He really did it.
I was lucky enough to go see my brother’s first film, and his debut in Cannes. I caught up with Noah the night before the premiere. Jerry Lewis had just flown in, and there was a dinner in his honor. Of course, he skipped it so he could sleep. So they had an extra place at the table, and I got to join in. I guess I eating Jerry’s food. Ha, ha – just kidding. It was at the Carlton Intercontinental, and since I arrived late I was offered nothing but quizzical stares by the overformal staff.
The overall mood on Wednesday night was more formal, reserved. People were nervous, I guessed. There were about 20 people at the table, including the principals Kerry Bishé & Kevin Pollak,. There was Lawrence the main investor and his other investors. And there was the Amanda, whom I got to meet at last. Very gracious and kind. I got to sit next to Mitchell White from the production team. He’s from New Orleans, and he did his best to keep the party going. As the evening wound down, someone from the local production team gave Noah his marching orders, and they were off.
On the day of the premiere, there was a press conference, which I missed. I’d stopped by the production / press office to get tickets, but I’d been put into the category ‘Access NO Areas.’ More than a film festival, Cannes is a Crowd Management festival, with all manner of partitions and dividers to let you know where you don’t belong. I arrived an hour early for the film, which was clearly not enough time. What a crowd: young, old, French, American, black tie, casual. And they were all there with tickets saying ‘Max Rose un film du Daniel Noah.’ Also, there was a sizeable crowd of snapshot-seekers waiting for a glimpse of Jerry.
Noah was already inside at a Welcome Table with Kerry & Kevin, greeting and networking. Technically, the carpet was red. But the grand entrance was reserved for Le Jerry Lewis. There was a small army of photographers at the front (which I tripped over). As Jerry walked in, the crowd went wild. The audience whole audience was trying to get a picture of him. But he seated himself as quickly as possible and yelled ‘Start the film already!’ And the focus was on Noah, ‘the first-time director.’ He took the mic and gave a short intro. And the film began.
I loved it! Was there any evidence this was a first-time director? Not at all. Was it ‘typical Jerry Lewis?’ Not at all. It was very much a director’s film, very consciously utilizing Jerry Lewis’ screen presence to advance the story. If you’d never even heard of Jerry Lewis, what you’d see is an 87 year-old actor being very honest about what it’s like to be 87. That – says Noah – was the reason Lewis attached himself to this script. The story doesn’t shy away from wrinkles and bitterness and family dysfunction.
For me, the real bright spot of the film was Ms. Kerry Bishé as Max Rose’s granddaughter, Annie. The chemistry between Kerry and Jerry was just lovely. It needed to be exceptional for the story to work. Noah uses more pauses than Pinter, letting the actors play pure subtext. All it takes is a brief, overheard phone call, and you can tell that she’s not just everything to him – she’s sacrificing everything to be there for him. I’m crying a bit just thinking about it. The scenes with Kevin Pollak were painfully realistic. I could’ve used a bit more of that storyline, in retrospect. Perhaps that had to do with editing, which was – let’s remember – finished in record time to be ready for Cannes.
And what a treat to see such a parade of older actors. Fred Willard is great in his cameo. One of the first standup comedians, Mort Sahl, gets to shine. And the jazz improv scene with the whole group of old folks is pure joy. But Dean Stockwell steals the show, with a nicely executed climax. And then it was over. The film ends with a series of black & white images of Jerry Lewis as a young man, which got the whole room soggy-eyed. And in the credits there’s a dedication to Bob & Kate Loewy, which was hardly necessary for me. So much of the film is a loving ode to Grandpa Bob & Grandma Kate and their old house in Rogers Park. It just happened to have Jerry Lewis along the way.
He really did it. He pulled a rabbit out of a hat. To get that performance out of Jerry Lewis, as a first-time director? I don’t know how he did it. I suppose it was a blessing in disguise that this film was so long in the making. It was right after Jerry Lewis won his lifetime achievement Oscar that he attached himself to the film. That was years ago. Since then, through all the ups & downs and stops & starts of fundraising, Jerry & Noah have developed a nice rapport. Jerry Lewis has become ‘Grandpa Jerry.’ You could even see that after the screening.
What did people think of the film? It seemed the reaction was positive. There were people audibly laughing as well as crying throughout the screening. There was a sizeable round of applause at the end, and then –‘Jerry has left the building.’ Again I had to hustle to keep up with the entourage to beat the muscled ushers. (I’d had to sneak into the cinema after they’d tried to deny entrance to ticket-holders. I said ‘I’m the director’s brother- my name is Shapiro.’ That didn’t help. In fact, no one I talked to knew his real name.) (Freak.)
We were ushered over to an afterparty at a beach tent venue with a DJ and 7 euro beers. Jerry was long gone. Noah huddled up his cast – this was the first time they’d seen the final cut. All were positive. Noah only lamented that the sound at the cinema wasn’t up to par. He had invested a lot of time in the intricacies of the soundscape, which was lost at the screening. Ours was supposedly the second-largest venue, but it was a temporary structure. When the wind came in off the water, it sounded like our whole cube was about to lift off. I remembered thinking, ‘Cannes, really? For Le Jerry Lewis, this is the best you can do?’ But if the film does well, they may want to redo the sound anyway. And how can the film not do well? In the end it cost $1.85 million. That’s it. For Jerry Lewis’ last film and first drama. How could you not make your money back?
The evening ended with a more intimate group in a more intimate setting in the back of the best damn Italian restaurant I’ve experienced in a while. The mood was light years different from Wednesday. I actually got to know the team, especially Lawrence the Producer, who’s been such a part of Noah’s life, these last years. On Wednesday I’d felt self-conscious about introducing myself as the older brother (with not as many films at Cannes). But of course, that’s partly because I’ve chosen for my family. And how touching that the film ends on the same note.
Noah, you’re exceptional. Your first film is not only a decent film, but an important film. You deserve a huge career, and I can’t wait to see what you do from here.