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Jerry Lewis: Comedian Gets Academy Honor But Enmeshed in Gay Slur & Other Controversies

Jerry Lewis: Comedian MDA Telethon host gets Jean Hersholt Humanitarian AwardJerry Lewis: Comedian host of the Muscular Dystrophy Association (MDA) Telethon will be receiving the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, given since the 1957 Oscar ceremony to “an individual in the motion picture industry whose humanitarian efforts have brought credit to the industry.” Besides credit, Jerry Lewis has also brought controversy, thanks to slurs and/or put-downs directed at gays and women, to name two targets.

Jerry Lewis: Controversial comedian to receive Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award

Dec. 11: Jerry Lewis, whose film career dates back to the late 1940s, will receive the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award at the 2009 Academy Awards ceremony on Feb. 22. The award – an Oscar statuette – is given to “an individual in the motion picture industry whose humanitarian efforts have brought credit to the industry.”

The 82-year-old comedian (born Jerome Joseph Levitch on March 16, 1926, in Newark, New Jersey) is well known for raising funds every year on behalf of the Muscular Dystrophy Association (MDA), where he has served as national chairman since 1952. As per the Academy's press release, since the annual Jerry Lewis MDA Labor Day Telethon kicked off in 1966, the program has raised more than $2 billion for the cause.

Update: It could be that not everyone with muscular dystrophy is pleased with Jerry Lewis' work, or with the fact that he'll be receiving a Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award. Check out the comments section at the bottom of this article.

Update II: In August 2011, the Muscular Dystrophy Association curtly announced that the 85-year-old Jerry Lewis would no longer host its annual telethons.

Jerry Lewis movies

On the professional side, during the course of his 45-year big-screen career Jerry Lewis has been featured in more than 50 movies, 15 of which opposite Dean Martin – among them At War with the Army (1951), Scared Stiff (1953), 3 Ring Circus (1954), Artists and Models (1955), Pardners (1956), and Hollywood or Bust (1956).

Admired by some in France, where he became a Legion of Honor Chevalier in 1984, Lewis has been an obvious influence on comic actors elsewhere, such as Jack Lemmon in Blake Edwards' The Great Race and Jim Carrey in just about everything.

Yet Lewis' reputation in the U.S. and most elsewhere has never reached the heights of comic auteurs such as Jacques Tati, Charles Chaplin, or Buster Keaton.

In fact, Lewis' directorial efforts – e.g., The Errand Boy (1961), The Nutty Professor (1963), The Patsy (1964), The Family Jewels (1965), Which Way to the Front? (1970) – usually failed to please either critics or audiences. (The 1972 Holocaust-themed drama The Day the Clown Cried, which has elements in common with Roberto Benigni's Life Is Beautiful, remains out of reach.)

More recent Jerry Lewis acting gigs include those in Martin Scorsese's social commentary The King of Comedy (1982), starring Robert De Niro as a demented fan of Lewis' (surprisingly effective) humorless comic, and Susan Seidelman's crime comedy Cookie (1989), toplining Emily Lloyd.

On the big screen, Lewis was last seen in Peter Chelsom's Funny Bones, a 1995 comedy-drama also featuring Oliver Platt, Lee Evans, and veterans Leslie Caron, Richard Griffiths, Oliver Reed, and Ruta Lee.

Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award

Jerry Lewis has never been nominated for an Academy Award, nor has the comedian ever received an Honorary Oscar for the bulk of his career. The Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award will be his first Academy honor.

Among former recipients of the Jean Hersholt Award are Sherry Lansing, Quincy Jones, Paul Newman, Danny Kaye, Audrey Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor, Martha Raye, Gregory Peck, Rosalind Russell, Charlton Heston, Frank Sinatra, and Bob Hope.

The 2009 Academy Award nominations will be announced on Thursday, Jan. 22, at 5:30 a.m. Pacific Time at the Academy's Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills.

The Oscar ceremony will be held on Sunday, Feb. 22, at the Kodak Theatre at Hollywood & Highland Center. In the U.S., the telecast will be aired by the ABC Television Network.

Jerry Lewis The King of Comedy. Unsubtle comedian surprisingly restrained performanceJerry Lewis in The King of Comedy. Best known as an unsubtle comedian with an elastic face and a pre-adolescent persona, Jerry Lewis delivers a surprisingly restrained and mature performance as a humorless comic stalked by a deranged fan (Robert De Niro) in Martin Scorsese's 1983 drama The King of Comedy, a box office flop whose stature has grown with the passing of the years. Off screen, Jerry Lewis has been a divisive figure: admired because of his decades-long charity work; reviled because of behavior perceived as egomaniacal and remarks perceived as insensitive and/or bigoted.

Oscar ceremony: Anti-Jerry Lewis protests planned

Dec. 21 update: According to Deadline.com's Nikki Finke, “protests are coming into the Academy about its Board of Governors' choice of Jerry Lewis to receive the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award.” The reason: Lewis' use of anti-gay slurs.

A GLAAD article about the Rock-a-Bye Baby and Cinderfella actor discusses his latest anti-gay public slur, which took place two months ago on Australian television. That's when Lewis said, “Oh, cricket? It's a fag game. What are you, nuts?”

A previous such “joke” was delivered during the 2007 Labor Day Muscular Dystrophy Association Telethon itself, not too long after the Isaiah Washington gay slur controversy. Lewis later apologized.

In her post, Finke adds:

“I say this is a terrible choice by the Academy. AMPAS isn't bestowing on Lewis an honorary honor for his long career in the movies. The Hersholt is an award given to an individual in the motion picture industry 'whose humanitarian efforts have brought credit to the industry.['] Despite Lewis' laudatory 42 years of raising money for MDA, his publicly demonstrated debasement of gays doesn't make him a humanitarian in my eyes.”

Insensitive humanitarian

Now, can someone be an insensitive humanitarian? Or even be both a humanitarian and a sick, vile bigot?

Why not?

Think of all those kindhearted people out there – those who do their best to help others with one hand, while with the other they strive to make life as miserable as humanly possible for the “others” associated with the wrong nationality, ethnicity, sexual orientation, religious beliefs, and so on.

Some slurs more slurry than others?

And that begs the question: In case muscular dystrophy telethon fundraising star Jerry Lewis had used some repulsively racist or misogynist or anti-Semitic slur on television, would the Academy's Board of Governors have been willing to hand him the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award?

Of course, it could be that in these tough economic times the Academy just couldn't find enough multimillionaire Hollywood philanthropists to honor with the Jean Hersholt Award this year. But then again…

Update: Check out “Jerry Lewis in Max Rose: Cannes Standing Ovation for 'Disastrous' Comeback.”

 

Jerry Lewis image: Courtesy of the Muscular Dystrophy Association.

Jerry Lewis The King of Comedy image: 20th Century Fox.

         
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14 Comments to Jerry Lewis: Comedian Gets Academy Honor But Enmeshed in Gay Slur & Other Controversies

  1. Dennis Ruckel

    It never ceases to amaze me that a Jewish individual, as I am. can take aim at another group the way Lewis did about 'fags'.
    Considering how many millions of Jews, AND 'fags' as well as other groups were murdered because of who they were by the Axis, it floors me to hear him talk this way.
    On the other hand, I have always overestimated human intelligence. Lewis brings me down to earth . He should susbtitute the word 'Jew' or 'k—-' for 'fag' and if he doesn't respond empathically, then he's just a jerk.

  2. randall g gerber

    these days every minority is overly sensitive about in this case,gays and lesbians and the handicapped because jerry lewis known these days for putting his foot in his mouth and saying things. jerry lewis like everyone on the planet needs to take a class on sensitivy and better race relations.

  3. Bill

    Their pathetic “protest” was a COLOSSAL FAILURE!! Jerry Lewis got his well-deserved oscar.

    BRAVO JERRY LEWIS!!

  4. Laura

    Disability activists and our allies will be protesting the granting of a “humanitarian” award to Jerry Lewis, who embraces and perpetuates all the worst stereotypes about people with disabilities. For more information go to thetroublewithjerry.com

  5. Ben Mattlin

    Yes, I'm among the many who protest Jerry Lewis' receiving the humanitarian award. It's not simply because he uses derogatory language about gay people-or even that he has repeatedly referred to people with disabilities, the people he supposedly serves, as “cripples,” or calls women nothing more than baby-making machines. This is crass language, to be sure, but maybe he thinks it's funny.

    No, the problem lies in Jerry Lewis' MDA telethon itself. Year after year it exploits kids with disabilities to garner pity as a fund-raising technique. The pity does far more harm than good. Think about it: Would you hire one of “Jerry's kids” for a job? Would you want your daughter to marry one?

    Medicalizing disability sets the disability-rights movement back decades.

    What's more, the pity tactic is demeaning, and the consequences to the social status and self-esteem of people with disabilities are profoundly dangerous.

    But when I, a former MDA poster child, offered to work with the charity to help it update its language and improve its image, to make peace with the activists who oppose it, I got hostility in return. Lewis himself has threatened to have his critics killed.

    That's not funny. Applauding Jerry Lewis as a humanitarian IS funny, in the sense of odd. Worse than that, it's an insult to the disability community, the gay rights community, and the memory of Jean Hersholt.

  6. Dustin

    Mind you, Jerry Lewis HAS made sexist comments repeatedly, including the notorious:

    “I don't like any female comedians. A woman doing comedy doesn't offend me, but sets me back a bit. I, as a viewer, have trouble with it. I think of her as a producing machine that brings babies in the world.”

  7. Andrea Shettle, MSW

    It is not only the gay community that is angered by this award. The disability community is also angry.

    There's a Facebook devoted to organizing protests against the award:
    [link no longer active]

    For more information on why people with disabilities are offended by this award, check
    http://www.cripcommentary.com/LewisVsDisabilityRights.html

    And, as said above, there is the petition at [link no longer active]

  8. Stephanie

    The problem with Jerry Lewis isn't just his anti-gay remarks. He has actually insulted the very people he claims to help with the MDA telethon. Unfortunately he uses pity to raise money, which undermines the efforts of the disability rights movement. This isn't JUST about his attitude toward gays. If you would like to sign the petition for him NOT to receive the award or learn more about Jerry's “half a person” remarks about people with disabilities, please visit the following link:
    [link no longer active]

  9. dinosore

    Aren't there any other potential tributees (tributarees??) the Academy could have chosen? I just hope the guy doesn't start telling any jokes.

  10. ozzz

    You only need ONE bathroom break?

  11. Sam Ort

    Now I know when I'll be going for my usual bathroom break during the Oscar telecast.

  12. Marcus Tucker

    It's Jerry Lewis, he's known this sort of thing. I can't imagine the anyone could ever be truly offended by him because this sort of thing is expected of him. I however do not think charity work excuses him from being so out of touch.

    You can have a big heart and still be an ass. His charity work actually helped my father's grandparents pay for a great of the medical expenses when my gradmother contracted polio so I think Jerry is a good person, but a good person who talks out of his rear end.

  13. RANDALL G. GERBER

    CORRECT:I MEANT TO SAY I AM NOT DEFENDING WHAT HE SAID THEN,NOW AND IN THE FUTURE.BUT EVERYTIME SOME SAY SOMETHING,YOU DON'T LIKE,YOU EITHER PROTEST OR BAD MOUTH BEHIND THEIR BACKS,BECAUSE SOME PEOPLE GO BIG MOUTHS AND DO'NT USE THEIR BRAINS,OR IN JERRY LEWIS' CASE,TRY A ATEMPT AT HUMOR.LIKE AFRICAN-AMERICANS,JEWS AND EVERYONE ELSE,YOU NEED TO GET A LIFE AND STOP BEING SO OVERLY SENSITIVE.WE HAVE ANOTHER PROBLEMS IN THIS COUNTRY AND THE WORLD TO WORRY ABOUT,WE DO NOT NEED ANYMORE.

  14. RANDALL G. GERBER

    WE LIVE IN A COUNTRY TODAY WHICH EVERYTIME SOMEONE SAYS SOMETHING ABOUT SOMEONE(JOKINGLY OR NOT)EVERYBODY GETS SO OVERLY SENSITIVE.EITHER ABOUT THEIR RACE OR THEIR RELIGION OR THEIR SEXUAL PREFRENCE.EVERYONE NEEDS TO GET A LIFE AND GET ON WITH IT.MR. LEWIS IS 82YRS.OLD,AND HE SAYS THINGS SOMETIME WITHOUT THINKING OR ATTEMPT AT HUMOR.HE IS NOY A BIGOT OR HOMOPHIC.GAYS AND LESBIANS NEED TO STOP BEING SO DAMN SENITIVE ABOUT WHAT PEOPLE(FAMOUS OR NOT)SAY,SO GET A LIFE.IT TOOK 45YRS. FOR THE MOTION PICTURE ACADEMY TO SOMETHING RIGHT FOR ONCE AND FINALLY HONOR JERRY LEWIS(EVEN IF IT'S NOT A HONORARY OSCAR)WITH A OSCAR OF ANY KIND.I AM NOT DEFENDING WHAT HE,AS I SAID BEFORE,STOP BEING SO OVER SENSITVE AND GET OVER IT AND GET A LIFE.I AM SICK OVER THIS NONSENSE.