Since my esteemed Bright Lights After Dark (and Bright Lights Film Journal) co-contributor C. Jerry Kutner posted his last entry in the (now) ongoing Nutty Professor debate out here in the main blogging area, so to speak, I thought I’d follow suit.
My apologies for the tardiness (and haste) of this reply:
I’ll admit it’s possible that The Nutty Professor could be both a self-examination and a deconstruction of the Martin & Lewis partnership/personae . . . in theory . . . but the fact that other movie reviewers in days gone by made this comparison (even newspaper critics that people actually read; some from the moment of the film’s release) doesn’t, to me, validate it any more than if no one had (the fact of who made it in the past couldn’t, I will confess, be less relevant to me). I still disagree with the view that Buddy Love is a twilit portrait of Dean Martin, person or personae, or even that the two are more alike than not; at least on the basis of what we know about Dean Martin. True, both are singers (drastically different in style, by the way), and both exude confidence. But Love is a flagrant narcissist, a tidal wave of human vanity, someone who takes himself with the utmost seriousness and goes out of his way to dominate every moment in which he exists, onstage and off. That profile fits a lot of people in show business, then and now; and for a long time it fit Jerry Lewis to the proverbial T . . . one of the reasons I think the film is fundamentally self-reflecting.
But if one thing made Dean Martin unique in his profession it was that, for his considerable talent as both a singer and an actor, he categorically refused to carry himself with even the ghost of solemnity (he was the last performer on earth, for example, to say something like “Every move a picture”, or any of Love’s other expressions of self-love). This was the source of his popular appeal, remember; the fact that he would never, say, approach a song with the reservoirs of sturm und drang a Frank Sinatra often brought. He turned every notion of profundity into a joke; then he let the audience in on it. There’s no evidence that he discarded this fundamentally detached attitude once he got offstage, moreover . . . in order to know, with any certainty, the extent to which he took himself and his work seriously you’d have to climb into his head. Like a lot of popular artists, so-called entertainers, he never gave himself away in that manner (is it any wonder he worked so well with Howard Hawks?). Nor, by the way, was he known for heaping abuse on underlings (another tradition among Showbiz giants). He simply didn’t care enough to give (or take) that kind of foolishness.
Now, it can said that a denial of ego is just an assertion of it through a different channel . . . and I’d probably agree . . . but it still makes Martin totally unlike Jerry Lewis’s Buddy Love. The similarities simply don’t go far enough, even if you look at it from the filmmaker’s viewpoint. Lewis’s resentments against his former partner, in the first place, had little to do with personality traits that were or were not reflected in his later creation. Dean Martin, to him, simply had an irritating habit of dumping out of gigs (usually gigs where Jerry was to be the whole schmear), and he became openly contemptuous and derisive of what he saw as Lewis’s growing self-importance (“Chaplin shit,” Martin is said to have referred, in disgust, to Lewis’s Clown That Cried workout in their 1954 film Three Ring Circus). As to his denials of any Love-Martin connection, if Jerry Lewis had restricted them to the time following their rapprochment in the 1980s, as you suggest, then I’d give them as little credence as you do. But the fact is he always held this line. I’ve yet to see an instance where he deviated from it to even the smallest degree.
To me, Julius Kelp/Buddy Love were just manifestations of the larger sensibility that conceived the Martin/Lewis personae in 1946 (the particulars of that act were, in the main, Jerry Lewis’s creation). Lewis has always been fascinated by the interaction of wildly differing, caricatured personalities, whether housed in the same skin or not. The Family Jewels is the most extreme example of this, and The Bellboy the most interesting in this context (what with Lewis playing both Stanley Belt and, briefly, a vision of himself that is unusually close to what would blossom three years later as Buddy Love). It’s a comic template he returned to again and again, and you can trace its roots all the way back to that pantomime record act he was doing in the Catskills and joints in Atlantic City, years before he met Dean Martin.
Given that Jerry Lewis couldn’t play two personalities at once in a nightclub performance (not without putting on one hell of a bizarre show), and the fact that Dean Martin played his role to perfection, the Martin & Lewis act represented the best possible compromise of that impulse for that time. When Jerry Lewis moved into filmmaking, he found the one medium where he could explore this element of his sensibility better than any other. Sometimes he explored it through his work with other directors like Frank Tashlin (Cinderfella) and sometimes, in his own films, he didn’t explore it at all (The Ladies Man, for instance), but as late as 1970s Which Way to the Front? he was building his comedy around character shifts. He never did it more effectively (or in a more revelatory fashion) than in The Nutty Professor, and I think it’s missing the point of all that makes the film unique to read it, even in part, as the mere residue of a well-publicized show business feud.