Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Jack Lemmon

I gotta start with Jack Lemmon. Why? Because to me, he represents so much of what made Old Hollywood so appealing. TCM devoted a day to him a couple of weeks ago, and I watched one of the films they showed, Days of Wine and Roses. It's a movie I had seen before and loved, though dealing with alcoholism as frankly as it does, it is mighty tough to sit through. 

As I watched it though, it occurred to me for the first time that Lemmon was damn good at playing bastards. I tend to think of him primarily as a comedic actor, which, of course, he was excellent at, but when he did drama, he could embody some truly despicable characters. 

Take Days, for example. His character is able to curb his drinking by the end of the movie, so he's not a total ratfink, but when he's off the wagon, forget about it. He's not unlike his character in The Apartment (who was also a bastard), only darker: corporate company man climbing the ladder of success, who hates himself for the compromises he has to make - hence the drinking.

The things he does while under the influence range from dickish to frightening, but perhaps the worst - and indeed, it informs the majority of the movie - was turning Lee Remick into a lush like him. By having two people struggle with alcoholism, Days raises the stakes that The Lost Weekend anteed up, and creates a co-dependent relationship that both parties have to struggle to escape from. 

The final scene is so tragic, because Lemmon still loves Remick, despite everything, and wants to take her back, but he knows that if he does, she's gonna drag him back down from the heights of sobriety again. It was one of his eight Oscar-nominated performances (he won twice), but it was in the same year as Gregory Peck's Mockingbird and Peter O'Toole's Lawrence. You try picking a winner from that group.

Lemmon, like a number of actors of his era, such as Cary Grant and Spencer Tracy, effortlessly went back and forth between comedy and drama, in a manner rarely seen today, especially by the biggest male stars. This is something I've touched on before, with regard to romantic comedies. Perhaps it's a generational shift, perhaps it was a result of working within the studio system. I suspect the latter.

Lemmon, like Grant, wasn't afraid to look absolutely silly in his comedies. The man was Oscar nominated for spending a good two-thirds of a movie (at least) in drag, after all - and I think modern actors, as good as they are, might be missing out, in a way, by sticking so firmly to drama and action and so rarely exploring their comedic sides. But that's another post. (Quote from IMDB attributed to Lemmon: "I really can't be funny unless it's part of the character. It really bugs me when someone thinks of me as a comic. If I read 'comedian Jack Lemmon,' I gag. That means I'm not an actor - which I am.")

Lemmon made ten movies with Walter Matthau. (He also directed him in Kotch, an Oscar-nominated performance.) Maybe they weren't Laurel & Hardy, but for my money, they were one of the all-time great comedy duos. I know they're the Odd Couple, and always will be, but before I think of that great movie, I tend to think of the three they did with Billy Wilder: The Fortune Cookie, The Front Page and Buddy Buddy. I saw those during my video store years, when I was still learning about classic movies. I think The Fortune Cookie is the best of the three. The Front Page isn't bad, but it can't quite escape the shadow of the Grant/Russell version, and Buddy Buddy isn't that memorable.

Perhaps the greatest measure of an actor is how he's regarded by his peers - and not just his contemporaries. Kevin Spacey has said that Lemmon was a big influence on his career. They worked together on stage in a production of Long Day's Journey Into Night, and later, of course, they were in the movie Glengarry Glen Ross. Spacey was honored in a tribute here in New York last year. Check out what he had to say about Lemmon; it is quite a moving testimonial. Also, who can forget when Ving Rhames gave his Golden Globe to Lemmon?

Jack Lemmon was one of the greatest stars of Old Hollywood, but he continued to be relevant in the modern era as well. Very few actors you can say that about.

Next: Jean Arthur

Jack Lemmon movies:
Mister Roberts
Some Like It Hot
How to Murder Your Wife


  1. My husband loves to brag about seeing Jack on Broadway in "Long Day's Journey Into Night". I can speak about seeing him on stage in Toronto in Bernard Slade's "Tribute". Jack! You could feel the love from the audience.

    Janet was a teen when she saw "The Fortune Cookie" for the first time. Loved it. She never met her grandfather (my dad), but they share admiration for that movie and it is something that makes me very happy.

  2. I never thought of him as a stage actor prior to writing this, but I could easily see him as one. Seeing him live must have been quite thrilling.


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