Jerry Lewis was born as a wiry Jewish boy with a more Jewish name, in Newark, NJ. But you wouldn't know it from his 1981 film HARDLY WORKING. Here he is muscular, more manly in stature, suave, poised, intense, creative, has a goy name of Bo Hooper, and he is serious about labor issues and the importance of the role of the artist in society. At the same time you WOULD know it is the same Jerry from seeing HARDLY WORKING! In the very same film, as the same man, he speaks with an undeniably Jewish new york/new jersey-ese tone, he is ugly, he is goofy, he is inept, he is selfish, he is simple and he is a schmendrick.
A little back track:
Jerry Lewis directed himself in his first film in 1960. He he had already been performing in motion pictures for eleven years. After having a critical smash with his 1960 debut of THE BELLBOY, Jerry continued to direct progressively more challenging and unconventional films on a regular basis, through 1970.
After 1971's tortured completion of THE DAY THE CLOWN CRIED was sealed from the public and never released, Jerry went on a directorial hiatus for ten years, until he returned, again directing himself as the lead, in 1981's HARDLY WORKING.
After the internal artistic punch of TDTCC, Jerry took his time making a comeback and a return to the helm, but he still took a lot of chances. More than ever before, in fact. The film consists of several jangly, disconnected sequences that serve as set ups to show Jerry failing in different job situations. He is, at heart, a clown. The film opens with him as a beloved clown of a circus troupe that is being shut down. He travels to the upper -middle class suburbs of Florida to move in with his sister and her disdainful banker husband. There is an alteration of serious moments within the much more goofy episodes.
If you watch the film and note a strikingly earnest tone, a series of jokes that seem to go on a moment too long or hold too long for a laugh..or just a generalized strange combination of moral and political seriousness you dont quite buy and silliness that seems too zany...then this is because Jerry Lewis has (finally) succeeded in creating a most perfect evocation of the way he is, and the vision with which he sees and lives in the world.
Jerry is in conflict, and he is a man in progress. He goes and back forth between overcompensating to prove himself, and just being relaxed. The film reflects this progressive turmoil. Jerry is pompous and he is also a clown. He is an egomaniac, and he also loves to speak (in my opinion based on seeing him in person and also watching the telethons forever, it's out of both true human concern as well as the love of hearing himself talking about being a good person.)
Jerry makes sense to me in a familiar way. He strikes me as a similar type of person as my maternal Grandfather, Sol. Sol could be described as a perfect definition of one who suffers "Small Jewish Man Complex", a complex more common back in the time of Jerry and Sol.
Sol comes not from Newark , but from a tenement on Henry St., on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, born to immigrant parents. He is small in stature, but he becomes extremely fit and strong through bodybuilding and physical fitness; doing body (and nude) modeling for Physical American and other popular magazines. He also becomes brilliant, a voracious reader, and he is socially liberal, and he disavows his family's Judaism, becoming an Atheist.
Jerry's first big break was performing with Dean Martin.
My grandfather's was getting a job at CBS in midtown writing for and with Arthur Miller. Both men legally changed their names to sound less Jewish (Sol changed his when he was joining the Writer's Guild.) Jerry is fascinating, and Sol is actually pretty interesting too. I loathe and love things about both men. They both teeter between grandiose egotism and man of the people ridiculousness. I make the comparison to point out the uncanniness of Jerry. How familiar and yet how strange he is. And HARDLY WORKING captures the essence of the discomfort of this perception and experience of him unlike any other film has before.
Jerry is magnetic in person , as himself. He is a contradictory blast of ice and warmth, of sincerity and total falseness, and he is a marvel whose talent surpasses most on this planet.
HARDLY WORKING is his opus; refusing to shut up, making us laugh, making real a fantasy and a specific personality.