CANNES, France (AP) — Jerry Lewis, so beloved in France, isn’t quite overcome with emotion now that he’s back at the Cannes Film Festival.
The festival, he says, is “for snobs,” and when he meets a reporter from his native land, he exhales, “It’s so nice to hear an American.” To him, Cannes isn’t an epicenter of rabid Lewis fandom, it’s simply “business,” he says, chomping on gum.
And at 87, Lewis is back in business. Nearly two decades since his last film, he’s at Cannes with “Max Rose,” a modest independent film in which he stars as an elderly man reconciling himself to life without his late wife.
“I’m very happy to relax and stay home with my family, and if something comes up, I’ll consider it,” Lewis, in an interview, said of his return to movies. “That’s the nice part about 87. You just tell people: Oh, you’re very tired.”
At Cannes, Lewis has been anything but tired, both burnishing and tarnishing his legacy as a brilliant comedic performer. His Cannes tribute — the festival paid “homage” to him in an out-of-competition screening of “Max Rose,” as well as with a screening of his 1961 classic “The Ladies Man” — has been overshadowed by his views about female comedians.
In a press conference, Lewis told reporters that his earlier-stated feelings haven’t changed in recent years: Comedy isn’t for women, he claims. A day after his comments roiled women across the Internet, Lewis wasn’t apologetic, saying he sees females as mothers, not stand-ups.
“It’s the truth. I can’t help it,” Lewis says, shrugging. “Women, it’s just wrong. I don’t care that the audience laughs at it and likes it. I don’t happen to like it. I have too much respect for the gender. And I think that they are wrong in doing it. I can’t expect them to stop working, but just don’t work anywhere where I have to look at it.”
It’s a clearly out-of-date attitude that has turned many away from Lewis. In Cannes, “Max Rose” didn’t help his reputation. The film, by first-time filmmaker Daniel Noah, drew terrible reviews at the festival. Variety said only “the most irrationally charitable of Lewis’ fans” will appreciate it.
But such opinions mean little to Lewis. He made the film with Noah purely because he liked the script — the best he’s ever read, he says. It’s the rare film to tell a story about the struggles of growing older, featuring a downbeat performance from Lewis far from the elastic farce his fans are accustomed to seeing.
Asked why he hadn’t made a film since 1995′s “Funny Bones,” Lewis responds: “You see the movies they’re putting out? What am I going to do, discuss that?”
Noah, who wrote the script based on his grandfather, sought out Lewis with little expectation of landing him. Months after sending the screenplay, Lewis called him and committed over the phone. Lewis told him he hadn’t planned to make another film, but decided, “I gotta give them one more Jerry picture.”
“I was braced for a difficult experience,” says Noah. “I saw nothing but horror stories about how he was controlling and irascible and unpredictable and moody. . But I cannot explain to you the chasm between the man that othjcoers seem to know and the man that I know. I have not had a single moment of tension with him, of difficulty. He has been like a grandfather to me.”
Noah says Lewis — who helmed more than a dozen films in his career, including 1963′s “The Nutty Professor” — left the directing completely to him. He gave his famous star little direction, save for the occasional reminder to be more minimal, more “sad clown,” says Noah.
“He’s a wonderful kid,” says Lewis. “When you’re 87, almost everybody’s a kid.”
Lewis has continued to perform concerts — “a wonderful way to make a fortune,” he says. Retirement is not on the table. “I’m happiest when I’m on the stage,” says Lewis, who was honored with the Academy Awards’ humanitarian award in 2009 after years of telethon hosting for the Muscular Dystrophy Association.
“Wherever the audience is is where you want to go,” he says. “And if you’re a ham, like me, you go wherever the action is. You see a lens and a crew and say, ‘Yeah!’”
At the press conference in Cannes, Lewis proved that he still has his pugnacious wit and eagerness for laughs.
Asked about Dean Martin, Lewis’ famed comedy partner in the ’50s, he responded: “He died, you know. When I arrived here and he wasn’t here I knew something was wrong.” (Martin, with whom Lewis parted acrimoniously, died in 1995.)
“I’ve worked hard to sustain a reputation of: If you buy a ticket, you know you’re going to get entertained,” says Lewis. “That’s what I was taught.”
Lewis may be many things — talented, funny, honest, out-of-touch, sexist — but perhaps above all else, he’s an entertainer. “Max Rose” marks his 82nd year performing.
Follow AP Entertainment Writer Jake Coyle on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/jake_coyle