Jerry Lewis: Le Nutty Professor Takes Cannes

At the festival to promote a new movie, the 87-year-old entertainer basks — if a bit uncomfortably — in the glow of an adoring audience

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Lightstream Pictures

A half-century ago, French film critics proclaimed Jerry Lewis a master auteur for the raucous comedies he wrote, directed and starred in. At the time, it was hard to say which side took more derisive heat from mainstream America: Lewis or France. But time heals all wounds, or wounds all heels; and nostalgia is a narcotic stronger than contempt. So when the 87-year-old tummler arrived yesterday at the Cannes Film Festival to promote Max Rose, his first movie in 18 years, it was treated like a state visit from the King of Comedy — which happens to be the name of the Martin Scorsese picture that last brought Le Jer to Cannes 30 years ago.

He had merited the warm welcome; his iconic career stretches back two-thirds of a century. At 20, in 1946, the goony kid with a farceur’s manic, iconoclastic energy teamed with Dean Martin and became smash duo in night clubs. Three years later Martin and Lewis conquered Hollywood in a string of 14 comedies; they also packed the crowds for theater performances, starred on a prime and primal TV variety show and sold million of records. When they split in 1956, Lewis starred in nearly a score of Paramount japes (The Bellboy, The Ladies Man and, above all, The Nutty Professor), the very films that secured his Pantheon status with the French. These moneymaking movies earned him little acclaim at home; and when the Motion Picture Academy finally gave him a life achievement citation, in 2009, it was for his charity work, not his filmmaking — which had to gall him.

(READ: An Oscar at Last for Jerry Lewis)

And speaking of Gaul: The French do know how to pin medals on their champions. The government named Lewis a Chevalier in the Légion d’honneur in 1984 and a full-fledged Commandeur in 2006. Given François Hollande’s low approval rating these days, the voters may soon make Jer the first American President of France. Jer returned the favors at the press conference yesterday for Max Rose. When a journalist started a question about France’s “fondness” for his work, he instantly interrupted: “A fondness? They kept me alive for 50 years.”

Looking game and fit as he strode into the conference hall in a red sweater over a yellow shirt, Lewis immediately asserted his dominance when he tested the microphone and barked to the sound engineer, “You got a button there that says ‘Up’. You came to work. Move the volume up!” In what the Los Angeles Times described as an “awkward” session, the star lurched between charm and combativeness, jokes that worked and some that didn’t, as if he were trying out old material on a new and skeptical audience. He raised some rancor by trotting out his long-held antipathy toward women comics. “I cannot sit and watch a lady diminish her qualities to the lowest common denominator,” he said. “My favorite female comedians? Cary Grant and Burt Reynolds.” Quizzed about his (loving, prickly) relationship with Martin, Lewis announced, as if the journalist hadn’t heard, “He died, you know [in 1995], and added mournfully, “When I arrived here and he wasn’t here, I knew something was wrong.”

(READ: Richard Corliss’s 1996 tribute to Dean Martin)

Lewis dismissed his 1972 drama The Day the Clown Cried, in which he played a circus performer in a Nazi concentration camp. The film was never released, and Lewis said yesterday, won’t be. “I thought the work was bad,” he told the press. “It was all bad. And it was bad because I lost the magic, and that’s all I can tell you about it. You’ll never see it. No one will ever see it because I’m embarrassed at the poor work. And that’s that.” Comedian and historian Harry Shearer has speculated that Lewis made this Holocaust tearjerker to finally win Oscar acceptance. Twenty-six years later, Italian comic Robert Benigni worked the same premise into his Life Is Beautiful, for which he won three Oscars, including for Best Actor. That night, a Hollywood clown had to be crying.

As sad as he was about the failure of his 1972 film, that’s how pleased he purported to be about his new one, a first feature from writer-director Daniel Noah. “The wonderful thing about this script,” Lewis said, “is that it is about elderly people who have been thrown away. It is a very different thing to do for the crazy clown that has been doing one thing for 60 years .. but it is an incredible movie that is going to give a lot of people a lot of pleasure, and that’s the idea. And I will meet you all at the bank.”

(SEE: Jerry Lewis, the Clown Icon, in pictures)

Don’t ink that meeting onto your calendar just yet. Max Rose has yet to find a distributor in the U.S. or abroad and, should it be released, won’t burn up the box office. It relates the story of Max (Lewis), a jazz pianist with one pop hit back in 1959, as he copes with the death of Eva (Claire Bloom), his wife of 65 years. He rejects the clumsy care of his son Chris (Kevin Pollak) while embracing the warmer benevolence of Chris’s daughter Annie (Kelly Bishé). Max learns that Eva had a secret admirer back in 1959: a movie producer named Ben Tracey (Dean Stockwell), whom Max finally confronts to see who loved this lovely woman more. The movie is a dewy valentine in funeral time, a last rite administered with extreme unction.

As a sympathetic observer of Jerry’s big night, one grasps for straws marked Likable. So: Max’s one-hit wonder is a plangent new ballad composed by the 81-year-old Michel Legrand (who also attended the Cannes screening) and Marilyn and Alan Bergman. A dinner at Musso & Frank’s extends into a jam session of reminiscence with Max’s old pals, including Mort Sahl and Rance Howard (Ron’s dad, who plays Bruce Dern’s brother in Nebraska, also shown here); Jerry reprises his long-ago shtick of miming the playing of every instrument in the band. More important, Lewis does surprisingly well in showing a fury of grieving that soon reveals itself as guilt pain. This clown is beyond crying. He knows that the dead are dead — and that the surviving spouse becomes the walking dead, carrying the soul of his beloved in a broken heart.

(READ: Bruce Handy’s 1996 review of a Jerry Lewis biography)

Entering the official screening in a tux whose bow tie he had unfurled around his neck, the way Vegas headliners used do toward the end of their shows, Jer was a bit less chatty than he had been at the press conference. He took the standing ovation in stride, then shouted, in the old Jer countertenor, “I wanna sit down!” Festival director Thierry Frémaux, the evening’s host, asked Lewis if he cared to say a few words and received another brusque shout: “No!”

At the end of the screening, after another standing ovation — and between us, Cannes audiences routinely hand these out like junk mail — the erstwhile King of Comedy got into a limousine for the after-film banquet. As the car pulled away, a lone man applauded the old Jer in recognition of the anarchic pleasure the young Jer had afforded him on TV and in the movies. Even a TIME movie critic can feel gratitude for the King of Comedy.