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.
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.
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.”
Now, can someone be an insensitive humanitarian? Or even be both a humanitarian and a sick, vile bigot?
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…
Jerry Lewis image: Courtesy of the Muscular Dystrophy Association.
Jerry Lewis The King of Comedy image: 20th Century Fox.
“Jerry Lewis: Comedian Gets Academy Honor But Enmeshed in Gay Slur & Other Controversies” last updated in March 2018.