Jack Lemmon is one of my favourite actors of all time. I know this is true, because I regularly rewatch movies I wouldn’t think of spending time on otherwise, solely because Jack Lemmon is in them, and there’s hardly anyone else I can say that for. A few months ago, I even watched Airport ’77 for Pete’s sake – that’s the one in which a failed hijack attempt sends the plane underneath the ocean. Lemmon plays the pilot, and it’s really not a role conducive to any kind of meaningful acting – the last third of the film plays mostly like an information film regarding the might of the US Navy – but his presence normalizes the melodrama at least a little. In the last few years I’ve also watched largely forgotten Lemmon films like The April Fools and Under the Yum Yum Tree, as well as many of the ones he’s actually remembered for.
Save the Tiger
Lemmon’s persona mixes intelligence, sincerity and anxiety, in a ratio that shifts from role to role; his characters are often swept along by a mixture of external mishaps and internal inadequacy, hopelessly pushing back against overwhelming circumstance, usually papered over by a veneer of jokiness or fast-talking. In the sixties, this made him the perfect embodiment of the young guy on the make, showing time and again how the business suit barely stays on for all the tics and pressures and excess booze; as he aged, accordingly, the suits may have got finer, but the man within them was more likely to crumble. He won his best actor Oscar in 1973 for Save the Tiger, where he plays Harry Stoner, owner of a faltering garment manufacturer who eventually resorts to arson to keep the business going. The film is a writerly artificiality, cramming years of escalating frustration into one day, stuffed with portents of loss and disaster (the plight of the endangered tiger being just one), but Lemmon is entirely fascinating, conveying both the agony and the perverse near-exhilaration of Harry’s looming personal and professional crack-up.
When he won the award, Lemmon beat out Jack Nicholson in The Last Detail, Al Pacino in Serpico and Marlon Brando in Last Tango in Paris, which must have seemed like the triumph of the establishment over the new wave (even if his film career was younger than Brando’s). He won the American Film Institute’s Life Achievement Award at the age of 63, the second youngest winner at that point (Orson Welles had received it at 59), getting it ahead of people like Kirk Douglas and Gregory Peck who had a big head start on him. In other words, he rapidly became an institution, but one seemingly based as much on personal decency and affability as on the nature of his screen presence. It’s a little hard, even for Lemmon fans, to articulate exactly what it is that you’re responding to in his work.
David Thomson, not a particular Lemmon fan, wrote in his Biographical Dictionary of Film that the actor is “hugely skilled, meticulous, and yet- it seems to me – an abject, ingratiating parody of himself. Long ago, worry set in, the detail of his work turned fussy, nagging, and anal; his mannerisms are now like a miser’s coins…I can’t bear to see or hear that mannered regret any more.” Although I obviously don’t feel that way, I agree with Thomson in one respect: whereas most of Hollywood’s great stars never gave “bad” performances when cast in their comfort zones, Lemmon was fairly often over-indulged, becoming repetitive and even annoying. Blake Edwards directed him to one of his most raw, affecting performances in Days of Wine and Roses, but thereafter abused the actor’s faith in him. In The Great Race, Lemmon plays a comic villain, so broadly and monotonously that the film starts seeming as long as the race; later in the movie, he also plays a European crown prince who’s the villain’s double, and although the intention there is to convey idiocy rather than evil, the character behaves more or less the same, and just as annoyingly.
Even worse, twenty years later, Edwards cast Lemmon in That’s Life, which should have been a crowning achievement for both men: Edwards was coming off his most mature and strangely complex period (“10,” S.O.B.) and Lemmon had recently collected three more Oscar nominations (The China Syndrome, Tribute, Missing). But the movie ended up chronically self-absorbed and whiny, and at the same time off-puttingly opulent and smug, seeming like the sad product of too much time inside a self-indulgent bubble. The fault is no doubt Edwards’ more than Lemmon’s, but one feels an actor of his stature should have been able to push back more effectively against the complacency engulfing him (the film of Glengarry Glen Ross makes better, if still conventional, use of late Lemmon).
If I also add that I’ve never much cared for Lemmon’s revered performance in Some Like it Hot either (writing about the film here a few years ago I said “his ‘Daphne’ is a gargoyle, tittering and screeching; to say the least, it’s an unsophisticated approach to the character”), it might raise the question of why I seem to be dwelling on his weaknesses as much as on his strengths. I think it’s because Lemmon’s magnificence, his uniqueness in American cinema, isn’t despite but is in large part because of his limitations and excesses – if his technique and control often falters, it’s a guarantee of his vulnerability, and therefore of his remarkable resonance in conveying the weight of modern problems. His trademark delivery style, which feels like he’s adding 50% of nervous digression to whatever was written on the page, seems to convey a deep-rooted fear of falling, all the more compelling for knowing that he sometimes did.
In several of his seventies films, Lemmon appears fully naked (from the back), and there’s nothing at all aspirational about what he shows – unexceptional musculature, thin arms, body hair and tan lines that just come as they come. Far from the general notion of Hollywood stars as physical and cultural ideals, Lemmon shows himself as a man who’ll have to get by on his wits, if at all, and who severely doubts how long that can last. It’s no surprise that his roles became less interesting in the 80’s, as pumped-up Reagan-era optimism became the dominant order of the day (Lemmon himself was a committed Democrat).
His great friend and co-star Walter Matthau was much less inclined to let his doubts show, more of the caustic gambler who figures he can bulldoze his way through anything. Their best film together is probably their first, The Fortune Cookie, where Lemmon’s pliable character gets manipulated this way and that by Matthau’s Whiplash Willie. Their old man buddy movies are just going through the motions, but even by their existence, they testified that despite the worries and stresses, Lemmon’s particular brand of everyman had somehow hung on.