In Defense Of Jerry Lewis
By Mark Simpson
Forget hair whorls, genomes, amniotic fluid, older brothers, domineering mothers, or disco. I can reveal with absolute certainty the cause of my homosexuality in just two words. Jerry. Lewis.
As a kid in the 1970s, I watched reruns of his movies -- especially the ones from the early '50s with his on-screen boyfriend Dean Martin -- with a level of breathless excitement that nothing else came close to until I discovered buggery in the 1980s.
Films like Money From Home (1953), where he pins Martin to the bed wearing a pair of polka-dot shorts campier than Christmas in West Hollywood, and Sailor Beware (1952), where he is pricked by several burly Navy medics wielding ever-bigger needles until he squirts liquid in all directions and faints, made me the man I am today.
In February, after a lifetime of being ignored by a cross-armed Academy Awards committee that never gave him so much as a nomination when he was making movies, Lewis finally got an Oscar. But not for his charming films with Dean Martin or his solo classics such as The Disorderly Orderly -- in which, memorably, he happily Hoovers with the appliance plugged up his own ass -- but for his fund-raising for muscular dystrophy. It's a charity Oscar in every sense. Lewis is 83 and has been unwell for some time.
The Hollywood gays, though, are Not Happy. They have a Hoover up their ass about Lewis. Some tried to block his Oscar because this ill old man, born in 1926, almost used the word 'faggot' last year after hosting a 12-hour telethon. In effect, the gays are running down the street screaming 'Ma-a-a!'
Likewise, because he isn't gay himself and because his nerdy, sissy persona has been deemed 'exploitative,' Lewis has been almost completely spurned by queer studies, when really he should have his own department.
Certainly, though, his films should be set texts. But it was in his anarchic, early-'50s TV shows with Martin that the 20-something Lewis was at his queerest and giddiest. Their heads were so close together in those tiny '50s cathode-ray tubes -- gazing into each other's eyes, rubbing noses, occasionally stealing kisses or licking each other's neck to shrieks of scandalized pleasure from the audience. They were a prime-time study in same-sex love. And they were adored for it -- literally chased down the street by crowds of screaming women and not a few men.
Their very first TV show opens with our boys arriving at a posh ball, full of Waspy straight couples being announced: 'Mr. and Mrs. Charles Cordney! Mr. and Mrs. Walter Christiandom!' And then: 'Mr. Dean Martin and Mr. Jerry Lewis!' The Dago and the Jew same-sex couple. Setting the tone for their series, Lewis promptly trashes the place.
The Martin and Lewis partnership was queer punk rock before even rock 'n' roll had been invented'it trashed normality right in the living rooms of 1950s America, courtesy of Colgate. No wonder they've almost been forgotten. They should never have existed. True, the explicitness of their pairing depended on the official 'innocence' of the times and perhaps a nostalgia for buddydom in postwar America, which allowed the audience to enjoy the outrageous queerness of what was going on without having to think too much about it. Literally, to laugh it off.
But official innocence is a mischievous comedian's gift horse. A skit depicting the (fictional) meeting of Martin and Lewis -- or 'Ethel' and 'Shirley,' as they called each other -- climaxes with them being trapped in the closet together: pushed together mouth to mouth, crotch to crotch. In another skit our boys end up sharing a bed, with Burt Lancaster playing an escaped homicidal maniac. 'Boy, Dean, these one-night stands are moider!' says Lewis.
Moider was exactly what they got away with. In a skit set in prison, Jerry's bunk collapses on Martin below. 'What are you doing?' asks Martin. 'I felt lonesome,' replies Lewis.
Lewis's on-screen queerness may have been just a phase, but what a phase! It was so unruly, so indefinable, so crazy, so ticklish, so exhilarating that gays -- and probably most people today -- don't really know what to do with it. It's a bit scary, really.
But that -- in addition to the fact that it's still piss-your-pants funny -- is precisely what is so great about it. Why I still think Jerry Lewis is at least as much fun as sodomy.