Jerry Lewis: The King of Comedy has Left Us

Jerry Lewis passed away this past Sunday. For many, who only know his annual telethon toJerry Lewis raise money for Muscular Dystrophy, they have missed out on one of the true greats of film comedy. I came to know Lewis first through his variety show on television and his films with Dean Martin. They were a perfect team, like Laurel and Hardy. Their personalities played off each other in an almost musical way. But not long after I began watching Martin and Lewis films, I discovered a book at the local library called ‘The Total Filmmaker’. It’s author: Jerry Lewis.

I was a film geek starting in sixth grade. I began shooting Super-8 movies, writing screenplays, and directing the neighborhood kids to die on cue. I read every book I could get my hands on about making films or film history. Here was a book by an artist I admired in which he shared his feelings about the medium and some of his techniques.

I learned about the films Lewis made after he and Dean Martin went their separate ways – ‘The Errand Boy’, ‘The Nutty Professor’, and ‘Cinderfella’. He borrowed from the silent comedians who had only their bodies and faces with which to express themselves. And not just Americans. There was a fair bit of Jacques Tati mixed in with Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd.

In his book, Lewis described how his love of the medium had started while shooting the Martin and Lewis films. He wrote that between setups he would wander off to talk to the guys up in the catwalks to find out what they did. He would lose track of time learning about the different types of lights. They would have to send someone out to find him to resume shooting.

There was one thing in the book that did not compute with my sixth-grade mind. Lewis described the act of ‘licking celluloid’ as if it were an intoxicant. Only later, as an adult, did I finally come to understand what Lewis meant.

Lewis claimed to have invented video playback, and many have given him credit. Being able to watch a take immediately after it was shot by recording a separate video image has become the way films are made.

Lewis’ career went through peaks and valleys. While he continued to perform live in clubs across the country, his films ceased to hold the public’s interest – in the United States, anyway. In France, Jerry Lewis was lauded as one of the great film comedians of all time.

I remember one performance from his variety show. He was in the stands watching a red-carpet reception for a film premiere. There’s no dialog. He just watches, waves, tries to get close. Then he gets a brain storm. He paints his chinos and windbreaker black. Sneakers, too. He puts on a scrap of black fabric for a tie. And he strolls down the red carpet himself.

Martin Scorsese was a fan. He cast Lewis in his film ‘The King of Comedy’. If you haven’t seen this film, you have missed one of Robert DeNiro’s greatest performances. Lewis plays a talk show host. DeNiro plays a fan named Rupert Pupkin, who kidnaps Lewis. In a strange twist on the skit from Lewis’ variety show, DeNiro (With the help of Sandra Bernard) forces Lewis to interview him on television, so he can be just like all the stars he sees on TV.

Much has been said, and there has been much speculation about, Lewis’ reason for making Muscular Dystrophy his personal cause. Regardless of the reason, he personally raised many millions of dollars for research into this debilitating neuro-muscular disease. May he rest in peace.

 

 

Ion Overload on the Back of the Dragon

It is 2011.

Vince is dying. We have several phone conversations. He reminds me of things from

Little Corona at Sunset. ‘The Back of the Dragon’ in silhouette. Photo by Mark Shadley.

when we were in college. My Les Paul. Songs I wrote. He reminds me of my pilgrimages to ‘The Back of the Dragon’.

I haven’t been in decades. We decide to go there, but the latest treatment has knocked him down. It was crazy thinking he would have been able to make it down to the beach, let alone up onto the Dragon’s Back. So I went there in his honor. I rode ‘The Back of the Dragon’ once more, and I recorded it for Vince.

It is 1977.

Senior year. We have part-time school schedules and part-time jobs. Once a week we drive to Little Corona straight from school. We lay on the beach, swim in the surf, ride the rushing current through ‘The Chute’.

It’s a jet-propelled water slide. In the ocean.

We read Vonnegut’s ‘Breakfast of Champions’ aloud sitting in a circle. We hold it up and show the author’s hand-drawn illustrations, like we’re in first grade. The Dragon is in front of me but I do not see it.

It is 1980.

I have an epiphany about people’s moods improving at the beach. I imagine there is something happening at the particle level, the exchange of liquid and solid that is releasing something into the air.

I have intuited ‘The Ion Effect’. A friend loans me a book explaining that Ions are negatively-charged particles that we take in via respiration. Breathing ions improves people’s moods.

Idea: Places where water strikes hard surfaces really hard is optimal for releasing ions. I go to Little Corona to the rocks. That’s when I see it. There’s a line of rocks receding into the ocean resembling the back of a submerged Dragon.

I climb to the top of the tallest rock. There’s a cleft on the edge like a seat. My legs dangle over the water crashing against the rock below. The ions come straight up the rock into my face.

I go back when the moon is full and the tide is high. It’s a powerful experience.

I’m grateful to Vince for reminding me about it.

Curtis Hanson: In Memoriam

Curtis Hanson died last week. He had not been well for some time and rumors In Memoriam Curtis Hansoncirculated he was suffering from the onset of a form of dementia. His last film was, Chasing Mavericks in 2012, but he was unable to finish the film due to ill health. He was replaced by Michael Apted

Hanson was born in Reno, Nevada. In something of a parallel to Stanley Kubrick, Hanson dropped out of high school, finding work as a freelance photographer and editor for Cinema magazine.

Hanson worked on the screenplay for ‘The Dunwich Horror’, based on the short story by H. P. Lovecraft, in 1970.

He began making small-budget films, working up to larger productions. He wrote the screenplay and directed ‘The Bedroom Window’ and directed ‘The River Wild’.

Hanson claimed as influences Alfred Hitchcock and Nicholas Ray. He gravitated towards suspense thrillers.

While I admire the grit of Hanson’s film ‘8 Mile’, his films based on the books of James Ellroy and Michael Chabon were my personal favorites. It was Hanson’s adaptation of Ellroy’s ‘L.A. Confidential’, the third novel in his ‘L.A. Quartet’, where it all came together.

Brian Helgeland met Curtis Hanson during post production on ‘The River Wild’. Helgeland had been trying to convince Warner Brothers to let him make ‘L.A. Confidential’. But Warner Bros. hired Hanson instead of him. Hanson saw promise in Helgeland, who recognizes Hanson took a chance when he brought him aboard the project.

“Curtis started out as a screen writer and had done horror films in his younger days, as I had,” said Helgeland in a recent interview. “In a funny sort of way, Curtis saw a younger version of himself in me.”

“We basically worked on our own dime a lot of it. I did a lot of drafts that I didn’t get paid for, but Curtis was always this cheerleader for the film. Not rah rah, just this kind of grim cheerleader and wouldn’t take no for an answer, so it was kind of, that was his big thing was to just put this thing on his shoulders and not put it down till he got it made.”

Hanson’s belief in the project, and in Hegeland, paid off handsomely. The film is the best adaptation of Ellroy’s work to date. ‘L.A. Confidential’ was a hit at the box office and has had a long life in rentals and streaming. Hanson and Hegeland shared the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar for their work on ‘L.A. Confidential’.

And Hanson’s career was made.

After L.A. Confidential, Hanson worked on a screenplay and read scripts looking for his next project. Screenwriter Steve Kloves, (The Fabulous Baker Boys) had written a script based on Michael Chabon’s second novel, Wonder Boys. Hanson loved the characters. They made him laugh. He identified with the Grady Tripp character and the frustration building inside him. The film ‘Wonder Boys’ is a beautifully crafted comedy of errors that completely captures the chaos and hilarity of Chabon’s book.

Hanson continued to make features and, in 2011, he directed Too Big to Fail, based on the 2009 Andrew Ross Sorkin book. It was the last film he was to complete in his lifetime.

Regarding which character in their film Hanson identified with the most, Helgeland said:

“I think ironically, he associated more with Kevin Spacey’s character, [Jack] Vincennes, because Vincennes had sort of existed on the fringes of Hollywood. And not that Curtis was on the fringes of Hollywood, but he wasn’t an A-list go to guy at the time. And I think he had a lot to prove cause he loved Hollywood so much and he loved movies so much. And he knew he had this great movie in him, but…he had to give himself the chance to make it. It wasn’t going to be given to him.”

Curtis Hanson will be missed.