Oscar Actors: Lemmon, Jack–Appreciation

The death of Jack Lemmon in June 2001 terminated the career of one of Hollywood’s most brilliant and diverse performers.

I met Lemmon once, in 1989, when I was conducting research for a biography of the Hollywood director, George Cukor. Cukor launched Lemmon’s screen career in It Should Happen to You (1954), a comedy about the desperate hunger for fame among ordinary people; in this case, Judy Holliday.

Though Lemmon had some experience in TV, radio, and stock, this was his first chance in movies. As a novice, Lemmon wasn’t easy to work with, but Cukor was used to young, insecure talent, having launched the spectacular careers of Katharine Hepburn and Judy Holliday, among others. After each reading, Cukor would say, “Jack, give less, much less.” Exasperated, Lemmon finally screamed, “Don’t you want me to act at all” With a grin on his face, Cukor then said: “My dear boy, you’re beginning to understand the essence of film acting.”

Lemmon didn’t always remember Cukor’s lesson, and in later years he became mannered, and even a parody of himself. However, as he told me, “This was the most valuable advice I ever got from any director, and I worked with all the greats, Billy Wilder, Blake Edwards.”

Lemmon wasn’t an underestimated actor: In a career spanning five decades, he was nominated for eight Oscars, winning two: A supporting Oscar for playing Ensign Pulver in the comedy Mister Roberts (1955), and a lead Oscar for Save the Tiger (1973), in which he embodied a garment manufacturer, forced by his partner to consider arson as a way out of financial trouble. In one of Oscar’s shameful, unfair, chapters, Lemmon was denied Best Actor for his greatest performances, both in a Wilder picture: Some Like It Hot (1959) and The Apartment (1960).

It’s no coincidence that Lemmon won the Oscar for a melodrama like Save the Tiger. Hollywood’s bias against comedic performances is well documented–Chaplin and Cary Grant never won a legit Oscar. Indeed, what often went unremarked was Lemmon’s astute, effortless ability to blur the line between comedy and drama. He integrated comic elements into his dramatic roles, and serious tones were evident in his lightest turns.

Lemmon perfected the screen image of the Urban Everyman, dragged down by various anxieties–his heroes represented the mundane, unglamorous side of the American Dream. He specialized in a brand of comedy that mocked, sadly or ironically, the frustrations of a well-bred, well-meaning individual in a world governed by impersonal forces, be they corrupt bureaucracies or an immoral ethos. The sociological concept, “Organization Man,” seems to have been invented for Lemmon.

An ardent actor, utterly dedicated to his art, Lemmon was capable of a broad range, from slapstick comedy to cynical satire to sincere political drama. If I had to build a pantheon of Lemmon performances that exemplified his talent, they would include, along with Some Like and Apartment: Days of Wine and Roses, in which he was harrowing as an alcoholic, Missing, as a father who gains political consciousness, and Glengarry Glen Ross, his last great part.

The only roles Lemmon couldn’t play were cowboys. He did go out West with Cowboy, but, too contemporary and urban, he was ill at ease. The audience demanded to see him in ill-fitting, heavily worn gray suits. Life for Lemmon on screen was a series of affronts with city problems, moral confrontations with his conscience, encounters with family and friends who consider him a failure. Empathizing with Lemmon’s anguish, desperation, and occasionally self-pity, viewers could relate to the disenchantment and degradation he was submitted to.

Humphrey Bogart once said, “you’re not an American movie star until you’re recognized in Morocco.” Lemmon was such a star. I’ll never forget the huge applause that erupted at the 1982 Cannes Festival, when Lemmon was announced Best Actor for Missing, attesting to his truly international popularity.