Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Favorite Actors: Jack Lemmon

"Most actors can show you one of two things and they've emptied their shelves. Jack Lemmon is Macys, Tiffany's, and Sears Roebuck, catalog and all."  Billy Wilder

June 27, 2001. It was my 15th birthday and it is also, sadly, the passing of one the legends of the silver screen. If you had told me who Jack Lemmon was I would know but I wouldn't have near the amount of admiration and love for him as I do now. Lemmon was someone who often got pigeon holed as the funny man. His collaborations with Walter Matthau and Billy Wilder . But to say that he was "the funny man" would be to roll a die and think it would only turn up 1. He had tremendous range as an actor and showcase it through his 50 years of acting.

Beyond just being an outstanding actor, he was known as one of the kindest, genuine people in Hollywood. He strove to perfect each performance. It wasn't about the awards. It was about the work. He wanted to transport the audience to a special place. His son Chris writes in his book "A Twist of Lemmon" that his father would say to himself "Magic time" before the cameras would roll. Those really are the best words to describe a performance from the actor.

If I were to make a short list of my favorite actors, Jack Lemmon would be on there. Here are eight reasons why:


1. C.C. Baxter in The Apartment (1960)

If Some Like It Hot represented Jack at the height of his comedic powers, The Apartment shows just how broad a scope of characters he can play. Wilder pushed him to play not just the funny man but a touching, heartfelt character. C.C. Baxter was Lemmon's first leading role as a romantic love interest. A groundbreaking film from Wilder, The Apartment was a film in which Lemmon had to carry. The dramatic demands, the comedy and the romance. He managed to pull all of it off in spades and gave one of the truly mesmerizing performances in film.

2. Jerry in Some Like It Hot (1959)

In Ed Sikov's book Sunset Boulevard: Life and Times of Billy Wilder, Jack Lemmon goes on to say that one of the best scenes he was ever in was a scene between him and Tony Curtis. It is when Lemmon tells Curtis that he got engaged to Joe E. Brown's character. Billy Wilder ended up giving Lemmon maracas and it causes him to take the scene to unmatched levels of comedy performance.

It's tough to perfect a role in a film. It's tougher to play a role in which that character has to play a whole different role. Lemmon invests so much into the character of Daphne that is looks seamless.

Billy Wilder brilliant script's gave Lemmon full range of his comedic talents. It all adds up to one of the great pieces of dialogue to end any film that is shared between Lemmon and Joe E. Brown. That's how you end a movie. Even more, that's how you create a great performance.

3. Joe Clay in Days of Wine and Roses (1962)

Joe Clay is a man swallowed up by addiction. There is a scene in here that takes place in a greenhouse that ranks with some of the best acting you will see. He accomplished that in two takes. True desperation. A heartbreaking performance that proves Lemmon can play dramatic tragedy with equal measure as comedy.

4. Shelley Levine in Glengarry Glen Ross (1992)

Shelley Levine is a character you will never forget after you've seen this movie. Al Pacino, Kevin Spacey, Ed Harris, Alec Baldwin and Alan Arkin are able to keep up with the genius dialogue of David Mamet. Baldwin's speech raises the stakes and everything afterward consists of people trying to close leads. Out of all of them though, Lemmon finds a way to dance with desperation in his character, Levine is someone who, if something positive happens, he will tap dance over another person's face with his ego. Then again, what salesman doesn't do that? It's a strong dynamic that Lemmon nails.

5. Felix Ungar in The Odd Couple (1968)

Abbott and Costello. Laurel and Hardy. Lemmon and Matthau. Having been brought together by Wilder in The Front Page and The Fortune Cookie, the comedy duo embarked upon their funniest effort yet in The Odd Couple. Lemmon's straight man is the constant foil for Matthau. Taking the idea "Cleanliness is next to godliness" to a whole insane new level. Lemmon and Matthau had a few great collaboration with The Fortune Cookie and The Front Page, but they really master the 'comedic duo' as Felix Ungar and Oscar Madison.

6. Ed Horman in Missing (1982)

Costa Gravas' powerful political filmmaking doesn't gives us easy answers. With Sissy Spacek and Jack Lemmon in Ed Horman is a man desperately trying to find his son, who mysteriously disappeared during the coup in Chile in 1973. Lemmon plays the tragic side as a father who never fully accepted his son. Missings show the actor being able to use neurotic energy to create a raw performance in Ed Horman.

7. Jack Godell in The China Syndrome (1979)

The paranoid thriller was a staple of 70's cinema. The China Syndrome falls into that category. It's an interesting combination of Sidney Lumet and Alan Pakula that bolsters three big name actors: Michael Douglas, Jane Fonda and Mr. Lemmon. The Canne Film Festival would honor Lemmon for his work in the film. A nuclear power plant worker who is terrified, Lemmon plays Jack Godell as someone riddled with fear.

8. Paul Finnigan in Short Cuts (1993)

There are several great performances in Short Cuts, but there is just something about the monologue Jack Lemmon gives to Bruce Davison. The mannerisms, the cadence, the delivery. Take note. That is how you deliver a monologue.

Magic time, indeed.

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