AMERICAN CINEMA PAPERS
CANNES 2013 –
NOVAK & LEWIS COME TO TOWN
THE NUTTY PROFESSION
by Harlan Kennedy
“Kim!” “Jerry!” “Kim, nous t’adorons!” “We love you, Jerry!....”
What a nutty profession movie stardom is. We see it every year at Cannes. The lacquered-to-the-nines Hollywood celebs, young and old, fluctuate between the pancaked and the ever-so-slightly panicked as they, even they, inch-thick with protective cosmetics, feel a little exposed on that dangerous ladder of celebrity called the Red Carpet.
Which made us understand why Jerry Lewis and Kim Novak, the standout stellar vets in this year’s spotlight, spent no more than a moment on the tapis rouge. Their main business was to field the standing ovations in the Salle du Soixantieme, this year’s capacious harbour-side venue for reshown classics and/or VIP screen comebacks. Jerry introduced his new film MAX ROSE, in which he plays an octogenarian jazz pianist haunted by the death of his wife (Claire Bloom). Kim introduced VERTIGO, a Hitchcock film about, of course, a man haunted by the death-wish of his wife.
Necrophilia, however appropriate a term for these films, would be an unkind description of our obsession with aged screen stars. But it is a little spooky: the older they get, the more impassioned is our curiosity and the more strident the acclaim we’re willing to throw at them. Jerry Lewis threw it, pretty much, straight back. Relaxed in a red sweater at the afternoon press conference, he had given his gracious best. Then in the evening, coerced into a tuxedo, Julius Kelp seemed transformed into Buddy Love – even Buddy Hate. Hyde to his earlier Jekyll. As soon as he had been applauded into the theatre, Lewis shouted “Sit down!” to the standing crowd. They laughed nervously. (He’s joking. Isn’t he?).
Cannes director Thierry Fremaux gave Lewis a longish, opulent introduction in French, during which Lewis, having endured for a few seconds the paparazzi firing squad, started filing, accompanied by minders, into his three-rows-back reserved seat.
“Would you like to say, a few words Jerry?” Fremaux ended his speech by hazarding.
“No!” yelled Jerry. Burrowing so deeply in his seat that he was in danger of getting closer to China than the Alpes Maritimes, he uttered a largely inaudible but unmistakably ill-tempered sentence, ending in “….you klutz.”
At the screening’s end – he sat through the film, which the rest of us barely managed (look up ‘maudlin schmaltz’ in an illustrated dictionary and you will probably see a still from this movie) – Jerry was given another standing ovation. Someone shouted bravely, “We love you, Jerry!”. Jerry said to his aide, in barely an undertone, “Let’s get out of here.”
Here’s a thought. Maybe Lewis knows exactly what he is doing. The secret of eternal stardom is keeping your fans guessing. Your spell never dies if your mystery doesn’t. So if people stay powerless to reconcile one Lewis with another – the goofy child-man of THE CADDY and THE BELLBOY with the media meanie, the charity telethon Jerry with the public-appearances party pooper, the king of comedy with, er, THE KING OF COMEDY – the fascination will never die. Don’t we love WC Fields because (a) he was adorable, (b) he hated kids, was tight-fisted and drank too much? (On screen. Possibly, who knows, off). Don’t we want our clowns to be Hamlet? Or even – why stop there – Timon of Athens?
The following evening I passed the open-air beach cinema in Cannes and saw playing, with at first only a ghost of recognition, a slapstick scene from a ‘60s-era-looking Hollywood comedy. Everything about it was perfect! The colours were coordinated like a Minnelli film; the timing was split-second; the invention was rich, controlled, punctilious, seemingly throaway. It had to be a Lewis film and of course it was. THE LADIES MAN. No one ever directed big screen comedy better, and that includes everyone. “We love you, Jerry!” “Sit down and shuudup!”
It was all so different with Kim Novak. The 80-year-old bombshell emerita floated into the Salle du Soixantieme looking a vision of 49. The ash-blonde hair was combed in an attractive draggly chic: think of a soignée version of Glenn Close in FATAL ATTRACTION. The figure was slimmer than in VERTIGO. The outfit was a sort of Cunard maitre d’ black trouser suit, with wide white lapels. The single nod to opulence was a small, sparkling, sequined purse. As the audience stayed on its feet and kept clapping she did not shout ill-temperedly, “Sit down!” She waited for subsidence and then spoke graceful words.
“It’s such an honour to be here. Cannes represents the place where we celebrate life. Thank the lord!” (Said lightly, not as an evangelist’s exhortation).
“It was right after I made PICNIC that I first came here. It was wonderful to know that people knew me. The second time I brought my parents and came with Cary Grant. What could be better? It was 1959.”
The voice is light and husky. It hasn’t changed since Madeleine Elster and Judy Barton. Why did Novak retire from the screen so soon – as it seemed – after VERTIGO?
“Movies were not right for a while. They turned all plastic. I went back to my first love, the visual arts. I started painting.”
(Oh my word. Were these paintings depictions of strange bygone women wearing period necklaces, their heads turned away from the painter to reveal a little twirled ‘bun’ of ash-blonde hair…..?)
What about VERTIGO, Kim? It must be fantastic to have starred in a movie recently voted the greatest ever made?
“The funny thing about VERTIGO: I loved it, but the reviews were not good. It just goes to show. Things change, you can’t give up. You find something you believe in. Then other people come to believe in it. So that’s my message. Don’t give up on your dreams!”
As for VERTIGO’s director, “The Alfred Hitchcock we’ve heard about” – she must mean the ‘Tippi’ Hedren Alfred Hitchcock – “was not the man I knew. He was gracious and professional and kind. And Jimmy Stewart was like the neighbour you dream of having. I love him. I wish he could have been cloned!”
Thank you, Miss Novak. (Applause). Will you stay and watch the film, Miss Novak?
“Yes. I want to see it.” (More applause).
And so it re-began. The film that is purest witchcraft. The film that helped make the postwar decades of Hollywood such a miracle, at the time such an undervalued miracle. (“The reviews were not good….”). The film that must be talked of in the same breath – a little more rapt and worshipful, perhaps – as those of Renoir, Welles, Ford. And yes, damn it, let no one gag me, of Jerry Lewis.
As far as cinema is concerned the French have been right about everything all the time.
Vive le Cannes. Vive le festival. Vive le cinema. Vive la France.
COURTESY T.P. MOVIE NEWS.
WITH THANKS TO THE AMERICAN FILM INSTITUTE FOR THEIR CONTINUING INTEREST IN WORLD CINEMA.
©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved