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View From The Inside
By Randy Freedman
Max Rose is a 2016 film from Evanston-born writer-director Daniel Noah. It stars
veteran actor and comedian Jerry Lewis.
In the movie, “Max Rose” is a retired former jazz pianist who has recently
experienced the passing of his wife. Dealing with themes of aging, mortality, infidelity, forgiveness, redemption and the importance of family, this film is more serious in
tone and more thoughtful than many of the comedic vehicles Lewis is known for.
But the director and his producers had to persuade Lewis to end his
18-year retirement to take the title role.
Noah had Lewis in mind for the role from the very beginning despite
knowing the legend had been long removed from acting.
“We (the producers and I) were told he was formally retired from the movies
and that he did not accept submissions for acting,” Noah said, in an interview with
The Huffington Post. “We sent a letter anyway, basically begging him to read it, which
we figured would end up a piece of curio in our cabinet.”
Noah and the others were then stunned when Lewis called the producers of
the movie, Lawrence Inglee and Garrett Kelleher, and asked to have the script sent to
“A few weeks later he called again, and committed right there on the phone.
We found out later why he chose to engage with us out of the apparently hundreds
of offers he received each year, and it was very powerful.”
The real Jerry, many others and Noah say, is strikingly similar in nature to the
character “Max Rose,” a phenomenon that many don’t understand to this day.
Jerry Lewis is Max Rose
“I remember him jokingly accusing me of having planted cameras in his home. And he understood that to play Max was to permit the real him to be seen in a way he had never before allowed.” In that first meeting Lewis said, “The only way I’m going to screw this up is if I try to do any ‘acting.’” Which is, of course, the most elevated kind of acting that there is, Noah says.
To get back to “Why us?” Noah asked, and then said, “It had a lot to do with his father, Danny Lewis, who had been a performer in the Catskills and had taken on the role of Jerry’s mentor when Jerry became a star. When Danny died, Jerry felt that he had never had the chance to show his dad that he could give a performance from the deepest place inside of himself.”
Noah said that this had been a thing that had somewhat haunted Lewis.
“When he (Lewis) got the script for Max Rose, he said he knew that his father had guided it to him. He also felt that he had a responsibility to his fans to show them that they still mattered in old age. As he puts it, ‘This country throws away its old people like garbage.’ He wanted to make a film for his fans that shows them, as he put it, ‘They do not need to be afraid at the end.’”
Lewis enthusiastically accepted the role, funding was secured and his collaboration with Noah on Max Rose began.
“It’s (the screenplay) based on my own grandfather who was a jazz musician and an arranger by the name of Bob Loewy,” says Noah, in an interview with Entertainment Weekly. “He had one hit, which was a song he arranged called ‘Jealous Heart,’ sung by Al Morgan. It did very well, but it didn’t really happen for him professionally and he shifted all of his energy to his family, his marriage to my grandmother and raising his three girls. One of them is my mother.”
That is Rosalie Ziomek; the others are Noah’s aunts, including Hallie Loewy, and a name very well known by the readers of Chicago Jazz, area jazz icon, pianist and vocalist, Judy Roberts.
“I grew up in jazz clubs in Chicago,” Noah told the Chicago Sun-Times, Bill Zwecker, in a recent interview. “I’d be the only kid there. I fondly remember sitting on the piano while Judy was playing. I really romanticized the Jazz Era, which I think is evident in the movie. As much as (it’s) the music, it was his personal relationship with his grandparents that inspired the Max Rose script.”
Kerry Bishé and Jerry Lewis star in Max Rose.
After Noah’s parents divorced when he was 2, it was his grandparents who became what he called “the one force of stability in my life” that was “under constant change.” His single mom worked and his grandparents cared for him.
He said he “had a bond with them,” which exceeded what is “normal for most kids,” he added.
“Growing up, I really idolized that relationship as the paragon of what romance and marriage could be...if we’re lucky enough to have someone that we love that much for that long, there’s the inevitability that someone goes first. What happens to the person who’s left behind?”
Jerry Lewis was born on March 16, 1926 to Russian-Jewish parents, Daniel and Rachel Levitch. He used Lewis as his professional last name. From 1948 to 1956 he achieved both fame and popularity as one half of a double act with singer Dean Martin. The duo starred on radio and TV, in 16 movies and in thier own comic book before their split in 1956. Both men went on to both continue and increase the stardom and popularity as individual acts at the levels they had enjoyed together. Lewis developed additional skills behind the camera as director and producer, as well as comedian and actor in front of it during this, the second phase of his very long, successful and productive career.
Max Rose made its theatrical debut in 2013 at the world-famous Cannes Film Festival in France. Enjoying enormous popularity there, Lewis and the film were warmly greeted by a near 20-minute standing ovation. However, the review that followed this showing were far less kind. Frankly, many reviews that followed the debut of the film at Cannes then were just awful.
When asked about what lesson he had learned from the experience of filming Max Rose, Noah told Mark Joseph, of The Huffington Post, “Don’t rush.”
He said they were in a hurry to debut the film.
“We allowed it to be screened at Cannes before it was ready,” Noah says. “If I had to do it over, I’d protect the time we needed to find the film in editing before committing to any public showings. It was one of the most difficult experiences of my life—to have this incredibly personal story premiere, unsuccessfully, on the world stage. The whole thing was the stuff of anxiety dreams.”
Noah added it knocked the wind out of him—all of them.
It took a little while for them to get back up.
“We shot the film in 21 days in L.A., starting it at the end of 2012. 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. 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—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.”
Despite the difficulties, Noah set out to re-edit the film in such a way that showed his work off to his best advantage in a shortened time period, with more challenges emerging.
“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.’”
It’s more than a little unusual for posters to promote a film opening to be directed toward the “star” of the film rather than the film itself, but that’s what happened with Max Rose, as one read, “The Legend Is Back.” It is then preceded by one saying “Jerry Lewis Is Max Rose,” creating a clear implication that we should be watching the veteran actor disappear into the role he’s playing. Except that with a star the magnitude of Lewis, who has not graced our screens since he appeared in 1995’s Funny Bones, is that even possible?
Noah then had to decide if his best use of Lewis was as “movie star” or as “star of his movie.”
The film’s plot keys around the death of Eva, who was celebrating 65 years of marriage with Max at the time of her death. Max discovers a compact among his late wife’s belongings with an inscription that reads: “Eva: You are the secret in my heart. Ben.” Eva is played in flashbacks by Claire Bloom, Noah’s favorite actress since he first saw her star in The Haunting when he was a boy. Bloom was his first choice to play Eva. Max’s quest is then to find the truth and meaning behind those words, which drives the film.
Noah uses close-ups of the sad eyes and wrinkled face of Lewis to send his audience the message that Rose has experienced much and that his journey still has some miles left to cross. His hostility and rage are never far from the surface of his emotions, but Lewis as Rose is far more complex than just that. He is now filled with doubt about his beloved Eva, and he can get no peace for himself while those doubts remain.
Although Lewis dominates the screen—with a weighty onscreen presence that the additional years since we have last seen Lewis have given him—Noah has assembled a terrific supporting cast to complement him. Kerry Bishé is charming and endearing as Max’s daughter, while Kevin Pollak skillfully underplays his role as Max’s estranged son seeking to repair their damaged relationship. Dean Stockwell makes the most of his limited screen time as Eva’s mysterious suitor. Rance Howard, Lee Weaver and Mort Sahl portray new friends that try to draw Max out into becoming more communicative while trying to reach him through his love of jazz.