Seven cringeworthy minutes of authenticity worth watching.
Last winter, a video being billed as a most “painfully awkward” interview with Jerry Lewis made a buzz on the internet. The Hollywood Reporter sent young Andy Lewis (no relation) to Las Vegas to query the nonagenarian at his home. Jerry Lewis is famously caustic when annoyed, and the THR team — for whatever reason — seems to have brought out his inner Ron Swanson. The resulting video shows its subject in full “get off my lawn” mode, and one cannot look away from the carnage.
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At 90, Jerry Lewis is fully in his wits, and clearly a man who, once he has decided someone is a fool, does not suffer gladly.
The younger Lewis makes the great mistake of asking the older a series of “yes, no” questions, too many about his age, not enough about his new movie, and for seven minutes Jerry glares at him like a geriatric Sidney L. Pythias and spits out one indignant monosyllabic answer after another. His contempt is brutal. It’s bruising. Some might even call it contemptible. And yet …
And yet there is something beautifully honest and human going on there. In a media-savvy era—where everyone knows enough to say the right things and go along to get along—Jerry Lewis is having none of it, and in this he is giving us an authentic representation of himself as someone who was never interested in coloring between the lines. He’s annoyed and he’s not going to play nice.
The reaction on social media was interesting. Some people were appalled, some were applauding; one was tempted to seek out a correlation with the recent presidential elections: would the appalled line up with the status-quo-seeking Clinton voters, while the applauding with the unconventional Trump? Just how tired are we of watching people be socially acceptable, but inauthentic, and therefore dull? Would we have been half as interested in watching this interview had Lewis done the “nice old man” shtick, rather than allowing us the strange intimacy of seeing the man as he is?
Probably not. The video went viral, perhaps precisely because of that touch of intimacy.
On social media, we indulge a fake notion intimacy among ersatz “friends” until we forget what a rare and authentic thing friendship is. In truth, we really don’t know many people at all; we’re only privy to the thoughts and backgrounds of very few. We struggle even to know ourselves, and yet social media gives us increasing license to feel fine about making sweeping denouncements of strangers from behind our screens; to have no gentleness, no consideration for the totality of their lives, which we cannot begin to fathom.
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But we do know this: each of us has fought a great battle to get where we are of a moment, and most of what we have borne we have endured alone, in the interior part of our lives, which we do not easily share, because so few are worthy of that knowledge. We are all part-enigma, even to ourselves, and how many times a day (even on social media) do we all wish that others would just give us a little break—have a little mercy with our faults, and mistakes, but we have no way of saying that without a) exposing ourselves as wounded b) being told we’re whining c) feeling hypocritical, because we too ignorantly judge others in public.
Thus do we diminish ourselves and others, and make real intimacy that much more difficult to come by, and that is frightening to consider.
How do we fix it? What if we made a resolution to mindfully, deliberately, find everyone we encounter—in real life and online—as “fascinating” rather than “flawed”?
Begin with Jerry Lewis, a complicated man who has allowed us the intimacy of watching him grapple with his own flaws and failings in film and on stage, and through decades of real philanthropy. There is a moment in this video where even the despised interviewer manages to break through Jerry’s resistance. “You’ve had a long and distinguished career,” Andy Lewis says, “is there a moment [when you were happiest or most creative]?” and Jerry Lewis answers, “When my partner was alive.”
Dean Martin died in 1995, and the legendary Martin & Lewis partnership ended in 1956 to Jerry’s everlasting pain, as he detailed in his book, Dean and Me: A Love Story, yet the force of his love and esteem for Martin keeps him from simply snarling another “no” in the camera’s direction. Instead, he honors his true feelings, and yes, that is intimate. That tells us a great deal about a man who has outlived most of his contemporaries, and has publicly carried the pain of rejection, and has inflicted real measures of it upon others. In just that brief answer, you get the reminder that we each carry our share of sorrow amid our complex lunacies.
Speaking of complex lunacy, here is a story about Jerry Lewis: His name came up during a class in college, and the instructor—a stickler to the lesson plan—broke away from it to praise him: “Let me tell you about Jerry Lewis. My brother has muscular dystrophy. One year he wrote a fan letter to Lewis and in it mentioned in passing that his dog had died. Next thing we know, we get a phone call from Lewis’s office asking if my brother could meet him at the airport. We did, and here comes Jerry Lewis, and he’s carrying a puppy that he puts into my brother’s lap. He was between flights and he spent nearly a half-hour with my brother and the rest of us, just talking—letting my brother know he mattered. You cannot say a bad word to me about this man.”
No saint, by any means, except perhaps in the small ways that we are all able to be saints for each other—just now and again, amid all of our sins—because we are all of us so flawed, and so fascinating.