Hollywood, CA, the release announces that,  “Brad Pitt’s ‘World War Z’ has now earned over $500 million at worldwide box office, making it the actor’s highest grossing worldwide release, surpassing the star’s ‘Troy’ which grossed $497.3 million globally”.  Of this amount, $197.4 million is in the USA (ed note: perhaps they mean North America, which includes Canada?) and $305.2 million outside of North America.  This has now outstripped Pitt’s previous best US box office – “Mr and Mrs Smith”, which has a total box office domestic gross of $186.3 million.

Who wudda thought?

There is much to “unpack” here.  First, I place “Troy” – with its confusing mix of accents – and “Mr and Mrs Smith” – with its nasty edge on domestic life, as two my LEAST favourite Brad Pitt movies.  (Okay, add “Tree of Life” to that too.)  So clearly I am in a minority.  But also remember that “Troy” was released in 2004 – nine years ago, and its approximate box office figure of $500 million – what with ticket price inflation – would be worth at least $657 million (say, 31% more) now.  (Click here for Brad Pitt’s Box Office Mojo page – all details in one place!)  Yet again, the public relations people ignore the reality of history and the facts of economics ….

And note how “World War Z” has earned a good 60% of its box office OUTSIDE of North America.

In “World War Z”, Brad Pitt plays Gerry Lane, a former United Nations public health specialist (hooray for the public health professionals) who saves the world – as a matter of speaking – from a zombie plague.  Yeah, that plague.

“World War Z”, to its credit, takes the whole premise seriously (no “winks” at the audience here).  And part of the film is set in Israel (although apparently filmed in Malta), as the Pitt character travels there because the Israelis reportedly had predicted the pandemic and took precautions in advance.  There has been much online discussion about the positive portrayal of Israel in the film.  (Yeah, watch the film and see exactly what happens at the end of the Israel section.  Positive?)  Israeli actress Daniella Kartesz has a starring role opposite Pitt, playing an Israeli soldier – not a love interest, but a brave one.

Here’s an interesting video story from “Jewish News One” about Kartesz, who is likely to have quite a career.

Don’t get me wrong; I liked “World War Z” a lot.  The opening scenes were genuinely some of the most chilling I have seen in a movie in a long time – the slow dawning of realisation that life as they know it has disappeared forever.  It’s just the misplaced box office hype that bothers me.