On February 22, 2009, Jerry Lewis received his first and only Oscar.
After 60 years in films—his first, My Friend Irma, with Dean Martin, was released in 1949—The Board of Governors of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences presented Jerry an award for his "humanitarian efforts [that] have brought credit to the industry." Eddie Murphy handed the Jean Hersholt statuette to Jerry; the audience stood and applauded; and Jerry delivered a gracious, succinct acceptance of 116 words, six of which were "the humility I feel is staggering."
What everyone else felt was best expressed by the sentiment printed on the t-shirt Stella McCartney wore to her dad's induction into The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame: "About Fucking Time."
Acknowledging Jerry's heroic efforts in fighting Muscular Dystrophy is not the same as acknowledging his monumental contribution to motion pictures.
Let's be clear: Jerry Lewis still hasn't received an Oscar for his film work. Not for acting, writing, producing, or directing; not for studio innovations like the towering four-story, fully-functional indoor set for The Ladies' Man, nor for technical inventions like video assist, the now-standard practice of cross-checking film shots through simultaneous use of a video camera. During the early 1950s, while Hollywood bigwigs griped about a fight for survival against television, Jerry filled theaters. And he filled classrooms at USC during the late '60's, teaching a new generation the lessons he'd learned.
Many of those lessons were self-taught. In between Hollywood features, Jerry produced home features with Glittertown pals Tony Curtis, Janet Leigh, Shelley Winters, et al. Using 16mm equipment, Jerry shot, edited, and premiered backyard epics like A Streetcar Named Repulsive, Come Back, Little Shiksa, and How To Smuggle A Hernia Across The Border (which IMDB acknowledges as "the first film directed by Jerry Lewis").
Personally and professionally, on-screen and off, Jerry Lewis is a maelstrom of contradictions. He is tough and caustic, yet sentimental; he is the sophisticated, world-weary Jerry Langford one moment, and Melvin, Myron, or Seymour the next. He is the Idiot and the Genius. At 83, he is the old man who can still throw the switch that makes him nine.
"I think I love films and those who love them better than just about anything else in the world," Jerry wrote in The Total Film-maker, the 1971 book based on his USC lectures. The mystery of filmmaking, he told his class, is that it could "make things that are somewhat minor turn magnificent." There's no better definition for what makes a movie great.
Hey, Oscar—aren't you also given for "extraordinary distinction in lifetime achievement and exceptional contributions to the state of motion picture arts and sciences?" You've made a move in the right direction. Next: invite Jerry back in 2010 and make him the first person in the history of Hollywood to win two consecutive honorary awards.
And see if Stella McCartney is available that night.
— Don Brockway