On the passing of Jerry Lewis, I thought I’d comment on the widespread belief that he was adored in France. Americans who long ago turned away from his antics marvelled that the French continued to watch, appreciate and laugh at Jerry Lewis. There was something that the French apparently understood about Jerry that the rest of us didn’t get. His comedy supposedly worked on many levels that only the intellectuals saw. Perhaps it was true that when his star faded in the ‘States in the late sixties, it continued to ride high in Europe in the ’70s. I don’t know, I wasn’t around France until the ’90s.
But when anyone would ask me “Is it true the French love Jerry Lewis?” I would tell them “No, it’s WORSE! The French love Louis De Funès!”
It’s all there in the above clip, the exaggerated gestures, the overreactions, pantomiming frustration, supposedly wacky sounds. Louis is the real French Lewis. And really popular. To this day, 34 years after his death, he’s still loved and imitated. New generations are constantly being introduced to Louis de Funès on prime-time television, especially in summertime programming, when comedy runs rampant.
Yes, Jerry Lewis was honored by French dignitaries as late as 1984, but that doesn’t make him popular. Popularity would come from showing his old movies on TV, inviting him to interview shows, maybe having him do his act at theatres around the country, appearing in commercials on TF1 or France 2, retrospectives on ARTE from fellow actors and movie-makers, releasing books about his life, etc. I’ve seen none of these things in my 20 years of vacationing or living in France.
I’ve never heard older in-laws, neighbors or co-workers talk about him, you know, people who could’ve bought a ticket to one of his films in his heyday. So, I believe the rumours to be largely a myth. I’ll have a look at the French papers on Monday and update this post if I see any outpouring of emotion from the Gallic side of the Atlantic.
Meanwhile, a Canadian friend asks “is it really true that people from America find Jim Carrey funny?”
Update Monday morning…
Le Figaro- small cover picture. Flattering obituary on 3/4 of page 11.
Libération- small cover picture. Glowing review on pages 26-27.
Le Parisien- no cover pic. Three paragraphs on page 30.
Mostly he’s remembered for his charity work. The French press is very aware of the French love/ American indifference angle. However, instead of citing the box office receipts in France, autograph sessions, polls or other ‘popular’ measures, they quote ’50s directors like Godard, or critics from the two popular movie mags of Jerry’s era, Les Cahiers du cinéma and Positif both calling him a ‘genius.’ There could be some element of thumbing their noses at the establishment, or using Jerry Lewis as a flag, reading into his act anti-capitalist messages which were never intended.
Oh, and one word about the ‘highest honor‘ in France. It’s a political tool which can be purchased through influence, or possibly outright. Mussolini and Ceausescu received the award before Jerry Lewis, and after Bachar Al-Assad became a grand-croix de la Légion d’honneur.