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The Nutty Professor (#110 of 5)

Summer of ‘88: Coming to America

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Summer of ‘88: <em>Coming to America</em>
Summer of ‘88: <em>Coming to America</em>

One of my most memorable and, in a way, profound early movie-watching experiences happened the first time I saw Eddie Murphy in Coming to America. By that point, the film was almost a decade old (I wasn’t even born when it opened in June 1988), part of the Golden Age of Murphy’s Hollywood career that included works such as 48 Hrs., Trading Places, and Beverly Hills Cop. Directed by John Landis and based on a story conceived by Murphy himself, it had a simple but brilliantly executed plot: Pampered African prince, Akeem, travels to Queens, New York, where he disguises his royal identity in order to find a bride who will, as he explains, “stimulate my mind, as well as my loins.”

Up until this point in the ’80s, Murphy’s on-screen roles were largely street-wise cops or grifters prone to witty one-liners, often pairing him with uptight Caucasian straight-men. Here, he was entering entirely new territory. Instead of a cop or a con man he was prince; he was the straight man, and for the first time, he was also the romantic lead. The role marked another important turning point in Murphy’s genesis as a comedic actor: It was the first time that he really began to experiment with makeup and prosthetics in the creation of multiple personae on screen. Randy Watson, lead singer of Sexual Chocolate, and Saul and Clarence, barbershop regulars, were all the progenitors of the kinds of characters we would come to know, for better or worse, in comedies including the successful remake of The Nutty Professor and the less warmly received Bowfinger and Norbit.

The Indelicate Delinquent in Manic Winter: An Evening with Jerry Lewis

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The Indelicate Delinquent in Manic Winter: An Evening with Jerry Lewis
The Indelicate Delinquent in Manic Winter: An Evening with Jerry Lewis

On the occasion of his 86th birthday last Friday night, Jerry Lewis was in his element: water. He was drooling it onto his feet, wrapping his lips around the rim of a glass, and drinking from a pitcher. Abetted by his on-stage interviewer, comedian and TV cop Richard Belzer, the legendary nightclub performer, jack-of-all-film-trades, and philanthropic veteran of the Muscular Dystrophy Association met the expectations of fans who packed 92nd Street Y’s Kaufmann Auditorium on Manhattan’s Upper East Side by cutting loose with the brand of shameless clowning that has kept him rich and famous since the Truman Administration. Casually crossing his legs and sending a shoe flying into the first row, musically cutting off a Belzer follow-up question with “Was I throoooough?”, and fixing the perpetrator of a solitary laugh with a cartoonish, sneering turn of the head that dates back to his white-hot dual act with Dean Martin, Lewis was primed to give his audience a good time, and what was billed as a tribute by the fraternal comedians’ group The Friars Club morphed into a two-hour reciprocal love-in between childlike idol and uncritical idolators. “I’m nine, and I’ve always been nine,” Lewis self-diagnosed during a breather from his antic agenda. “The beauty of nine is that it’s not complicated.”

Oscar 2011 Winner Predictions Makeup

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Oscar 2011 Winner Predictions: Makeup
Oscar 2011 Winner Predictions: Makeup

It’s weird to think that this category has only been around since 1981, when Rick Baker won for his iconic makeup effects for John Landis’s An American Werewolf in London. His competition at the time? The late Stan Winston for Heartbeeps, not the worst film nominated for an Oscar that year, but still. Proving once again that they can look past the crap to see the beauty, AMPAS’s makeup branch rewarded Baker this year with his 11th nomination for his special makeup effects for The Wolfman—work that I found rather crude when I saw the film last February, though I’m willing to concede that my initial negative reaction should have been directed entirely at the film’s visual effects team. The Wolfman may not have the “prestige”—high or low—of past Best Makeup winners (among them Amadeus, Bettlejuice, Driving Miss Daisy, and Terminator 2: Judgment Day), or even its fellow nominees (the furrowed foreheads of The Way Back and Barney’s Version, by some accounts a worse film), but let us remember that previous winners in this category also include Harry and the Hendersons, The Nutty Professor, Men in Black, and Dr Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas—all work by Rick Baker.

Will Win: The Wolfman

Could Win: The Way Back

Should Win: The Wolfman

The Jester and the Jerk: Comic Reflexivity in Four Jerry Lewis Films

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The Jester and the Jerk: Comic Reflexivity in Four Jerry Lewis Films
The Jester and the Jerk: Comic Reflexivity in Four Jerry Lewis Films

It’s rarely noted how fundamentally Jewish Jerry Lewis’s humor is. I don’t mean the urbanely intellectual name-dropping of Woody Allen, but rather the sheer raving fear and terror, the sense the world is out to get you, that permeates the fiction of Jewish writers like Franz Kafka and Leonard Michaels. At his best, Lewis convinces you that everyone is dangerous and that the most you can do is run away, shrieking. It’s impossible for me to watch Jerry Lewis films without thinking of the Holocaust.

You may balk at the previous sentence, wondering whether it’s meant to be funny. I’ve often had the same reaction to Lewis’s films. Lewis ruled the box office in the 1950s with a series of comedies co-starring Dean Martin and directed by Frank Tashlin (Artists and Models is probably the best-known). After his partnership with Martin ended, Lewis became his own writer, director, and general metteur-en-scéne. A recent Anthology Film Archives retrospective devoted to his directorial efforts showed how Lewis took the persona he’d cultivated—a sort of cross-eyed, arm-swinging man-child, given to spluttering nonsensical outbursts along the lines of “Grupdideebooboowabumwacha”—and simultaneously used it while distancing himself from it, commenting on it. He uses not humor, but “humor,” raising your awareness of the gags as they’re unfolding. Eric Henderson, writing in Slant, points to a sequence from 1961’s The Errand Boy where Lewis’s character, Morty S. Tashman (shades of Tashlin), keeps bringing a great glass candy jar down from a high shelf, then back up. Audiences have been conditioned by slapstick—everything from the blind man shattering the shop in It’s a Gift to the cream pie-and-spritzer of a Three Stooges routine—to expect Jerry to drop the jar. When he doesn’t, the joke goes from being on him to being on us.