Legendary comedian Jerry Lewis received two standing ovations at MoMA on Sunday: One upon entering the world premiere of “Max Rose,” a new drama starring Lewis as the titular character, and another following a Q&A in which Lewis poked fun at virtually everyone who looked at him, while also thanking all in attendance for being a “terrific audience.”
Packed with scores of lifelong Lewis fans, the event took place one month after a MoMA retrospective of Lewis’s career entitled “Happy Birthday, Mr. Lewis: The Kid Turns 90.”
Shot in early 2013, “Rose” has endured a post-production process unlike almost any other film. News of Lewis’s first role in two decades attracted an invitation from the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, forcing the filmmakers to submit an early cut of the movie that writer/director Daniel Noah says was little more than an assembly. “It was rough,” Noah said. “The movie was not ready and we all knew it.” After a reception that Noah calls “very mixed,” it took more than two years to figure out the logistics of recutting the film, during which time Noah launched production company SpectreVision with Elijah Wood and producer Josh Waller.
Despite the misstep at Cannes, Noah says the final version of “Rose” is exactly the movie he always had in his head. Lewis stars as a retired jazz musician whose wife of 65 years Eva (Claire Bloom) has just died. After discovering an intimate note from another man written to Eva in 1959, Rose begins to question the strength of his marriage and starts looking for clues to identify Eva’s suitor.
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For Noah, who previously directed the in 2001 film “Twelve,” convincing Lewis to take on his first movie role in roughly 20 years was critical to the film’s success. “It’s a movie about endings,” Noah told Indiewire. “Ideally it would be an actor who was willing to basically make a movie about the end of his career, and that’s a hard thing to find.”
Paladin films is handling theatrical distribution for the film, which will open in theaters in Los Angeles and New York in late August.
Attracting funding for a movie centered primarily around characters in their 80s was one of the main challenges for Noah, but Paladin president Mark Urman says film executives underestimate the box office potential of movies targeted at older audiences. “It’s a total misconception that an elder audience is not worth marketing a film to,” he said. “It’s a large audience, an eager audience, and an audience that listens.”
For Lewis, who most recently acted in 1995’s “Funny Bones,” reading the script for “Rose” convinced him to sign onto the project without even meeting Noah or producers Lawrence Inglee and Garrett Kelleher. “It was beautifully written,” he said during the Q&A. “I couldn’t wait to go to set every day, and when you feel that, then you know you’re doing something good.”
Lewis added that having to play a dramatic role with no room for comedic performances was extremely challenging. “There were about 150 places where I could have ripped the joint apart,” he said. One of the downsides to casting a comedic star like Lewis is dealing with a certain set of expectations from viewers, according to Noah. “It’s the constant expectation that it will be funny,” he said. “And it has its moments, but it’s not a comedy by any stretch.”
See a clip from the evening’s talk below: