The ge­nius of Jerry Lewis

Doc­u­men­tary film re­veals what makes slap­stick co­me­dian tick, writes Lynn Elber

The Gold Coast Bulletin - Play Magazine - - TV -

GREGG Bar­son is a doc­u­men­tar­ian, not a co­me­dian. But when Jerry Lewis let him know that more than a dozen peo­ple were wait­ing in line to tell his story, Bar­son of­fered a per­sua­sive punch line.

‘‘Yeah, but they’re not me,’’ is Bar­son’s come­back, fol­lowed by a mo­men­tary quiver of fear that he’d gone too far with the vet­eran star.

‘‘He said, ‘I like that. You know why? Be­cause you re­mind me of me’,’’ Bar­son re­calls. That chutz­pah-fu­elled ex­change led to Method to the Mad­ness of Jerry Lewis, a film that fo­cuses on what makes the 85-year-old, who’s still work­ing, tick as a per­former and film­maker.

Those look­ing for gos­sip on his fam­ily life or the break-up with stage and screen part­ner Dean Martin or his abrupt de­par­ture from the Mus­cu­lar Dys­tro­phy As­so­ci­a­tion telethon he’d nur­tured for nearly five decades won’t find it here.

Bar­son, who de­scribes him­self as be­ing ‘‘in heaven’’ when­ever he caught a Lewis film on TV as a young­ster, says his in­tent was to fo­cus on Lewis’s ca­reer from vaude­ville on and his con­tri­bu­tions to com­edy and movies.

Younger peo­ple with­out ex­po­sure to Lewis’s work likely con­sider him as ‘‘that telethon guy’’.

‘‘Hope­fully, the film will open their eyes,’’ Bar­son says.

Dur­ing more than three years of film­ing, Bar­son had near-com­plete ac­cess as he

Method to the Mad­ness fol­lowed Lewis from his yacht in San Diego to his home in Las Ve­gas to con­cert dates and to the Cannes Film Fes­ti­val in France, the coun­try that idolises Lewis as a cin­e­matic ge­nius. He was good com­pany, says Bar­son. ‘‘He’s al­ways up, funny and play­ful . . . The sparkle, he didn’t put in on for the cam­era. He’s be­ing real.’’

Method to the Mad­ness, which opens with Jerry Se­in­feld, Ed­die Mur­phy and other co­me­di­ans anoint­ing Lewis as com­edy roy­alty, is an un­abashed valen­tine. It is also a re­minder that Lewis in­spired rock-star lev­els of fan de­vo­tion, and of how im­pres­sively The Bell­boy (1960) and many other films star­ring and writ­ten and di­rected by Lewis ruled the box of­fice.

Bar­son, who made the well­re­ceived Phyl­lis Diller doc­u­men­tary Good­night, We Love You, sees par­al­lels be­tween Diller and Lewis, in­clud­ing their work ethic.

‘‘She was 84 when she re­tired, and he’s 85 and still work­ing. They never rest on their lau­rels,’’ Bar­son says.

‘‘They still care. They’re not phon­ing it in.’’

And that, he said, is part of Lewis’s method: Ev­ery as­pect of his per­for­mance is planned.

‘‘As Ed­die Mur­phy says (in the film), slap­stick looks sim­ple but the rea­son it’s been around so long is how well thought out it is,’’ Bar­son says.

Lewis is pleased with the film. And his health is good, ac­cord­ing to the film­maker, who spills one appropriately quirky per­sonal se­cret on his sub­ject: ‘‘He drinks a lot of orange soda. Maybe that’s the foun­tain of youth.’’

Method to the Mad­ness of Jerry Lewis: Com­ing in 2012.

Jerry Lewis is the sub­ject of

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