The August Clown
Interview with Jerry Lewis
by Serge Daney and Serge Toubiana
To meet Jerry Lewis—even sick, even bitter, even in the gilt of the hotel Interconti-Mental—is a very moving thing. The Jekyll side and Hyde side camp together on his barely aged face. Here's a clown "who makes funny faces" (as if to reassure us he's actually Jerry Lewis) and a man who, at the age of 54, doesn't know yet if he'll follow the typical path of the great comedians, the path towards the tragic.
CAHIERS: We haven't seen you on French screens for six or seven years. And in France there are many Jerry Lewis fans, even among film critics, us for example. I just read that you once told Benayoun that comedy is always about a man in trouble. The question is: have you had trouble?
JERRY LEWIS: Yes? Me? No. It's comedy that's a man in trouble. Are you sitting in front of the idiot you've seen on the screen now? O.K. Don't confuse the two characters. (Pause) I didn't want to make movies anymore. I'd hoped that would change. I didn't want my work in the same theaters as DEEP THROAT. And this has changed. We are in the process of putting porno films back where they should be.
CAHIERS: But your audience wasn't the same as the porno film audience...
JERRY LEWIS: My audience would've been forced to go see them. Not necessarily forced, but that's what ended up happening. I was very happy to pull back and wait. I didn't stay at home doing nothing.
CAHIERS: What makes you think it's changing now?
JERRY LEWIS: There is no reason for the trend not to reverse and stay there. In the current state of things, there's a lot of housekeeping to do. And everyone is responsible, even those who have nothing to do with it. Cinema is one of the greatest cultures that man has ever had.
CAHIERS: But when you work in television, are you unhappy? Even when you do your show?
JERRY LEWIS: I don't like television.
CAHIERS: Because one can't work properly?
JERRY LEWIS: They don't believe in perfection. Is it good? No, but it's ready now. That's how they work. I cannot work like that.
CAHIERS: But by making movies can you achieve perfection?
JERRY LEWIS: Yes. Of course, we never reach perfection. But the cinema gives you a better chance of approaching it. You make a film, it's forever. Now on television everything is on tape and we erase it. Cinema is a universal means of communication. I communicate better with people in foreign countries than with other people.
CAHIERS: We've wondered here if a clown character would work on television?
JERRY LEWIS: I don't believe so. Television... the simple view of television... Look at this box (he points out a sumptuous tv set in the room and opens it). To communicate, you need concentration. Listen, Absorb. Maintain a thought. Look at this set. It's off. Yet I see a table, a couch, a statue with bare breasts. My training was a darkened theater where there's concentration, larger than life. That (vengeful gesture towards tv), is smaller than life. Just this information, unconsciously and psychologically, makes you look at tiny characters, dwarves. Remember when you were a child and you tried to measure with your fingers the distance between two stars? It's la meme chose. For me. If I go to the cinema... WAW!, it takes me, and there is a place for me, for you and you and you. We can all communicate between each other; that's why when we're in a cinema and the movie is bad, it's really bad. For me it's, (hateful gesture), it's about news and sports. Because in sports there is nothing to communicate but who wins and who loses. If you watch a football match and a player scores a goal... (he applauds) The image of a little man is fine, it doesn't have to be larger than life. But if you want to touch people, their hearts and minds, you can't be distracted. You've all seen that in Hollywood (he holds his hand out while looking the other way): "Hello! Nice to see you..." Bullshit. Distraction. And I say let's take these people and put them in a dark empty room with just a little light on them and they will shake hands and yes, they will meet!
CAHIERS: Do you believe that producers, the people who have the money, believe as much in comedy as they did before?
JERRY LEWIS: To do a good job? No. This is the system: Is it good? No, but it's ready now. THE GIRL THAT ATE DENVER makes money! She is twenty-five feet tall and she can eat three planes at a time. Rrrrah! If it makes money, they will make the film: there should be more people like Sam Goldwyn who did THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES without knowing in advance if it was going to make money, and that's a film rich in meaning, in communication. There are some, there's George Roy Hill who wanted to do and did THE STING. What a film!
CAHIERS: We know very little about your other film THE DAY THE CLOWN CRIED and we'd like you to tell us a bit more about it. What's the relation between the theme of the clown in a comic film and a serious film, or is there, I believe, a reflection on the social meaning of the clown...?
JERRY LEWIS: I don't know if there's a social meaning to the clown... It's easier for me to communicate that way, that's all. I am a clown. Even if I don't wear clown makeup all the time. We can be sure it's always the comic, the clown, the one who makes us laugh, who is the first to communicate, without even the people realizing the communication, sometimes without the clown knowing it himself. In France, I'm told that I do things that I did not know. Yet I'm the author, I know what I wrote. I remember a French journalist who wrote that since I was showing a big woman in one of my films, I had a hairy fat woman in my childhood. Baloney! Unless you want to take me by the hand and bring me to doctor Freud... The meaning of the clown in the world today? It's that the clown doesn't take himself seriously and that the world does. Much too seriously, but not enough. People don't know what matters most. They agree, too much importance. The world is vast. We don't stay on it for very long and we must stop making a garbage heap of it. One of the great recipes for that is to make people laugh. If we'd made Idi Amin laugh more, he would have had less time to hate.
CAHIERS: In the movie made about him, he laughs a lot... but like an ogre.
JERRY LEWIS: Yes. Good film. Good director. A propaganda film of course... Same thing with Hitler. Hitler walked very straight when there were cameras around; when there were no cameras, he walked like a cripple*.
CAHIERS: Is THE DAY THE CLOWN CRIED a funny film?
JERRY LEWIS: It's a serious film. Completely.
CAHIERS: So this time you didn't want to make the people laugh but to make them think or to move them...
JERRY LEWIS: ...to remember. They must remember. If they do not remember, they will be condemned to repeat it. One of my sons asked me about HOLOCAUST, if it really existed. Every five years we must say to our children: yes, it existed. Many people don't want to remember, because it's painful. But they do not see the danger of it happening again.
CAHIERS: What do you think of HOLOCAUST (1978, Marvin J. Chomsky)?
JERRY LEWIS: I think they made a huge effort. But I had the feeling they were scared. Of what? I don't know. At first they had great courage and then halfway, they made a compromise. It's a very difficult story to tell. And then they gave too much importance to dialogue, to words. There is much more to show. The audience does not want to hear things, it wants to see. I don't remember what I saw more than what I heard. Did they show HOLOCAUST here? Has it been successful? At least we're sure that it will be shown on television, that people will see it. But for different reasons. They will show it to make money, to make profits. There is a whole neo-nazi movement in the United States. Maybe if they see HOLOCAUST two or three times, we'll get rid of them. What scares me is not that, it's how stupid people are.
CAHIERS: Can you tell us the theme of THE DAY THE CLOWN CRIED?
JERRY LEWIS: The theme is simple. There were clowns who accompanied the children into the gas chambers. I researched it for three and a half years. Everywhere, from Dachau to Auschwitz. I lived with a family in Heidelberg for a week. The man had been a researcher for Hitler. Hitler wanted to know everything about everything. His biggest fear was the children. He was terrorized by the children. He could not lie to them and the children, it was them he remembered. He believed that the minds of adults could be shaped, but not those of the children. He was afraid they would grow up, that they would remember and escape him. Of the twenty million people who were killed (I never speak about six million Jews, even if, as a Jew, I am more sensitive to the fact that six million of my people were killed -- because there were many more victims, the Poles, etc.) three quarters were children, from six to eighteen years old. The story is, fundamentally, this fear of children. The children cry, make noise, something the adults don't do. So they go find this clown in a circus, an old German clown, Helmut, and they promise to save his life if he keeps the children quiet. And at the end, he goes with them into the gas chamber. It's not a funny movie. It was very difficult. It took two or three years of my life. But when I finish it, I think I can be proud of it. That said, I'll be happy to return to my idiot role, after that. You know, I play the role of a man of seventy-five; I lost forty-four pounds, I looked like that (makes his hand straight, like a stick). I asked the tailor to make my prison clothes two-times too big for me. Pouah!
CAHIERS: What happened to the film?
JERRY LEWIS: It's still in Sweden. Now all the legal problems are in order, we got rid of the gangster, a French producer who lives here; I was told he had a heart attack, not fatal unfortunately. As soon as I finish this tour and I'm back--I have to play again in Las Vegas and prepare my new film--I'll go to Stockholm and spend three months to finish it. I hope to have it finished for Cannes next year.
CAHIERS: On French television not long ago we saw A KING IN NEW YORK by Chaplin. It was surprising to see how, as he aged, Chaplin became bitter. Most comedians judge others and society more and more as they age, and are morally more and more demanding. Their films become tougher. Do you think this could apply to you?
JERRY LEWIS: If they do to me what they did to Chaplin, yes. I don't think it's as inevitable as all that. There is nothing that I should be bitter about. Chaplin had many reasons to be bitter. Sometimes this hardness is just the expression of a job less well done. The artist realizes it and tries to force things. But Chaplin, they broke his heart. They were unfair to him. Today, can anyone tell me if Chaplin was a communist? And if he had been, what does that have to do with his work? As long as his work makes people happy... There are certainly people doing good work today who may be communists, but I don't care, as long as it doesn't hurt anyone . The last time I was in Paris, I did a series of interviews and I didn't know that one of the journalists I was speaking to was a communist. So what? I was initially worried and then I wondered why: they were good people, they printed what I said, which is not always the case... Nobody comes and explains to me what a communist is. My children asked me this question, I answered: I'll tell you, I'm going to Europe to find out. But I agree with you about A KING IN NEW YORK. What a film!
CAHIERS: And the relations between the king and the child are very strange, not at all sentimental.
JERRY LEWIS: Yes, but if it had been sentimental, it would've still been reproached. I find that soft and sentimental people do not realize when they are sentimental, and that people who are sentimental want you to be, they get angry because you remind them that they are sentimental themselves. How dare you be sentimental when it is so easy for you and so difficult for me to admit! But in the time I spent with Chaplin, he never mentioned A KING IN NEW YORK. He talked about everything except this movie. Interesting... I myself have never spoken to him about it. We have rather talked about the MODERN TIMES and THE GREAT DICTATOR, MONSIEUR VERDOUX, LIMELIGHT... It wouldn't immediately come to mind if you asked me what films he made. It's thanks to Chaplin that we have the cinema. He made it walk. It was nice of the Academy Awards to wait until he was almost dead to award him. Another ten minutes and they would've missed him! Like with Stan Laurel. I think I'm going to write them a letter: don't do this to me**, give me now what you'll give to me when I'm eighty-four, give it to me immediately, while I'm still young enough to dance up that scene without shame.
CAHIERS: In this regard, is having been recognized by French critics a good or bad thing in the United States?
JERRY LEWIS: Wonderful. The best thing that's happened to me in my life. It gives me the opportunity to tell American critics what I think of them. The American critics think that the French are stupid because they like what I do. That's why when I want to feel better, I leave America and come here. It's not the American public; they have always been wonderful to me. But in France, I have both, the critics and the public. I have been fighting with American critics all my life, because they are liars, they do not watch films. There is a critic who wrote about a piece of film that I'd eliminated from the final cut... But he had read the pressbook (we didn't have time to correct it) and he criticized what he read inside it. And besides, he liked this scene whereas if I'd removed it, it's precisely because it was bad! The bastard. All critics are not like that, almost all of them... Without the French critics, the French public, my French friends, I might've dropped everything a long time ago. Because they end up taking from you, driving you crazy. I go to Paris as often as I can. I walk down the street and it stimulates me, it's good for my creativity. I want to come to France and work here, make a film. I think it would be good for me.
CAHIERS: One last question: what do you think of the new generation of American filmmakers?
JERRY LEWIS: I like them. But you have to watch them. Spielberg is a good filmmaker. But we should've never let him make 1941 (1979). He's not a comic filmmaker. When you have success in a field, you mustn't change. The man who's very good at repairing the phone, should he also be a brain surgeon? No. If you don't watch the young filmmakers, they'll be eaten alive by the money-men. Spielberg, Lucas, Bogdanovich, Randy Kleiser, they were all my students. They risk disappearing either because they cannot master their success, or because the money-men will steal their talent, turn it on their heads, and not know what to do with it. It's like wine, if you open it too early, it's vinegar. We can't speed up the creative process. We don't do in a year what takes twenty-five years to grow. Hemingway did not begin by writing THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA. We learn from what we've done, not from what others tell us. And we are our best judges. Because we know what we did. When we're young we get our heads together, we figure out that what we do is good. But great works come from big mistakes, not great successes. I don't like it, but that's how it is. And the young American filmmakers you're talking about, they've learned their craft but haven't learned patience. We are all impatient in a way, but if you are too impatient, you won't last long. Then there are those who make mistakes, can't stand it and slink away.
Cahiers du Cinéma
May 1980, No. 311(Translation: Andy Rector)
*This conviction of Lewis' is thoroughly demonstrated in his film ten years prior, WHICH WAY TO THE FRONT? (1970), where his character, the billionaire Brendan Byers, must masquerade as the Nazi General Erich Kesselring (brother and lover to Hitler) and perfect the General's spastic limp via rehearsals before an an act of historical sabotage is set in motion (cf. the pealing off and on of roles inside fascism and resistance to it in TO BE OR NOT TO BE [Lubitsch, 1942]). In the same vein, it's worth remembering the categorization of Hitler as "a failed thespian" by both Hanns Eisler (in his conversations with Hans Bunge, 1958-1962) and by Charlie Chaplin (through his famously reported laughter during a screening of TRIUMPH OF THE WILL). -A.R.
**Jerry Lewis was given an honorary Oscar at the exact same age as Chaplin, age 83, beating his prediction by one year. -A.R.
MAYBE WE CAN GET IT WEAVED — No. 1 — "Twelve Memoranda for Jerry Lewising" by Murray Pomerance — is here.