In the history of film, there has never been another actor quite like Jack Lemmon. He was the comic cohort of Walter Matthau, Billy Wilder's muse, and easily one of the most talented actors of his time (or any other). His work was the definition of classic American manhood, and on this Black Friday, the most holy of capitalist days, we immediately think back to some of Lemmon's most lasting works -- the films that had the nerve to challenge the modern myth of The American Dream.
So when you're done with the malls and the crowds, for this installment of Actors We Miss we thought you might like to take a moment to remember Mr. Lemmon, not only for his comedic talent and heart-warming characters, but also for the films that challenged the demise of morality and the rise of capitalism -- if nothing else, it might make you feel better to rail against the system before you get that credit card bill next month.
Lemmon made his screen debut in the 1949 film 'The Lady Takes a Sailor', but it wasn't until he starred opposite Judy Holliday in the 1954 comedy 'It Should Happen to You' that Hollywood took notice. Lemmon was soon appearing in roles in romantic comedies like 'You Can't Run Away from It' with June Allyson and 'Bell Book and Candle' with James Stewart and Kim Novak. It was in the 1959 comedy 'Some Like it Hot' that Lemmon made me a fan for life as Jerry/Daphne. The Billy Wilder comedy may be loud and silly, but Lemmon's performance is of a real person who has lost himself in a skirt. In the scene in which Daphne is ecstatic over a proposal of marriage, it is a genuine feeling that Lemmon brings across, and that is something much deeper than just playing a transvestite for a laugh. Jerry/Daphne is human, not just a punch line, and I'm convinced that Lemmon's character was integral to creating one of the greatest American comedy films of all time.
Throughout the 60's, Lemmon continued to work with Wilder in films like 'The Apartment' and 'The Fortune Cookie', and he also began taking on darker roles like the alcoholic Joe Clay in Blake Edward's 'Days of Wine and Roses'. In 1973 Lemmon took on one of his most complex roles as the beleaguered clothing manufacturer in the drama 'Save the Tiger'. The story centers on a struggling salesman in the middle of a personal and business crisis, and the movie makes some harsh criticisms about the modern world, particularly the myth of the American dream. Harry Stoner is a man who has done everything 'right' and sacrificed his morality for profit margin and his reward is a life crisis of epic proportions. He's out of touch with the world and himself and it was all name of success.
The film wasn't a popular choice for the actor, who had to fight to get it made in the first place. Lemmon even waived his usual salary and worked for scale but it was a gamble that paid off and the role earned him an Academy Award.
Lemmon continued to make 'socially conscious' films throughout the 70s and 80s including the nuclear doomsday flick 'The China Syndrome' with Michael Douglas and Jane Fonda, and the child-in-peril drama, 'Missing'. Lemmon would go on to play everything from a priest (Mass Appeal) to a P.I investigating the Kennedy assassination in Oliver Stone's 'JFK', but possibly his greatest performance was in the role of Shelley Levene in David Mamet's 'Glengarry Glen Ross'.
"The Machine" Levene is a man beaten. The one thing you can say about capitalism is that it's not about making friends, and in Mamet's microcosm of big business and manhood in a mid-sized real estate office, Lemmon is the perfect choice for the role. Levene blends Lemmon's likability with his ability to pull those sympathetic heart strings as a man who just can't cut it anymore. Unlike Stoner, who is actively questioning the decisions he made in his life, Levene is someone who is lost simply because he doesn't know any other way. His desperation to make that one big sale is palpable. Lemmon's ability to convey so much emotion in a gesture or a change in demeanor makes this performance truly his best. If you are looking for a film to poke a hole in the myth of American success, you could do a lot worse than Mamet's expletive-laden testosterone fest -- and you know you have reached a new level of cultural iconography when Lemmon's take on the character inspired it's very own Simpsons character.
Lemon passed away from cancer at the age of 76 in 2001 and there is still no actor working today that can match him. Lemmon could do it all, and to me, he was everything I love about the American cultural personality: the broad comedian, the jazz musician, the down-to-earth everyman, and even the counter-culture intellectual -- he was the walking and talking example of the American ideal and truly an actor I miss.