There are those who detest Jerry Lewis. I cannot empathise with them because I can no more understand them than I can those who disparage Charlie Chaplin or dismiss Casablanca. But I can sympathise with them, as to struggle inside so joyless a mind, or to possess a sense of humour so diseased by cynicism, that one cannot enjoy the life-enriching artistry of one of cinema's most accomplished clowns is surely the worst sentence – save perhaps a Rocky V-Battlefield Earth double bill – to which any cineaste could be condemned. Even those who dislike Lewis, though, seem to enjoy The Nutty Professor: it is the one film of his that has retained almost universal appeal, and it is the best demonstration of The Total Filmmaker’s total talent.
In it, Lewis – who, like the few creative screen comedians who are his equal (Chaplin, Keaton, Fields, Tati, Allen...), is something above an auteur – is at his most accomplished as a scriptwriter, as a director and, most notably, as an actor. His turn here is one of the great comic performances, though given the connotations it carries that description is practically an insult. We do not say that Laurence Olivier gave one of the great tragic performances in Hamlet, that Marlon Brando gave one of the great dramatic performances in A Streetcar Named Desire, or that Anthony Hopkins gave one of the great horrific performances in The Silence of the Lambs. But when it is said – if it is said – that Jerry Lewis in The Nutty Professor (or Buster Keaton in The General or Charlie Chaplin in City Lights...) gave one of the great performances, the compliment is always qualified: this, we say, is one of the great comic performances.
When Nicole Kidman employs a fake nose and an accent that isn’t her own in a performance designed to make us cry, it is an award-worthy example of dedication and craft. When Jerry Lewis uses fake teeth and an unnatural voice in a performance designed to make us laugh, however, it is a performance worthy of only the most patronising praise. Comedy, as Woody Allen noted, so often ‘sits at the children’s table’. Jerry Lewis has never much minded sitting at the children’s table: he knows there is far more unfettered fun, and far less pretension, to be had there. Even so, the unadulterated truth deserves to be stated – and the unadulterated truth is that Jerry Lewis is just about as good in The Nutty Professor as any actor is anywhere on film.
He’s helped by having one of American comedy’s greatest roles – or rather, by having two of American comedy’s greatest roles. Lewis plays Professor Julius Kelp, an experimental chemist who, the persistent explosions in his laboratory classrooms suggest, should really lay off the experimental chemistry. Kelp is bespectacled, buck-toothed and timid; his voice is a high-pitched assault on the ears, and his clumsiness a strain on even saintly good manners.
Mocked and outmuscled by almost all other men and, he thinks, unable to win the love of his favourite student (played, wonderfully, by Stella Stevens) he concocts, and imbibes, a chemical potion designed to transform him into an Adonis. It works, and he becomes Buddy Love, sexiest of sex symbols and swingingest of swingers.
Love is handsome, talented, and arrogant; he is Chet Baker and Jimmy Dean, Frank Sinatra and The Fonz (before, that is, The Fonz existed). In the irony that ignites the movie, Kelp is loveable but unloved, whilst Love is loathsome – and adored. When Julius Kelp walks into his classroom to begin a lesson he is timetabled to teach, few of his students even notice. When Buddy Love walks into a noisy nightclub (or, indeed, simply walks down the street), crowds fall silent and stare.
The change from Kelp to Love is, of course, only temporary and must, of course, be expertly managed. And, of course, it isn’t – which is why the Jekyll and Hyde plot is so powerful and gives so many opportunities for Lewis to create such a staggering performance. To present two characters as opposed as Kelp and Love (and to present, at various stages of transformation from one to the other, so many amusing mixtures of the two) is a feat of acting that would be beyond almost anyone but Lewis. What is more, he displays such range without the aid of any CGI or special effects, but simply by the tilt of his eyes, the curl of his shoulders, the inflections of his voice, and the manipulation of his face.
It should be impossible to accept that the handsome, imposing Buddy Love and the absurdly unattractive Professor Kelp are the same man, but Lewis ensures it isn’t. To compare his achievement in the original Nutty Professor with Eddie Murphy’s CGI-dependant performance in the remake is to see the gulf of ability between Lewis and the modern star thought best able to reproduce his accomplishments. To set Murphy’s turn as the Nutty Professor against Lewis’s is to compare Professor Kelp's singing voice to Buddy Love’s.
Most films that are set at the time they are made, and that have anything to say about the period, generally age at a grossly accelerated rate compared to those that are set in the past or at unspecified times. That The Nutty Professor (which was set and released in 1963) avoids this is because, although the film is largely about post-swing, pre-flower power American attitudes, it does not reflect them but instead distorts them. The world of The Nutty Professor is, as the settings of Lewis’s films always are, a movie-world over-saturated with sentiment, sound, colour and calamity. And, most obviously, with comedy.
The sets here don’t seem like sets but like the backgrounds in animated movies. The bright contents of each test tube; the colour of every item of clothing on everyone, whether lead actor or scarcely seen extra; the texture and positioning of each prop in The Purple Pit (the gaudy den of debauchery of which Buddy Love is emperor), all these are presented with same forethought and precision with which they would be drawn in a Miyazaki movie. This is fitting, because Lewis – and the comparison is complimentary – is like a human cartoon, capable of extremes of physical absurdity that could only be replicated in animation. (In 2008 they were so replicated, when The Nutty Professor was given an animated sequel.)
The Nutty Professor is not perfect – but, in all the times I have watched it, I have only ever noticed two obvious faults. Firstly, for all his excellence at playing the tough guy Buddy Love, Jerry Lewis throws the least convincing punches you’ll ever see outside a training school for visually impaired pro wrestlers. Secondly, there really is no reason why Jennifer (the talking bird whose super-intelligence presumably results from one of the professor’s earlier experiments) would eat the notebook in which Kelp keeps his copy of the transformation formula. When, however, you’ve seen a film as often as I have seen The Nutty Professor and those are the only two failings you can find in it, you’ve discovered something special. I will never give more earnest advice as a film critic than this: whether you love or (think you) loathe Jerry Lewis, go and watch The Nutty Professor.