Jerry Lewis Was Furious With Monty Python at the Cannes Film Festival

Lewis was the king of France — until the new kids came to town
Jerry Lewis Was Furious With Monty Python at the Cannes Film Festival

It should have been Jerry Lewis’ crowning achievement. After all, he was at the Cannes Film Festival starring in Martin Scorsese film, a potent cocktail of circumstances that promised to get the aging comic drunk on accolades and awards. He was in France, for Pete’s sake, where Lewis was treated as a cinematic and comedic god. 

“This is my country,” Lewis told Roger Ebert during the 1983 festivities. “Every magazine in France is writing about me. Here’s a picture of me at the airport with my luggage. Here’s Cahiers du Cinema, the film magazine; you think they’ve already written everything there is to say about me? Look at this: 18 pages.”

Ooh la la! 

The irony was that Lewis was starring in The King of Comedy, a film that depicted the dark side of being adored. The comic acknowledged that adulation can be dangerous, but he seemed to relish the attention anyway. “I love it when it’s intended as a compliment,” Lewis said. “Let’s face it. There must be a lot of guys around who would love for all of that to be happening to them.”

Everything was lining up for a festival full of prizes. Lewis was getting the best reviews of his career. American critics usually hated him, but the praise was coming from all corners for his role as the Johnny Carson-esque Jerry Langford. Deadline speculated that Lewis considered himself a shoo-in for Best Actor. But when it came time for Cannes to hand out its awards, The King of Comedy was ignored. 

Instead, an actual comedy took an unexpected prize. Much to the surprise of Lewis and “very, very bemused” presenter James Mason, the winner of the Grand Prix (essentially, second place at the festival) went to Monty Python and the Meaning of Life. The members of Python were as surprised as anyone. They’d had trouble developing a narrative throughline for their latest movie, eventually settling for a series of vaguely related sketches that amounted to a super-sized episode of their television show, Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Cannes loved it anyway. One filmmaker told Terry Gilliam it was “the best thing Python had ever done.” Gilliam wasn’t buying it. “There’s great bits in there,” he replied, “but there’s crap as well.”

One other comedian must have thought so too.

As Python members (minus John Cleese, who said he took pride in never attending Cannes) found themselves the center of attention, “suddenly I could feel this heat on my back. It was like the sun was burning, it was really hot,” remembered Gilliam. “I turned around, and there was Jerry Lewis, beet-red, staring, just angry because we were in his way. We were in France and the camera was interested in us, and he hated us. It was just a great moment. I could actually feel the heat coming off of this man; this face was ugly, so full of hatred. It was amazing!”


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