Meet ‘Max Rose’: Jerry Lewis returns to the big screen in Daniel Noah’s indie drama

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There are those who still remember that standing ovation, and they still insist it did clock in at close to 20 minutes. Daniel Noah, who directed the film and was there, has his doubts, but even he concedes, “It was long—God! It was very long! There was a lot of love for the film and for Jerry. It was very, very well-received—in the room.” 

The “room” was actually an outdoor-beach screening area at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, and the French, who are notoriously nuts for the original Nutty Professor, couldn’t stop cheering and screaming, “Zh-erry, we love you!” As one observer of the hedonistic hero-worship noted, Jerry Lewis may be the only person in the universe to get away with calling Cannes’ powerful festival director, Thierry Frémaux, a putz.  

Even those who slept pretty soundly during the unreeling managed to rally and join in the joyful tumult, according to one bitchy critic, but the notices that followed this showing were far less kind.

“It was one of the most difficult experiences of my life—to have this incredibly personal story premiere, unsuccessfully, on the world stage,” Noah says in painful retrospect. “The whole thing was the stuff of anxiety dreams. It was hard. I got the wind knocked out of me. I think that we all did. It took a little while to get back up.”

The object lesson to be found in Max Rose, the picture in question, comes from the classic haste-makes-waste scenario. “We shot the film in 21 days in L.A.,” Noah recalls, “starting it at the end of 2012 and breaking for the holidays, then coming back and finishing it at the beginning of 2013. Cannes had been tracking it and was very interested in showing it that May. It was an extremely tight timeline, but we felt we’d be fools not to accept the invitation. So Cannes saw what amounted to the first assembly. As you know, assemblies are very rough. It’s hard to have an emotional experience with them, so they had to trust a little bit that we were going to be ready.

“Well, we weren’t. Something I learned from this experience—and from other films that I’ve made as a producer over the past five years—is that there are certain films where you can drop the scenes exactly as they are written in the screenplay in the order they were written; then, you cut a scene here or there, nip and tuck, and basically it works as written. But there are others where you have to find the film in the editing room. Max Rose is very much one of those films. There’s a certain breed of films in which the story exists almost entirely in the interpersonal dynamics—in the human behavior rather than more in the traditional plot—and those are, in my opinion, the most rewarding films. Ingmar Bergman’s films are all about human behavior and interaction, but they’re often difficult. They’re subtle, nuanced. Max Rose is like that. There’s not a lot of plot, so it took more time than we had to find.”

Picking himself up and dusting off the corrosive sand of Cannes, Noah set out to find the film that got away. “There were also economic repercussions,” the director pointed out. “We had to figure out financing while continuing to work on the film. But, over time, we pulled together. I don’t know if I’ll ever have a more intimate experience with a group of producers and financiers than I had on this film. These are people that I consider my friends for life. They really rallied and said, ‘No, we’re going to finish this thing and see it through and see it through correctly.’”

Finishing the film was the least of it. Finding a distributor was the most of it, requiring literally a few years before producers Lawrence Inglee and Garrett Kelleher finally reeled in Paladin, a distributing company adventurous enough to take a chance on a senior-citizen saga. Said Paladin prexy Mark Urman to IndieWire at the time: “It’s a total misconception that an elder audience is not worth marketing a film to. This is a large audience, an eager audience and an audience that listens.”

While Noah and his producers were in discussion with Paladin about how they were going to roll the film out, another event occurred that pushed the film into release.

Jerry Lewis turned 90 last March 16, and New York’s Museum of Modern Art threw him a retrospective, including the second public showing of the three-year-old Max Rose.

How not to say no to that? “It was really just lucky timing that his 90th birthday was falling right when we were getting ready to premiere the film,” Noah declares. “Mostly, we just thought of it as a nice birthday present to be able to give to him. We always knew we wanted to have a premiere in New York and a premiere in L.A., so the MoMA retrospective was the perfect opportunity to show the film, and in about a month it will premiere in L.A. at the American Cinematheque. It opens in New York for a week at Sunshine Cinema Sept. 2 and rolls out nationally the following week.”

In addition to its 90-year-old main draw, Max Rose co-stars Dean Stockwell, 80; Claire Bloom, 85; Rance Howard, 87; Lee Weaver, 86; Mort Sahl, 89, and a few sprightly whippersnappers like Kerry Bishé, Illeana Douglas and Kevin Pollak.

All of the cast, three years later, is still breathing in and breathing out, but not all made the finished cut: “Sad to say, Fred Willard’s character didn’t end up in the final film. It’s heartbreaking because he brought such a lovely feeling to the proceedings. He played Jerry’s doctor and friend, but in the end we wanted the film to be as pared down as much as possible so we managed to strip away a huge amount of material.”

Luckily, there was no communication gap between the octogenarians and their 44-year-old director. “I’ve always had an instant rapport with people much older than me,” Noah confesses. “I have no idea why that is, but I’m certainly glad I have it.

“People would say, ‘Why didn’t you use Dustin Hoffman?’ Dustin Hoffman is one of my favorite actors, but he’s practically too young for this character. I wanted to make a movie about people who are genuinely old, and I didn’t want to hide that.

“Most depictions of the elderly in popular cinema are viewed through young eyes. These usually aren’t subjective experiences of the people themselves—and when they are, they often focus on the body’s deterioration. I felt like there was this real hole in cinema. Obviously, there are exceptions, but rarely do these films actually empathize with them unless they put on Groucho Marx glasses and rob a bank.”

Lewis had everything Noah wanted for the title character, a retired jazz pianist mourning the death of his wife and making a startling discovery about her. “I knew I wanted the part to be played by a massive star from the golden era. I knew it would have the most power if he hadn’t been seen for a while. And it would likely be his last leading role. That’s a very tall order, and there’s almost no one on that list. It had to be Jerry.”

He’s in the picture solely because Noah wouldn’t take no for an answer. Lewis hadn’t made a movie since 1995’s Funny Bones and, for all practical purposes, had retired. “He had no agent, and it was just impossible to get through to him. We finally found he had an office in Vegas but were told he doesn’t accept scripts. ‘Don’t bother. He won’t read it. He gets hundreds of scripts every month.’ We just sent it anyway. While we were waiting, Jerry got his honorary Oscar. I recall sitting at the TV, thinking, ‘Oh, he looks great, and it’s as close as I’m going to get to Jerry Lewis.’

“Then, two weeks later, he called my producer and committed on the phone. Due to various events in his personal life, which I’ll leave for him to tell, Jerry wanted to make another movie. He probably had a pile of comedies on his desk, and there was one script that was different, and he picked it up, and we were off and running.”

Noah knew he was hell-bent to have Lewis in the film, but he didn’t really know why till halfway through filming. “I’ve the same kind of glasses my grandfather had, and at one point Jerry jokingly grabbed them and put them on, and I went, ‘Oh my God! You look exactly like my grandfather.’ I didn’t know why I’d fixated on him till then.”

As it turned out, the characters played by Lewis and Bloom are based on Noah’s grandparents. “I grew up really idolizing that marriage, and when my grandmother died I felt a profoundly empathetic connection with my grandfather and his grieving. If you’re lucky enough to love someone the way he loved her, inevitably someone is left behind. We often see stories in the paper about a couple who’ve been together for 60 years—one dies, and the other dies an hour later. The film asks the question, ‘How do you live on when you’ve lost someone you love so much?’

“My grandfather was Bob Loewy, a jazz musician and arranger who, in his whole life, had one hit—in 1946, an Al Morgan song called ‘Jealous Heart,’ which he arranged—but it wasn’t his idea of success, so he shifted his energy to his marriage and three daughters and supported a family of five as a club performer in Chicago.”

All of the above must have made Lewis feel like he was on a Visit to a Small Planet. Occasionally, the manic clown did materialize between (and, yes, during) takes. “Oh, of course. We have a gag reel that’s incredible. There’s a lot of coded moments in the film that are subtle references to his work—including one I’m in shock people have not noticed—but they’re all recaptured into this story of sadness and looking back.”

His set was fun and young. “We made the decision early on that the whole crew be young. We wanted to mix the filmmaking of now with the experience of our stars. The set was a lot of fun because Jerry couldn’t help himself—he’s an entertainer—but when it was time to work, he worked. It felt like a homecoming to him. You could tell. He loved it. He was always a bit sad if we weren’t shooting on a stage.”

Special end-credits were created for the Cannes lift-off—a slo-mo montage of Lewis pratfalls over the years, culled from the 2011 documentary Method to the Madness of Jerry Lewis and from Lewis’ own archives. Wafting wistfully in the background is a gorgeous, Oscar-worthy song called “Hurry Home,” sung by Melissa Errico and penned by people who were winning Oscars back in Max Rose’s heyday (Alan and Marilyn Bergman and Michel Legrand). The tune has been wisely retained for the stateside release, but the montage is gone, and so is the last shot of Lewis, leaving a huge studio soundstage, muttering, “I can’t do that again. I feel like Walter Brennan.”