In Jerry Lewis‘s most famous film, The Nutty Professor (1963) Professor Julius Kelp, a bookish chemistry professor concocts a formula to transform himself into a strong, suave hipster. His new creation, “Buddy Love,” is strong, suave, and hip, but he is also cruel, misogynist, and a jerk. Buddy Love romances Stella Purdy, the student that Professor Kelp admires from afar, and she finds herself mysteriously drawn to a man she does not admire. In the end, the potion proves unstable, and Buddy Love is unmasked. The ending of the film is curiously ambivalent, with Prof. Kelp rejecting the formula, and his new wife, Stella, tucking two bottles of it in her back pockets.
Loosely based on R.L. Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the movie has gotten mixed reviews over the years: it has been hailed as a masterpiece and reviled as a mess. There were rumors that it was Lewis’ revenge on Dean Martin, his one-time partner in comedy; other critics have suggested that Buddy Love is a portrait of Lewis’s own dark side. In interviews, he has rejected both theories, saying that he was fascinated with the Jekyll/Hyde story as a child, and that it “clicked” in his mind as “Jekyll/Hyde = Funny/Not.” From that beginning, he grew the screenplay and the characters.
No characters in this film identify as Jewish. Still, Jerry Lewis is Jewish, and whether he intended it or not, this film is a brilliant example of the traditional Jewish concept of the yetzer hatov [the good inclination] and the yetzer harah [the “evil” inclination, an inclination to selfish gratification] in every human being.
The term yetzer harah is somewhat misleading, since in fact this selfish inclination is as necessary for life and a complete person as the yetzer hatov. There is a story in the Talmud, Tractate Yoma 69b, that the Great Assembly decided to cast out the yetzer harah from all of Israel. Then they found, after a time, that “there was not an egg to be found” in the entire land. What this means is that without the urge to selfish gratification, no reproduction occurred. Other versions of the story say that no business was done, either. Life cannot go on without the yetzer harah; our task is to live with it and subdue it, to act according to the dictates of the Law even when our selfishness would have us act otherwise.
Buddy Love is Professor Kelp’s yetzer harah: he is physical, brutal, handsome, and cruel. He has no difficulty approaching women, and has a strange attraction for them, despite his brutality. He is utterly selfish. He drinks too much. He is greedy for attention. He wants, and he takes what he wants.
The professor is bookish, brilliant, and timid. He is physically weak but mentally strong. He is devoted to education and science. He pursues physical strength after being humiliated in public by a bully, initially for revenge and later because he becomes intellectually fascinated by the problem. He pursues his scientific quest with great single-mindedness. He also has a crush upon the lovely Stella Purdy (played by Stella Stevens) and could not possibly bring himself to act upon that crush. Without Buddy Love, without his yetzer harah, the Professor would never, ever approach Stella.
The conclusion of the film brings the necessity of the yetzer harah into focus. Professor Kelp, still a nebbish, is loved and managed now by his beloved Stella. His father and mother appear, and have made up bottles of the formula to sell for a profit. The professor rejects this, but Stella redirects his attention to their upcoming marriage. It is only when the two of them walk away from the camera that we see that Stella has tucked into her back pockets two bottles of the magic formula. In measured doses, confined within marriage, Buddy Love will keep love alive between the two of them. Some critics have argued that the Jekyll/Hyde story line is never resolved in the film; I would argue that this is a uniquely Jewish resolution.
Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors also looks at the yetzer harah in human beings, especially in men. His characters agonize over their choices, putting the struggle to be good and the inclination to selfish gratification on full display.
Something else to think about
Watching The Nutty Professor, I kept thinking that it was also an interesting investigation of gender. One of the Professor’s most pronounced attributes is his high-pitched, feminine voice. It is the first aspect of the Professor that pops out when the potion wears off. Buddy Love has a deep, stereotypically masculine voice, and as the potion weakens, his voice ascends to the Professor’s squeak.
Talmudist Daniel Boyarin has written extensively about Judaism and gender, including Carnal Israel: Reading Sex in Talmudic Culture and Unheroic Conduct: The Rise of Heterosexuality and the Invention of the Jewish Man. Dr. Boyarin argues that traditional Jewish standards for manliness included a devotion to study and an rejection of Roman standards of masculinity (physicality, violence, etc.).
The Nutty Professor was made in 1963. American Jewish men were faced with hard choices in finding their own place in American society: would they conform to traditional Jewish standards for masculinity, or throw that over for a new American image of a “man’s man”? Might The Nutty Professor be an expression of this dilemma?