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remembrance

How do you not find that hilarious? Celebrating Jerry Lewis

Take it from experience: one of the first questions asked of any Jerry Lewis fan who declares his admiration is, “Do you really find him funny?” The question isn’t as confrontational as it seems; read generously, there’s even a bit of a back-handed compliment in there. Sure, he’s an interesting case study in American celebrity, worthy of attention; the acknowledgement that, depending on the age and viewing habits of the interlocuter, he gave surprisingly supple, moving dramatic turns in The King of Comedy, Wiseguy, Funny Bones; and all right, he made you laugh as a kid. But now? Funny?

Well, I really do and always have. Lewis’s reaction to calamity—the spasmodic efforts at extraction, interspersed by rounds of disturbing calm, building to the burst of apoplectic frenzy that proves as futile as any other measure tried—is as iconic and hilarious as Keaton’s unperturbed fatalism or Groucho’s peevish snipes. Lazy impersonations of Lewis focus on the mania and miss those pauses the perfectionist, preternaturally gifted physical comedian would lace into his bits. A random limb swiftly raised then replaced just as quickly, the intention realized as useless almost the instant it’s conceived; the trailing-off sentence fragments and swallowed coughs, a need to articulate the dilemma strangled by the pointlessness (or impossibility?) of the effort; the childlike defensive stance, crouched so his butt sticks out and face juts forward, and cautious tread—more a single legged-pivot with, somehow, forward momentum—around the problem; the hand briefly cradling the brow beginning to seethe. It’s a magnificent collection of cancelled gestures and never-stated oaths, as if even Lewis’s frustration was being frustrated. And then—and only then, snarky shouters of nasal freundlavens should note—the explosion.

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The remarkable Mr. Champlin

It’s rare that you can say that one person changed the trajectory of your life, and for the better. Charles Champlin, who changed mine in every way, died on Sunday. He was 88, and at the end he had Alzheimer’s but the earlier deviltry was that in 1999, he’d developed age-related macular degeneration that left him legally blind.

Charles Champlin, 1979

That must have been purgatory for someone whose life had been the graceful  consideration of books and films, films and books. As the writer that he was, above all else, he wrote about his AMD too, in a sliver of a book, “My Friend, You Are Legally Blind.” Purportedly, it’s about ways to get the better of the disease; it’s really a look at lifelong gallantry.

The persona that Champlin presented to the world: a man foursquare as the aviator glasses that became his trademark, wasn’t all of him, not by a Hammondsport mile. The essential Champlin who could shift among a half-dozen settings and arrive intact and unruffled at each one, was compound-complex.  He’d have to be; he was functioning as an editor, an essayist, a critic, most certainly a teacher, a lecturer, a sometimes author and a card-carrying devotee of the hurly-burly of Cannes. And, somewhere in all that, he and his extraordinary wife Peggy were raising a family of six.

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