“I should explain,” Jerry Lewis said early on last night at the Museum of the Moving Image, “this is [happening] because I’m going to be 90.” The line got plenty of hearty laughter…but the laughter, in fact, began even before the night’s event officially began, when, during the museum’s chief curator David Schwartz and Comedy Hall of Fame director Jeff Pancer offered up their introductions, Lewis was already half-audible from backstage, cracking jokes and chuckling loudly.
The event was a tribute to the legendary comedian/filmmaker that was part of “Iconic Characters of Comedy,” an occasional discussion series presented by both the Queens, N.Y. museum and the Comedy Hall of Fame. More than a tribute, though, the evening was a conversation between two filmmakers, as the evening’s moderator was fellow filmmaker Martin Scorsese.
Scorsese, of course, directed Lewis in his corrosive 1983 showbiz satire “The King of Comedy,” in which Lewis played a late-night talk-show host that obsessive fan and aspiring comic Rupert Pupkin (Robert De Niro) idolizes. Naturally, their experience working together on that film popped up on occasion, especially in one exchange towards the end, when Scorsese admitted, “As that picture was being made, I realized how close I was to Rupert and part of Jerry there, in a way, and it was hard for me to face it every day.” Upon hearing from Scorsese that it had been a 100-day shoot, Lewis cracked, “You could get to know the script by then!”
For the most part, though, their hour or so of conversation alternated between a humble inquiry on Scorsese’s part to probe Lewis’s acting and filmmaking methods, and a lighthearted exchange of battle scars by two generals of cinema having weathered many days and nights in the battlefield to realize their particular visions.
Scorsese as a passionate cinephile was certainly evident throughout. But though the conversation began a discussion of the films and filmmakers that made the biggest impression on Lewis—with the comic actor citing Victor Fleming’s 1937 adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s “Captains Courageous” and Billy Wilder as among his most profound early influences—Scorsese eventually asked more specific questions about aspects of Lewis’s craft: his use of music in his directorial efforts, his pioneering use of “video assist”—a system of viewing an instant-video version of a take right after it had been filmed—during the filmmaking process, his approach to editing, and so on.
Lewis was a fountain of insights and anecdotes regarding his perspective on such matters—perhaps not surprising coming from the author of “The Total Film-Maker,” considered by many to be one of the seminal books about filmmaking (and one that, Lewis revealed, is currently in the process of being updated for a new edition). At one point, he discussed the difficulties of directing himself while also trying to direct his actors. “Sometimes he gave me problems,” Lewis said, with “he” referring to himself. “It’s when he got overly anxious, he would screw me up. And I would yell to the crew, ‘Tea time! Get coffee or do something, because I got to have a talk with the star of the movie.’ I looked in the mirror and I said, ‘You wanna make this? What is your plan?’”
As for video assist—for which Lewis went all the way to Tokyo and met with Sony founder Akio Morita and his family in order to help develop the technology before he tried it out on “The Bellboy“—Lewis explained that the reason for it was because he didn’t want to ask anyone how the take was. “Jesus, if I don’t know how it is, why am I asking you? But I knew there was a way for me to see what I was doing,” he said. It became a handy tool for him to not only see what exactly he was doing on-camera, but to more easily direct other actors. “You could tell an actor a hundred times about weight distribution…but we rolled the video assist, showed it to the actor, he went into the set and did it perfectly.” (For his part, Scorsese said he first used this approach, with two-inch videotape, in “The King of Comedy“; it has since become a commonplace system on shoots.)
At other times, Scorsese and Lewis commiserated about filmmaking challenges, from one director to another. Upon hearing Lewis complain about the irritation of seeing footage messed up by extras in the background that he accidentally lost track of, Scorsese agreed in recognition, even offering jokes of his own: “I scream very often, ‘Who is he? Who is that man? Get his name; I’ll sue him!’” A similar sense of solidarity descended upon the stage when Lewis discussed the peril of re-shooting a scene in order to try a different approach, then realizing that your initial way was better after all; Scorsese’s reaction upon hearing this evinced a strong whiff of “been there, done that.”
None of this is to suggest that Lewis had abandoned his comic side in order to talk shop. One of the biggest laughs of the night came after Lewis reminisced about the brilliance of Kathleen Freeman, his leading lady in many of his directorial efforts. Unprompted, Lewis then joked, “I love when people say, ‘Is it true that you had an affair with all of your leading ladies?’ I said, ‘You think that’s true? I worked with Agnes Moorehead…She grabbed me a couple of times!’”