TRIBECA: 'The King Of Comedy' Q&A Reveals Sandra Bernhard & Jerry Lewis Still Irk Each Other
The website for the Tribeca Film Festival has finally put up video from the Q&A session that followed its closing-night presentation of The King of Comedy, but, alas, it's just an excerpt. I was hoping that the discussion — which included the film's director Martin Scorsese and its stars, Robert De Niro, venerable comedian and filmmaker Jerry Lewis and (briefly, via pre-taped video) Sandra Bernhard — would run in its entirety, because, even after 30 years, the creative tensions that contributed to the film's greatness were still evident.
At the center of that tension was the 87-year-old Lewis, who gives a brilliant, disciplined performance in the movie as the Johnny Carson-like talk-show host Jerry Langford. Given some of the recollections that were exhumed and catty comments that were made during the Q&A, Lewis was a handful on the set. When Bernhard appeared by video, she asked Lewis, "Hey, remember when you called me fish lips?" and then recalled that he stole back the handwritten apology he'd given her as a result. (This prompted Scorsese to start laughing into his chest.)
Sandra Bernhard vs. Jerry Lewis: The Feud
Three decades later, Lewis — who, in 2000, told a comedy festival audience, “I don’t like any female comedians — did not sound like time had softened his feelings for his female co-star. In response to Bernhard's taped comments, he took his own shots, saying, “She’s the reason for birth control" and “She’s a wonderful guy, really. When you get to know him.”
That tension between Lewis and Bernhard, who's also brilliant in the picture, is palpable onscreen, especially during a so-pure-it's-hard-to-watch scene in which Bernhard's character Masha strips down to her lingerie to express her obsession with the captive Langford (Lewis), who's bound to a chair with so much masking tape that he looks mummified.
When Langford finally gets free of his bonds, he expresses his anger in brute fashion, and Lewis' recollection of that scene suggested that he was really feeling the moment. The comic said that he told Scorsese, "I think when [Langford] gets out of the tape, he should punch [Bernhard] right in the mouth.’ [Scorsese] said, ‘You want to do that?’ I said, ‘More than you’ll ever know.” (Bernhard told the New York Times that, initially, Lewis wanted to punch her and have her careen into a glass table adorned with lit candles, but she refused to do it. )
The Last Word
Through her spokesman, Bernhard declined to respond to Lewis' comments. And why should she? All these years later, she still gets a rise out of Lewis, which has to be at least as satisfying as having the last word.
Although Scorsese, De Niro and Lewis shared a lot of laughs on stage during the Q&A, I detected an undercurrent of discomfort when the veteran comic began to resort to some hoary Vaudeville-era gags that he's been trotting out for ages. At one point, he reached into the inside pocket of his suit jacket and pulled out a red clown nose that he wore on his schnozz for a wince-inducing length of time. He also wrapped his lips around a large water glass and clowned around like that for what felt like an eternity. Around that time, I noticed that even though Scorsese was laughing at these antics, he had shifted his body away from Lewis and could be seen shooting De Niro a few looks that said, Can you believe this guy?
I can. Lewis' unquenchable need for attention and to control the situation is show-business legend. As Bernhard told me in an interview last week, "Jerry loves to direct," and he has directed some fine films. In the case of The King of Comedy, however, it's a testament to Scorsese's talents as a filmmaker that he was able to harness these potentially crazy-making dynamics and make them sing on screen.
Here's an excerpt from the Q&A. Scorsese is talking about a memorable scene in the movie where Lewis' Langford character is stopped on the streets of New York by a woman on a pay phone who asks him to say hello to her nephew. When Lewis declines, the woman, who has been all charm up to this point, tells Langford that she hopes his gets cancer. It's a powerful scene about the public's demands upon celebrity, and, as Scorsese explains, it is based on an actual incident. Here's hoping that the entire Q&A is eventually posted.
WATCH: 'The King Of Comedy' Reunion At Tribeca Film Festival -- Get Cancer
More on The King of Comedy:
Follow Frank DiGiacomo on Twitter.
Follow Movieline on Twitter.