At the Oscars: Protesting Jerry Lewis?

All joking aside, it’s about time funnyman Jerry Lewis got an Oscar to call his own.
The groundbreaking comic, now 82, elevated the pratfall to high art with a series of comedy smashes alongside partner Dean Martin and, later, as a solo attraction.
He’ll get his due this weekend when he accepts the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Oscar Sunday night (Feb. 22, 2009), an honor befitting both his film career and his decades of work raising more than $2 billion for the Muscular Dystrophy Association.
Not everyone is eager to see Lewis pick up his gleaming statuette.
Segments of the disability and gay communities plan to protest the honor pointing to what they view as Lewis’ dehumanizing comments about them. Lewis has used the word “fag” in a derogatory context several times, and some of his statements about people with disabilities have left some feeling demeaned.
So decades spent tirelessly raising money to cure a chronic condition can all be negated by a few inappropriate comments?
Apparently so in some circles.
Influential Hollywood blogger Nikki Finke may have summed up the tortured logic best on her widely read site:
“Despite Lewis’ laudatory 42 years of raising money for MDA, his publicly demonstrated debasement of gays doesn’t make him a humanitarian in my eyes.”
Finke isn’t alone. Hollywood-based protests by the disabled community are being planned for the days leading up to Oscar night. A online petition designed to convince the Academy to change its mind has gathered more than 2,600 signatures so far.
The above groups have seized on a small group of comments by Lewis over the past decades that were less than thoughtful on the subject. In some cases, like when he said his “kids” couldn’t enter the workplace because of their conditions, he was clearly tugging on heartstrings to make people give ‘til it hurt.
His more recent comments about gays weren’t appropriate — even if similar swishy stereotypes are regularly trotted out in film and television shows. But he apologized for them, and that was good enough for the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation.
It must crush Lewis to be on the receiving end of such protests, particularly from those who are disabled. Their efforts would be better spent meeting with Lewis directly or reaching out to the media to applaud his fundraising work while expounding upon his occasionally tactless retorts.
Lewis’ comments could be teachable moments to show how words can hurt, even when it comes from those with big hearts. Wouldn’t that be the proactive, positive approach to the situation?
Imagine if Lewis, still doing his back-breaking telethons every year despite a series of serious health complications, just decided to call it a day. Millions that otherwise would have been funneled into MDA’s coffers would go elsewhere. Is that what disabled groups really want?
The anti-Lewis protests align nicely with the Hollywood thought police’s lopsided judgments.
Woody Allen, who began a scandalous affair with his girlfriend Mia Farrow’s adopted daughter in the early 1990s, never suffered much condemnation from his Hollywood peers. Nor did director Roman Polanksi, who admitted to having sex with an underage girl decades ago but earned a standing ovation from the Oscar crowd when he won Best Director in 2002 for “The Pianist.”
And what about Sean Penn, a prohibitive favorite to win his second Oscar this weekend for his terrific performance in the biopic “Milk?” Why no Penn protests among the gay community, given his unabashed affection for the Castro brothers, the Communist duo who squelch gay rights in Cuba? A column in the gay magazine The Advocate blasted Penn for his glowing praise for the Cuban dictators, but few people expect anyone on Oscar night to bring up that inconvenient truth.
Frankly, Penn’s intentional support of the Cuban regime is far more dangerous speech than Lewis’s vocal missteps. Penn didn’t grow up in an era where using the word “fag” in a derogatory fashion was considered acceptable. And Castro and company can wave around Penn’s article any time they wish for propaganda purposes.
Plus, Penn’s comments didn’t come during an ad libbed speech or other public appearance. He wrote them for an article in The Nation magazine.
All of the above makes the crowd’s reaction to Lewis’ presence Sunday the most intriguing part of what will likely be another soporific Oscar telecast. Will the applause be rapturous or contained when the aged entertainer accepts his Oscar? Will the stars and starlets see protests around Hollywood on the way to the ceremony and reconsider their support?
Let’s hope for Lewis’ sake the audience laughs at all his jokes, funny or not, and applaud until their hands hurt. Lewis, warts an all, deserves nothing less.