We can't lose with Jerry Lewis at the Oscars tonight. Like the clashing personalities showcased in his greatest film, two scenarios present themselves.
Scenario 1: The perpetually divisive screen icon takes a gracious pill and accepts the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award with his own brand of charm, plus a couple of inoffensive jokes, steering clear of any references to "broads" or gays or his "kids."
Scenario 2: Lewis forgoes the gracious pill. He seizes the moment. And he tells the academy how he really feels about never having been nominated for an Oscar.
The 82-year-old writer, producer, director and star will no doubt be greeted by one of those "waves of love" moments Lewis once referred to, on his old talk show, describing how audiences flood him with adoration.
But Lewis was never recognized by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for any of his efforts in, well, motion picture arts or sciences. (For one thing, Lewis patented the video-assist playback system, which he first used on "The Bellboy" in 1960.)
Part of it relates to the age-old prejudice against comedy. Robert Downey Jr.'s supporting actor Oscar nod for "Tropic Thunder" is a gratifying exception to the rule. But I'm here to tell you: This is a matter of the wrong statuette for the right guy. Lewis should've won an Oscar a long time ago -- 1964, to be exact. That year, the Oscars recognized the screen achievements of 1963, and in 1963 Lewis released his masterwork, "The Nutty Professor."
The Good: On the commentary track of the "Nutty Professor" DVD, Lewis tells about the time in 1955 he and then-partner Dean Martin were on a train from New York to Chicago. A man whose speaking voice was adenoidal in the extreme came over and introduced himself. A few sentences later, Lewis knew he was listening to the aural equivalent of a gold mine.
"I couldn't get that voice out of my head," Lewis says on the commentary track. And ultimately he found a home for it: Prof. Julius Kelp, the dear schlemiel who teaches college chemistry in between mishaps. Lewis got the name "Kelp" one day while floating in the Pacific Ocean off San Diego.
"The Nutty Professor" reworks "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" in a way that brought out the best instincts in its maker, as well as truly startling reserves of narcissism. When Kelp develops a personality-changing formula, he transforms into ...
The Bad: Lewis doesn't reveal the potion's full effects until a scene set at a jazz club, the Purple Pit.
For a long time, all we see is a series of bit players' stunned reactions to the creature. And then Lewis introduces the Hyde half of "The Nutty Professor": Buddy Love, the oiliest lounge lizard on the planet, a chick magnet with bad manners and bottomless self-esteem.
Lewis and Martin had been professionally separated for seven years when the film came out. Buddy Love was commonly considered a take-down of Dino.
But the character, an astonishingly abrasive creation, is probably a lot closer to Lewis himself in his darker moments, with a fair amount of Frank Sinatra thrown in for spice.
The Sublime: "The Nutty Professor" keeps jumping between the polarities of manhood, Kelp and Love, yin and yang, schmo and swinger. Why is it funny to see Kelp spaz-dancing to Les Brown's "Leap Frog"? I'm not sure. I love it, but it's certainly not funny to everybody. I showed the scene to my 8-year-old son, and with a Buster Keatonlike face he muttered: "Sadly, Dad, I don't get it."
Comedy's funny that way.
The academy never was going to nominate Lewis for "The Nutty Professor." But when you think of the darker corners Lewis was allowed to explore later, on TV's "Wiseguy" and in the films "The King of Comedy" and "Funny Bones," you're flung straight back to this picture.
The best actor Oscar that year went to Sidney Poitier for "Lilies of the Field." Is it too late to recognize Poitier for "The Defiant Ones" or "To Sir, With Love" instead, and regift the Oscar to Lewis for the performance and the film where everything, as Buddy Love would say, just swings?