WEIRDLAND: Jerry Lewis' Supercharged Fun-Loving Masculinity

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Jerry Lewis' Supercharged Fun-Loving Masculinity

Jerry Lewis was one of the most radical stars within mainstream Hollywood. His elevation of emotional trauma to the level of star status was an extraordinary innovation. While the norms of Hollywood storytelling and acting emphasize hierarchy and consistency, Lewis developed throughout his career a wildly unpredictable, volatile performance style, one that destabilized the notion of “character” as conceived by Hollywood and pointed to the innovations of experimental filmmakers like Jack Smith. In 1954, the Martin and Lewis tandem was on its last legs: the duo was squabbling openly, but managed to eke out three more films together, including Tashlin’s pair Artists and Models (1955) and Hollywood or Bust (1956), certainly among their best films. In Hollywood or Bust (1956) the naïf is Malcolm Smith (Jerry Lewis), a nebbish who wins honestly the car raffle. Through Steve Wiley's (Dean Martin's character) eventual redemption, the swindler (Martin) wins back the love of his girlfriend Terry (Pat Crowley) while Jerry nurses a crush for Anita (Ekberg). His story arc with Dean was so constant in their film adventures that Jerry complained to Modern Screen magazine in 1953: "I may be a box office attraction, but I never get the girls."

Yet our first impression of Malcolm as a lusty and somewhat dorky all-American boy is entirely misleading. Over the course of Hollywood or Bust, Malcolm’s hunger for Anita Ekberg blossoms into an almost fetishistic perversion. Malcolm obsesses about Ekberg’s “undies” hanging next to his own, while biting his knuckles, arching his eyebrows, and making guilty faces. Malcolm’s immediate response to Steve’s “last picture” comment is sexually oblivious, however: he launches into a detailed explanation of Ekberg’s last movie (The Lavender Tattooer, a dopey pun on The Rose Tattoo [1955]): 'It was produced by the Nathan Brothers and directed by William B. Hoffmeyer. The screenplay was by Willie Rachauer, Harry Jones and Florence Hershfield—that was for the woman’s touch—from a play by John and Betty Stetson, based on an incidental remark dropped by a waiter at Sardi’s (Nicholas Blaney), in Technicolor and VistaVision.' 

Malcolm follows this insanely nuanced description with a brief wince—as if exhausted by the level of erudition he’s exhibited—and then proceeds to demonstrate Anita Ekberg’s “Bali-Bali dance.” He ends the dance by grimacing and rubbing his head, a gesture that invokes Lewis’s usual “spastically” desperate performance style. If Malcolm in Hollywood or Bust changes personality on the slightest of whims, The Nutty Professor’s Julius Kelp is so self-contradictory that he fractures into two entirely different characters. Frank Krutnik sees a similar schizophrenia not only in the characters Lewis plays onscreen but also in the other, nonfilmic images that Lewis has cultivated throughout his career. According to Krutnik, there are at least three different Jerrys, all of whom clearly on display in Hollywood or Bust: the Idiot-Kid, the familiar Lewis-figure; the “successful” Jerry Lewis as Hollywood director; and Telethon Jerry, the persona that ascended with the decline of Lewis’s film career, but prefigured in the sentimental didacticisms of films like The Errand Boy and The Nutty Professor.

In an article from Films in Review in 1953, critic Robert Kass provided a vivid description of Lewis’s Idiot persona as it had appeared in the half dozen Martin and Lewis films the team had already made: 'In appearance, Lewis is a freak—a shockingly immature, stringy six-footer with a crew hair cut, wide and expressionless eyes, and a face capable of astonishing grimaces. He hides behind an idiotic laugh. His speaking voice is a squawk, his singing voice a shattering screech. Despite unpredictable behavior, tantrums, fits of weeping, he is rather nice—because he is harmless. Men can look down with comfortable superiority upon his athletic failures; women feel a tender protectiveness as toward a retarded child… he is the neighborhood freak, the affection-starved moron... Like a child suffering from an extreme form of hyperactivity, the Idiot is incompetent, chaotic, and unruly, crashing around, sometimes teetering on the edge of violence but never quite going over that edge, never quite becoming dangerous.' Kass provides a good start, but Lewis’s screen persona is more complicated than this. Kass particularly objects to Lewis’s “supercharged lunacy” and is especially repelled by how Lewis makes a comic shtick out of mental dysfunction, characterized by lack of bodily coordination and a crazy, purposeless energy. 

The Stooge (1951) provides Lewis with his own love interest in the form of “Frecklehead” (Marion Marshall), a childlike, pigtail-wearing, lovestruck ditz, as prone to fits of lisping and pouting as Lewis is to whining and screeching. Frecklehead is Lewis’s female equivalent, an Idiot girl, awkward and incompetent like Lewis but not unlovable in her own way. Similarly, however ridiculous and imbecilic Lewis appears in The Stooge, he is always warm-hearted and affectionate, rather like a backward child who can be irritating at times but never annoying enough to become actively dislikable. Not only was the film a hit with audiences, but also remembered by Lewis with great fondness. 

Frank Krutnik explains how this disruptive behavior was notably emphasized in the Martin and Lewis comedies, where Jerry Lewis appears as Dean Martin’s “grotesquely deformed doppelganger,” adding: “Lewis developed his comic persona as a hysterical inversion of the cool and self-possessed handsome man.” Baffled by Lewis’s enormous popularity, critics attempted to rationalize audiences’ fascination with this bizarre aping of imbecility, complete with spastic gestures and emotional incompetence. The mentally ill thus became one group among many—beatniks, feminists, minories—suggesting the radical potential of a united counterculture against the gigantic, normalizing hegemony of capitalist consensus.

The secularization of psychoanalysis, the development of group therapy and counseling programs, and the public visibility of the mentally ill meant that those with mental difficulties were gradually ceasing to be “them” and rapidly becoming “us.” Today, only 2 percent of the mentally ill are in hospitals, and 93 percent are in the community, in group homes, or in comparable settings. Massachusetts, for example, had eleven state mental hospitals in 1950; now it has only four. Had the number of asylum patients kept pace with the state population, there would have been more than thirty-two thousand patients in Massachusetts hospitals today. Instead, there are slightly fewer than one thousand, the majority of whom will spend less than a year in an institution. This movement toward deinstitutionalization was both a result of a reaction to a major change in public attitudes toward mental illness. The development of new psychotropic medications often made mental illness virtually invisible; tics, twitches, and seizures were replaced by a sedated, zombie-like calm that allowed people to appear less peculiar, if also less expressive, in public. By the mid-1950s it was no longer necessary to see mental illness in terms of odd behavior, violence, and psychosis, indicating a movement toward increased acceptance of the mentally disabled.

What is the connection, then, between the enormous appeal of Jerry Lewis’s Idiot persona in the early 1950s and the new public exposure to former mental patients now living ordinary lives in the community? One might imagine that their new public presence would make audiences less predisposed to finding amusement in a comedian whose act involves what can be seen as an imitation of the mentally disabled. To understand fully the appeal of Jerry Lewis, we must first understand how laughter functions as an index of repression, how the audience’s warm reception of a comedian’s routine can be seen as an indication of the audience’s profound fear. It has been suggested that laughter is not so connected to humor as it's related to a nexus of deep emotions related to fear, aggression, shame, anxiety, and neurosis. The lack of a sustained and coherent relationship between laughter and feelings of “mirth” has been well testified (see Psychological Health and Sense of Humor by Thorson and Powell, 1991). According to psychoanalysis, only when the unconscious motives of the comedian are recognized as paramount can humor be understood at all. 

In this light, certain displays of humor can be seen to function as a somatic displacement, revealing bitter and hostile despair. The comic display constitutes a ritual form of protective cover, a socially sanctioned disguise. Most frequently, the comedian is using the form of comedy to exteriorize or “get rid of” unpleasant truths and experiences, and humor is a means by which he can “pass on the blow” and, in the process, slough off some anxiety onto his listeners. Later Freudian and Lacanian analysts have discussed how, in such typical vignettes, the clown comes to represent the self, whose embodiment as mature adult (Martin) is mocked by the childhood personality (Lewis). The adult is reduced, destabilized, and desexualized by the child, a process that articulates fears of regression and disintegration. In A Reclassification of Psychopathological States (1961) Joseph Levine regards the clown as expressing—in an appropriately controlled and yet uncontrolled form—the repressed aspects of a particular society. The public clown or comedian offers us an outlet for our anxieties about those events, situations, that we find most frightening. The comedian is thereby responsible for handling something that Levine describes as “embarrassing, astonishing and shocking.” In the case of Jerry Lewis, this shameful societal taboo is the dread of mental illness. 

At Paramutual Studios we find ourselves in a delightful but precarious dream state in which English as we knew it outside the theater is not spoken. Everyone we see seems to share Jerry Lewis’s fabled penchant for fractured speech. Further, a logical ground of sorts is provided for Morty’s infantilistic vocal stylings when we recall that he is an infant in the studio community. Is Morty attempting to pronounce the surname “Babewosental” in respectful imitation of hapless Miss Giles? In any case, he fails utterly, gargling hopelessly and self-deprecatingly, and with no serious attempt at a verbal skill he has no reason to believe he can master “Benvedbenten.” Then, with real optimism, he tries, “Ben-paybobo-pay-b’pay.” A 1965 piece by John Russell Taylor accurately addresses Lewis’s verbal comedy. “an entirely personal way of mangling English, with nouns turning into verbs, verbs into adjectives, notions duplicating themselves, twisting, turning, dividing and re- forming in a babble which stays always tantalisingly on the edge of comprehension, just this side of total disintegration into gibberish.” 

In making this beautifully articulated film about being cut off from honest and serious participation in the community/social scene, Jerry Lewis comments on exclusion and alienation in relation to social value. Morty is locked out of genuine participation in the world he is observing for his superiors. The Errand Boy can be seen as a statement about exclusion— a central concern of Jerry Lewis at the time this film was made. The “nuttiness” of his stage persona was gradually shifting from the nominal weirdness of an eccentric neurotic shackled to Dean Martin’s conventionality to an entirely different kind of isolation, an existential singularity and essential unrelatedness, a man enisled. Morty is confronted by some twenty secretaries, each at her own desk, and all working mum against the echoing crackle of their typewriters. Here the inability to recognize an appropriate moment for delicate silence reveals Morty’s disconnection. The swimming-pool scene is a handy exemplification of Morty’s overall detachment from studio life. It is also a profoundly comic moment, unique, as far as I can tell, in that it seems unrelated to any of the six categories of visual gags that Noël Carroll presents in his thesis On Jokes (1991).

The counterhegemonic authorial stance that leads Lewis to frame the story of a linguistic bumbler in—of all places—a film studio opens for us the possibility to see that studio in full exploitative swing as a site of capitalism. While some critics would suggest with Laura Mulvey that power is a reflection of masculinity, The Errand Boy suggests the reverse: that “masculinity” is an attribution of power and that our use of the label “male” is a production itself, not the natural outcome of an intrinsic force. That the studio environment—a model of capitalist society—is far from a utopia, The Errand Boy reminds us persistently, as we listen to Morty not fitting in as any proper employee should. Jerry Lewis arranged himself carefully for that bad fit, with some real awareness of the damage hierarchical social arrangements could do. In the face of the kind of disenfranchisement shown so clearly in The Errand Boy, indeed, the idea of society as a sanctuary is only a dream. —Sources: "Jerry Lewis and Screen Performance in Hollywood or Bust" by Craig Fischer and "The Errand Boy: Morty S. Tashman and the Powers of the Tongue" by Murray Pomerance (2002)

Highly intelligent people tend to make good progress in the workplace and are seen as fit for leadership roles: overall, smarter is usually associated with success. But new research in the Journal of Applied Psychology finds evidence that too much intelligence can harm leadership effectiveness. Intelligence showed a positive linear relationship with leadership, but this association flattened out and then reversed at an IQ of about 120. For leaders with higher intelligence than this, their scores in transformational and instrumental leadership were lower, on average, than less smart leaders; and beyond an IQ of 128, the association with less effective leadership was clear and statistically significant. The new findings can’t tell us why very smart people seem to make poorer leaders, but it’s possible leaders who stand intellectually apart are less inspiring, and they may find it difficult to reduce tasks to an appropriate level of simplicity. In a social world, even highly advantageous traits can come with some drawbacks. And they also give defensive managers an excuse for a poor performance review: “I’m too clever for these guys!” Source:

Jerry Lewis's alleged IQ was 145. As much as Jerry Lewis and the Rat Pack had disdained the rise of the hippie movement, their early ethos of casual masculinity anticipated the late 1960s concerns around leisure, slacking off, tuning out, and freeing one’s mind. It is common to see Buddy Love in The Nutty Professor as Lewis’s commentary on Dean Martin, perhaps the ultimate incarnation of the slacker/worker. But in changing into Buddy Love, Professor Kelp physically became more like Jerry Lewis himself with his well honed sense of casual cool. The Ladies Man blurs vocation and avocation and signals a quite 1960s sense of man’s “work” as highly sexualized. Herbert charms in a guileless manner: it is even central to Lewis characters that they become sexy even as they’re geeky. The ending of The Nutty Professor—where Kelp combines features of both of his personalities (professor and playboy)—encapsulates this desire to capture 1960s masculine identity as a blend of cool suaveness and carefree spontaneity. This sexualization of a fun-loving masculinity is central to a 1960s ethos. Jerry Lewis’s sexual persona differed from that of Bob Hope’s in that, whereas Hope was wolfish but effeminate, Lewis was girl-crazy and immature. Lewis is not so much emasculated as he is underdeveloped, reduced to blabbering and extreme uncoördination by the mere presence of attractive women. By 1957, beginning with The Delicate Delinquent, the sexually immature man-child of films such as Artists and Models is gradually replaced by gentler, more normal characters who are genuinely interested in attaining romantic love.

Women want sex far more than we've been allowed to believe. So suggests a new book that shatters many of our most cherished myths about desire, including the widespread assumption that women's lust is inextricably bound up with emotional connection. In What Do Women Want? Adventures in the Science of Female Desire (2013) journalist Daniel Bergner suggests that when it comes to acknowledging just how much women lust, we've passed the point of no return (the phenomenon of the “swinging single” woman, as defined by Helen Gurley Brown). Women may want sex just as much as men do, and this drive is "not, for the most part, sparked or sustained by emotional intimacy and safety." When it comes to the craving for sexual variety, the research Bergner assembles suggests that women may be "even less well-suited for monogamy than men." Source:

Women are nearly five times more likely to show an automatic preference for their own gender than men are to show such favoritism for their own gender, according to a study in the October issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (Vol. 87, No. 4), 2017. Both male and female participants associated the positive words--such as good, happy and sunshine--more often with women than with men, Laurie A. Rudman (PhD of Rutgers University) says. Moreover, men and women tended to show high implicit self-esteem and high gender identity; however, men showed low pro-male gender attitudes, according to the study. "A clear pattern shown in all four studies is that men do not like themselves automatically as much as women like themselves," Rudman says. "This contradicts a lot of theoretical thinking about implicit attitudes regarding status differences." 

Because men are implicitly more enthusiastic about sex, their dependence  on  women  for  sexual relations  may  lead  them  to automatically favor the opposite sex. "These results suggest that for men, pro-female bias is moderated by sexual gratification," Rudman says. Experiment  1  tested  and supported that only women have a balanced gender identity. Thus, women’s automatic in-group bias is stronger, in part, because they alone  possess  a  cognitive  mechanism that  promotes  own  group preference. Experiment 2 showed that people who implicitly preferred their mothers also favored women in general. Of course, because  of  early  (even  preverbal) attachment  to maternal caregivers, people’s mental machinery may be geared to automatically  favor  the  feminine  sex. Experiment 3 predicted automatic  pro-female  bias  for  both  men  and women. Thus, men’s greater proclivity for violence and aggression may bolster automatic preference for women. Experiment 4 showed the power of sex to predict heterosexuals’ gender attitudes. As expected, men reported greater liking for sex than  did  women, echoing past  research (Baumeister,  2000) and this enthusiasm  might  lead men  to  show pro-female  bias. The four experiments suggest that in the absence of specific power manipulations, women strongly implicitly prefer their own gender, whereas men do not. "If we treat each [gender] attitude as likely to be bonafide but influenced by different causes, we can begin to map the complexity of the human cognition," Rudman says. Source:

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