WEIRDLAND: Glitz, Fleeting Nostalgia, Jerry Lewis

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Glitz, Fleeting Nostalgia, Jerry Lewis

The glamour of pre–WWII Hollywood and the glitz of postwar Las Vegas are the playgrounds of young Esme Wells and her dreamer parents—her bookie father, and her movie star wanna-be mother who never gets past showgirl roles in B-musicals. Adrienne Sharp’s fourth novel is a grimly sad story of big dreams, bad luck, and worse decisions, as Esme and her parents move from Hollywood’s scams and cheesy musicals to the Las Vegas world of casinos, high rollers, suckers, and gangsters. By 1945 Esme’s father works for mobster Bugsy Siegel as the gangster’s vision of a gambling city comes true. Underage, she works as a casino cigarette girl, where her good looks draw the leering attention of Nate Stein, a ruthless thug who intends to take over all of Las Vegas. After Bugsy is bumped off, Esme falls in with serious mobsters like Mickey Cohen and Meyer Lansky, eventually becoming Stein’s teenage mistress and chorus line showgirl. When Esme discovers her father’s involvement with the less-than-legal dealings, the story builds to a dangerous boil. This glittering noirish tragedy, with its lushly imagined period landscape and subtle feminist trajectory, is both fun to read and sad to think about. Sharp’s narrative is a bold and gritty portrayal of unreachable dreams, anchored by its notable depiction of Esme. The Magnificent Esme Wells will be released on April, 10, 2018. Source:

The 1950s occupied a central position in the nostalgic imagination of the United States: indeed, it was the revival of 1950s Rock’n’Roll in the early 1970s that first made nostalgia a household term. It therefore comes as no surprise that nostalgia for the 1950s features heavily in two recent books: Michael Dwyer's “Back to the Fifties: Nostalgia, Hollywood Film, and Popular Music of the Seventies and Eighties” (2015) and Gary Cross's “Consumed Nostalgia” (2015). Dwyer rejects this “amnesiac model of nostalgia” interpretation, arguing “that nostalgia must be understood not as a reduction or denial of history but as a fundamentally productive affective engagement that produces new historical meaning for the past as a way of reckoning with the historical present.” Cross states this form of nostalgia “binds together not community nor families but scattered individuals”, it is “less about preserving an ‘unchanging golden era’ than it is about capturing the fleeting and the particular in its ‘authenticity’”, it helps “us cope with the extraordinary speed-up of time by letting us return to our childhoods”, and is “rooted in special emotions linked to recovering distinctive memories.”  The nostalgia for the 1950s, for instance, first became a subject of cultural criticism because it infected a younger generation without recollections of the period. Cross’ hypothesis that nostalgia is a reaction to social acceleration and fast capitalism has a lot going for it. According to sociologist Hartmut Rosa, every surge of acceleration is followed by nostalgic sentiments. In fact, Rosa makes the same argument in his theory of social acceleration. Source:

Dean and Me is a snapshot of how a couple of divergent characters came together to literally change the face of popular entertainment: Martin and Lewis were the post-war pulse of a battle weary nation, and the resulting hilarity and hi-jinx looked like it would never end. So when the duo officially called it quits, 10 years to the day after getting together, fans were flummoxed -- and the confusion continued as neither man spoke to the other in 20-plus years. Many people outside the industry believe that the creative process comes easily and exacts never-ending rewards. Lewis debunks all those myths, especially when he's listing a performance schedule that required three shows a night (finishing around 3am) for several weeks, including a daily schedule that required publicity stops and business meetings. Lewis makes it very clear that Martin loved the ladies -- as he puts it, "often and very well" -- which was part of the make-up of male oriented show business in the '40s and '50s. Appearances are deceptive, though, and it's implied that Lewis had the higher sex drive of both entertainers.

Lewis does not blame his partner for the inevitable and bitter break-up in 1956. Instead, he makes it very clear that the separation was almost all his idea. He wanted to expand into filmmaking, and Martin was happy with continuing the nightclub comedy act. But there is also a kind of backward compliment being paid here, since Lewis indicates that it was Martin's seething rage, his lack of individual respect and his cold interpersonal nature that drove the divide between them. It's Dean's desire to step out of Jerry's generous limelight (Lewis was the beneficiary of glowing notices while Martin was universally panned) that really drove the decision to quit. Few see that Jerry Lewis is actually a bridge between the old fashioned chuckles of Hollywood's Golden Era and the more experimental, existential humor of the post-modern period. Instead, he seems forever fated to be the dopey dude, the kooky caricature of a nerd. Sadly, such a sentiment diminishes a great deal of very good work. Thanks to a famous collaboration with director Frank Tashlin and his own turns in the creator's chair, we can witness the rise, fall, and unjust dismissal of an amazing artist.

The Ladies Man (1961): It remains a monumental achievement in set design and art direction. Throwing his weight around as a box office behemoth, Lewis demanded and received an entire Paramount soundstage to create what is, essentially, an entire four story house complete with grand concourse, spiral staircases, open walled bedrooms, and an old fashioned elevator running up the side. It was a massive masterpiece of a playset, and Lewis made the most of it. Visually it is amazing, the comedy relying more on small moments than the epic environment created.

The Errand Boy (1961): As a love letter to the studio system, it stands as one of his true classic comedies. A skewering of Hollywood hubris in combination with the filmmaker's fleet footed physical shtick resulted in a creative combination that would underscore his next few films. Tinsel Town never took such a well-intentioned tweaking.

It'$ Only Money (1962) (with director Frank Tashlin): Relatively forgotten, even among Lewis fans, this oddball detective farce -- Lewis is a TV repairman and alongside a shifty private dick, get caught up in the search for a rich family's missing heir -- is one of the funnyman's forgotten gems. Lewis is loose and screwy in every scene, with terrific nonsensical, non-sequitur patter and ad-libs that equal his best moments on screen. Tashlin really amplifies his anarchic style, and Lewis loses himself in the relatively low key role.

The Nutty Professor (1963): Without a doubt, this stands as one of comedy's major cinematic milestones. By riffing on his relationship with ex-partner Martin (who Buddy Love is obviously mirrored after) and putting to use every kind of cleverness imaginable, we get a wonderful whirlwind of dopiness and deftness. In this Jekyll and Hyde satire, Lewis actually display a character study, not just weird variations of his persona, and the emotional underpinning of the relationship with Stella Purdy is heartfelt and very human. If you wonder what keeps Lewis part of the motion picture equation, even four decades later, this fantastic film is the answer.

The Patsy (1964): Often cited as one of Lewis's more cynical films, this droll look at celebrity and the shallowness of fame is, in reality, on par with The Nutty Professor as a certifiable sensation. A dynamite combination of silent film gags, pop culture spoof (see Ed Sullivan mocking himself!), and insightful evisceration into the cult of personality, it's a brilliant and brazen farce.

Three on a Couch (1966): Attempting to make the leap into more 'adult oriented fare', many feel Lewis succeeded with this sincere psychobabble. The therapeutic theme is prevalent throughout Lewis’s films, including That’s My Boy (Hal Walker, 1951), The Delicate Delinquent (Don McGuire, 1957), and The Disorderly Orderly (Frank Tashlin, 1964). One of the film’s most magical sequences is Lewis and Leigh dancing in a ballroom with a beautiful, dreamy lassitude (Lewis’s back to the camera and Janet Leigh’s enraptured eyes looking heavenward as the two glide on an arc of rapture).  Three on a Couch becomes a film about the need for expressing love and a restatement, in different terms, of the self-reliance theme of The Nutty Professor. Source:

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