The magic of Lemmon

This is by far the most difficult post I’ve ever tried to write and that’s because this is no ordinary post.  This is in honor of Jack Lemmon, one of my cinematic loves.

“If you really do want to be an actor who can satisfy himself and his audience, you need to be vulnerable. You must reach the emotional and intellectual level of ability where you can go out stark naked, emotionally, in front of an audience.”

One could look at Jack Lemmon’s illustrious career from a number of angles and therein lies my dilemma.  He was a great comedian both in  delivery and physicality and reached a depth in drama that few others could attain.  He made every outrageous role he ever played relatable and every ordinary role extraordinary.  Despite the fact he is best known for playing average working class men trying to get ahead in life, there was little that was average about Jack Lemmon’s acting.  I don’t think anyone else did what he did on screen.  He had “it.”

What was “it”?  Well, “it” was the way Lemmon portrayed comedy seriously and drama comically.  He said in an interview I watched once that the wonderful thing about comedy is that “it can make dramatic points even deeper.”  And that’s how he seemed to approach either drama or comedy, with equal vigor, with the same attention to detail, with the same respect.  Ultimately recognizing that’s how things are in real life where there are few instances of pure joy or pure despair. Lemmon recognized life is layered, that people are layered that situations and circumstances are layered.

“It’s hard enough to write a good drama, it’s much harder to write a good comedy, and it’s hardest of all to write a drama with comedy. Which is what life is.”

It’s no wonder Lemmon worked with the legendary Billy Wilder so often and that they created screen magic at every turn.  Few writers and directors recognized and portrayed the human condition so effectively for the screen as did Billy Wilder.  Jack was the perfect interpreter of Wilder’s words.  Common yet memorable.  Always genuine.

“Happiness is working with Jack Lemmon.” – Billy Wilder

Jack Lemmon didn’t just play “everyman” effectively in Billy Wilder films, however.  He did so in all his films.  Of himself Lemmon said he was “A class clown that was serious underneath.”  I suppose the idea of a clown who is sad is not new or unique.  But to bring that to the screen so effectively in roles that are often distinctly either comedy or drama is unique.  I can think of only Chaplin as another who was able to break your heart and make you laugh at the same time, who was so truthful it often hurt.

In an attempt to show the unique “truthfulness” in Lemmon’s performances, from a fan’s perspective, I chose a few examples of scenes that stick out in my mind.  These are not in any order and are just a few of the many that can be chosen from the more than 60 films Lemmon appeared in.

I’ll start with what is perhaps the most popular film Jack Lemmon was ever in, a perennial favorite,  Billy Wilder’s  1959 classic, Some Like it Hot.  The scene, “I’m a boy” where Lemmon’s character, Jerry is playing the maracas in celebration of his impending nuptials to millionaire, Osgood Fielding, III.  The obvious is that this is one of the funniest scenes in a very funny movie.  It illustrates Lemmon’s gift for straight comedy.  On the surface.  In reality the effectiveness of the scene, the reason it works so well and why it is so memorable is due to how Lemmon chose to play it.  Jerry is so caught up with Daphne’s good fortune that what we are seeing is Daphne’s excitement – a man who forgot for a few minutes that he’s a man dressed in women’s clothes.  He is genuinely excited he’s been proposed to by a millionaire.  Remember, the scene opens and he is alone in the room, not forced to continue the charade.  Who else but Lemmon can do this so convincingly?  Without the truth he brings to this it would have been only outrageous.  It’s not.  The situation is ridiculous but the character is not.  As a result, the scene is funny on many levels.  Sincere excitement followed by sincere disappointment.  He’s a boy!

Without pomp and circumstance, Jack Lemmon’s portrayals are always convincing.  He became his characters.  Often, with a look or a sigh, a certain posture or the manner in which he walked, we knew volumes about these men.

In 1968 Jack Lemmon costars with Walter Matthau for the second of ten times in the Gene Saks-directed, Neil Simon classic, The Odd Couple.  Jack Lemmon plays the straight man in another very funny film – the neurotic, Felix Unger.  That’s not to say Lemmon as Felix is not funny, because he is.  But laughs don’t come from witty repartee and outrageousness for him as they do for the Oscar character, played by Matthau.  Felix’s laughs are often tinged with hurt.  Layered.  The scene I chose here is not a funny one.  It’s the scene that opens the film, which by Lemmon’s performance gives no inkling you are about to watch a comedy.

As The Odd Couple opens – we hear the familiar theme music, the paramount logo and then an aerial view of New York City’s Times Square followed by closer looks at other popular sites in the City.  Then we see a man walking as the title sequence comes up.  We can tell by his body language, demeanor, expression that he is completely lost.  Not geographically, but emotionally.

The theme music barely stops and the man, who’s now walked into a motel asks for a room.  Two words and we get a closer look at his face.  He is desperate, alone, on the verge of doing the unthinkable.

The man’s eyes are watery, droopy and bloodshot, his shoulders hunched, his voice heavy with emotion.  Resigned.  I know little about acting other than what I like or don’t like, what “gets to me” and what doesn’t.  This man gets to me.  We then see the man in the room.  He prepares the items he’ll leave behind for his family, puts them in the envelope and steps over to open the window.  But the window’s stuck and he hurts his back in the effort.  We are suddenly laughing because his wails are hilarious and somehow it’s funny that a man who’s trying to kill himself is prevented from doing so because he hurts his back.  Meet Felix Unger.  With no dialogue Jack Lemmon has taken us from despair to hilarity in the span of a few minutes.

From that moment on The Odd Couple is a funny film with Jack’s physical comedy strengths  playing a big part, not to downplay Matthau’s performance as Oscar Madison because he’s hilarious.  Also, the chemistry between these two men is great.  But Felix’s unforgettable sinus-clearing noises, the stiff neck, bad back, the nagging.  All memorable because they are all done so truthfully.  Lemmon embodies this character as he did them all.

Since I’m on the subject of a Neil Simon play-turned film – Simon wrote a play that’s a very funny take on the biblical story of Job, titled “God’s Favorite” that was produced for the stage in 1974.  I’m familiar with it because I was in a really bad production of it in school but that’s a story for another day.  That particular play never made it to the screen but two subsequent films written by Simon that to me have very similar plots to the Job story did and both star Jack Lemmon, The Out of Towners (1970) directed by Arthur Hiller and Prisoner of Second Avenue (1975) directed by Melvin Frank.  Lemmon’s co-stars in these are Sandy Dennis and Anne Bancroft, respectively.  I happened to watch both of these back-to-back recently and noticed that they are very similar in the sense that both are about people who are tested over and over again. Like Job, they are pushed to the edge.

Expectedly, Jack Lemmon is great in both films.  No one plays desperation like he does while always keeping humor just below the surface ready to spring.  But his performance in Prisoner of Second Avenue is astounding.  One of his best, in my opinion and that’s something considering he could do no wrong in my eyes.  Here, as is often the case, I am most blown away when he says absolutely nothing.

Such poignancy in an incredibly funny film.  Despite quip after quip, funny repartee, and incredible circumstances the truth is his character, Mel, is deeply disillusioned, at the end of his rope and there’s nothing funny about that.  No one could have given such a role in such a film the depth given it by Jack Lemmon.  He breaks my heart – in another comedy.  His acting choices are the choices of “true-to-life.”  Instead of choosing what would make a scene funnier, he always chose to go the sincere route.

In 1966 Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau acted together for the first time in Billy Wilder’s, The Fortune Cookie.  This was the start of not only a “real” beautiful friendship, but one of the best and most successful on-screen partnerships in film history.   In The Fortune Cookie, Jack Lemmon stars as Harry Hinkle, a cameraman who’s mildly hurt while filming a football game.  While he’s in the hospital getting checked out, his brother-in-law, Willie Gingrich, who’s also an ambulance-chasing attorney, “Whip-lash Willie,” railroads him into feigning serious injury so they can sue for $1 million.  As is the case with The Odd Couple, Lemmon plays the more subdued role in this film and I might add Walter Matthau is great here.  But, Lemmon’s understated performance and incredible physicality are (yet again) unforgettable.  Part of the “act” requires Harry be bound to a wheelchair for most of the movie – something that simply enhances vulnerability, another familiar Jack Lemmon character trait, no matter how much of a smart alec he may play.  Even with those limitations, Jack is impressive.

And then THE shot.  Realization sets in for Harry that his wife, who’d left him for another man earlier, has returned only because he’s likely to get a million dollars from the suit.  The eyes – how deep is the hurt here?

A couple of weeks ago I took a look at James Foley’s, Glengarry Glen Ross (1992), based on David Mamet’s play, which is the only Jack Lemmon film included here that I needed a refresher on, the one I hadn’t seen in a long while.  The film features an outstanding ensemble cast, including Al Pacino, Alan Arkin and Alec Baldwin, all veteran actors whose work I admire.  This film, in case you haven’t seen it, is about the dog-eat-dog world of salesmen in a real estate office.  It’s a brutal film, for no one more than Lemmon’s character, Sheldon “The Machine” Levene who is perhaps the most ethically compromised of all the characters in the film and there is not one character with ethics.  So I’m sitting there watching this thing and am just blown away by Jack Lemmon.  I wish I could say something original but he’s simply stupendous.  Among several great performances his is heads above everyone else’s.

I will add that I saw an interview with Jack Lemmon where he discussed Glengarry and his character.  He said he wanted to be sure to never come across as a man who deserves sympathy.  But he does to me so I have to say that.  There’s no doubt this guy is ruthless but, the situations in his life are worthy of sympathy.  Regardless, his pain is genuine, palpable – it’s just something to see – whatever the motivation.  There is no comedy in this one but…just so memorable.

The winner of the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1961 is a little ditty written and director by Billy Wilder and starring Jack Lemmon.  There is, at first glance or on paper, whichever way you want to say it, nothing about this film that should touch people the way it does , yet The Apartment is simply stupendous.  I’ve watched this film many times and knowing the impact it has in its entirety, the film’s opening never fails to make me smile.  The protagonist, C. C. Baxter introduces the film in a voiceover.  As we take a look at where he works, in one of a sea of desks, in the ordinary policy department, we are told, in no uncertain terms, that this is an ordinary guy in an ordinary place at an ordinary time.  Nothing special.  Then why is this such a memorable film that only gets better every time you watch it?  This is the genius of Wilder’s writing and directing and casting, of course, because this particular ordinary guy is Jack Lemmon.  For all his ordinariness (is that a word?) he is unforgettable – charming, somewhat clumsy, desperate, disillusioned and oh so vulnerable.

My favorite scene in The Apartment is what I call “the heartbreak scene,” when C. C. looks in the broken compact mirror and comes to the realization that the woman he loves, Miss Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine) is the one who’s been canoodling in his own apartment with his boss.  The familiar, touching, raw emotion we’re so used to seeing from Jack Lemmon and what distinguishes him from the rest of the pack.  You can see the heartbreak through the reflection of a broken compact mirror and then the bad taste the entire affair leaves in his mouth.

Billy Wilder made some of the best films ever made, in my opinion.  And part of their appeal is the wonderful way he ends them.  There are many unforgettable endings in his repertoire (see Billy Wilder Speaks).  And part of what makes them unforgettable is the fact that they are not necessarily spectacular but true to the characters.  These also don’t necessarily conclude the story.  We are charmed and awed to the very last shot.  The Apartment has one of those endings.  C. C. Baxter is not a cynical womanizer at the end of the film.  He and his sweetheart are not on their way off into the sunset.  One hopes so but we can’t be sure.  Baxter is still ordinary in the end.  He hasn’t scaled Everest.  He’s just stood up for himself – and professed his love.

In 1979 Jack Lemmon starred in James Bridges’, The China Syndrome alongside Jane Fonda and Michael Douglas.  The subject of the film was something Jack Lemmon was passionate about in real life, the environment.  For that reason, and because once again he delivered a wonderful performance in it, this time in a terrific thriller, are the reasons I’m including it in this post.

The China Syndrome deals with possible dangers associated with a nuclear power plant.  It’s a film that offers an audience, to this day, a lot to think about because, by choice, the film doesn’t take any one stance – pro or con – with regard to the very serious and controversial topic it deals with.  That said, it’s the performances here that make this film so good.  Jane Fonda shows great range and she’s excellent as a reporter of “fluff” pieces who wants to be taken seriously and stumbles upon a major story.  Michael Douglas fits his part perfectly, the independent, anti-establishment, cameraman who works with Fonda’s character who stumbles onto this story with her.  Then there’s Jack Lemmon who plays a key worker at the nuclear power plant who’s reluctant to rock the boat but grapples with his conscience, which won’t let him stand on the sidelines.  I can’t help but be redundant, Lemmon creates a very complex character in Jack Godell.  A performance as memorable and moving as is his Oscar-winning one as Harry Stoner in John Avidsen’s, Save the Tiger (1973).  In fact, if I had to choose between the two, I’d choose The China Syndrome.


Of acting Jack Lemmon once said, “It is a glorious profession.  Not just a nice one, but truly glorious and as Shakespeare put it, it is truly noble – the reason being is that as actors, at least once, we are put in a position that very few people on the face of the earth are put in – a position where you can actually change somebody’s life.  You can affect them that much.  You can move them and enlighten them…and make them think what they have never thought before.”

Walter Matthau was a presenter when Jack Lemmon received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Film Institute in 1988.  In his speech, of Jack he said, “I figured my knowing him so well was the reason he always seemed so familiar up there on the screen.  It’s not.  It’s just what he does.  He allows us to see the tragedy and the comedy of the world through the eyes of someone we know, someone he hints we may even be.  Because in the words of the poet and philosopher, Billy Wilder, “most actors can show you one or two things and they’ve emptied their shelves.  Jack Lemmon is Macy’s and Tiffany’s and Sears Roebuck, catalog and all.”

The man who was ridiculed in school because his full name was Jack U. Lemmon, grew up to become one of the greatest film actors who ever lived.  An actor of extraordinary range.  An unpretentious actor’s actor of whom PBS journalist Charlie Rose once said, had a career that “took one of the greatest acting journeys of our time.”  A self-taught accomplished pianist.  A Harvard graduate.  A lovely man.  An extraordinarily ordinary face.  All of that adds up to the magic of Lemmon.


Today is Jack Lemmon day on  Turner Classic Movies‘ (TCM) Summer Under the Stars (SUTS) where the full spectrum of his astounding talent will be on display for 24 hours.  I am submitting this entry as part of the SUTS blogathon hosted by Michael of Scribehard on Film and Jill of Sittin’ On a Backyard Fence.  This event will last all month to coincide with the TCM schedule.  For details on the schedule, participants and submissions, go to either of the host sites and prepare to be enchanted and informed.

26 thoughts

  1. This post is wholly wonderful and well written, but excuse me while I concentrate on a single section. I recently saw a stage production of Glengarry Glen Ross. It’s an awesome play (even without the Alec Baldwin character) and the cast did a fine job. Except for the poor actor stuck with the part of Shelley “The Machine” Levene. He wasn’t sympathetic, just pathetic. The ending seemed inevitable but not tragic. Because this actor was playing a Jack Lemmon part. Glengarry Glen Ross has a fabulous film cast, but I was able to set aside Spacey’s office manager and Pacino’s seductive Roma, but not Jack Lemmon. Seeing the play reinforced what a shatteringly good dramatic actor Lemmon could be.

    1. Thanks so much for your comments. Jack was shattering in all genre – took both drama and comedy well beyond the superficial. I must be redundant. He was so great! I really liked the addition of the Baldwin character in the film because I think it solidifies the environment the men are in. Would love to see the play but I would be skeptical of seeing it without Jack in it. No one can compare.


  2. Great and heartfelt post. I must confess I’ve never been a big fan of Neil Simon – I find his writing to be too facile, as well as his humor – but you’ve persuaded me to give “The Out-of-Towners” and “The Prisoner of Second Avenue” another try (“The Odd Couple” is one of the few Simon-penned movies I do like).

    Other Lemmon movies I like a lot, and him in them, are “Mister Roberts”, where he gives one of his funniest performances, “Days of Wine and Roses”, one of his first great dramatic performances, and “Avanti”, one of the most underrated Billy Wilder movies ever made. For the latter, the play it was based on was apparently done as a straight sex comedy, but Wilder added several layers of melancholy to it and made it less jokey, and of course having Lemmon in the lead role allowed him to do that. And while I have some problems with “Missing”, I think Lemmon is very good in that one.

    1. Thanks Sean. I could have mentioned every single performance of Lemmon’s as a standout. He just brought so much to each of his roles. But I would have rendered the post unreadable. If you do revisit the Simon films let me know what you think. As I state in the post, Lemmon’s performance in PRISONER is wonderful. Also, leaving out so many of his other greats, I can write more and more about him whenever I want. Just SUCH a special actor!


  3. Last night, my daughter and I watched “Dad” starring Jack Lemmon and Ted Danson. I pointed out to him as “one of the finest actors of our time”. We were both lost in that movie and with him. He gave it so much and yes, I cried. (I remember going to see it since I knew his son was going to be in it – I had a crush on him when he played on the TV show, Duet” back then… but I digress). I’m so glad today’s his day on TCM so my daughter can watch more of him and see just what I meant. (Even after I watched Mister Roberts this morning – one of my top Lemmon films – I so wanted to see it again, right away.) He was indeed one of the finest and still is. I anxiously awaited your post, Aurora. I knew it was going to have Heart. And it does. Lots of it.

    1. Tonya, thanks so much for your comments and for visiting! I try my best to be objective but am all too often rendered incapable. Was just thinking the other day I have to somehow find motivation to comment about those I don’t like so these posts can sound different. In any case – Jack is definitely a key to be introduced to the kids! He’s so wonderful in so much and his performances so layered that audiences of all ages can get something different out of his films. Keep me posted on what I know will be the kids’ growing love for Lemmon!


      1. I sure will! You know, the gist of your site, to me, is that passion and love of classic cinema. It’s ultra-genuine. Of those you don’t like – and as devoted to the classics as we are, I’m sure we all have a few we can mention – it’s understandable if they’re not addressed here right now. One day, you’ll feel compelled to do so; so until then, that’s okay… I think. In the meantime, today’s post is the one I knew where you’d be beaming from ear to ear more so than ever! 🙂

  4. Just quickly…great write up here. You really must spend a lot of quality time working on these! I have to say that my favorite Lemmon film is Glengarry. You have to get past the four-letter words and just watch it…it’s one of those ‘tour-de-force’ acting films like On the Waterfront.

    He’s so good in every scene he’s in. I especially love the end when he’s talking with Tony Roma (Pacino) and he’s obviously distracted by the police proceedings…he wants to tell Roma what’s going on but can’t seem to get the words out. He’s a flawed hero and flawed human being (aren’t we all.)

    1. Thanks, Joel! I don’t spend as much time as I should. You can tell by the gush-fest! But I can’t help it. Finding pictures takes longest. Jack’s amazing in Glengarry. Really, among several powerhouse performances, he’s beyond them. His was a mighty gift!


  5. This post is absolutely fantastic. I learned SO much about Mr. Lemmon and his career that I feel like an expert! Thank you! I was so glad to have this before the marathon started this morning…thank you SO much for taking the time to write a magnificent ode to Jack! Bravo Aurora!!!

    I hope you’re enjoying the marathon today….I’m positive you are 🙂 See you on Twitter!

    1. Thank you, Sarah! I write these for me because I love these people – Jack above most others – so when others like the posts it’s serious icing!


  6. This was a great piece! Lemmon was a great actor and I really need to watch more of his movies! My last one was The Front Page, a hilarious comedy in which he plays a journalist about to get married. Congratulations for your review.

    1. Hi Le! Thanks for stopping in and I’m glad you liked this. I’ve seen The Front Page several times. Hilarious. It’s never a miss whenever Jack and Walter worked together. I even love the Grumpy Old Men movies!


  7. I feel The Out Of Towners is one of the funniest films ever made. I am a sucker for NYC films and just real crazy, insane type comedy. This film is so fast moving, you find yourself trying to catch you breath as you watch it. Perfect ending when they get hijacked on the plane! Oh and that voice on Sandy Dennis, just priceless!

  8. Wonderful post. Thank you for this. Jack Lemmon is one of my personal favorites as well. I like what you said about his ability to make dramas funny and comedies sad in a sense. His work with Wilder is great. I first was introduced to him in The Odd Couple, so it will always hold a special place.

    On a side note, I always wished he had been able to participate in Kiss Me, Stupid opposite Felicia Farr. It’s another solid Wilder movie, but he would have made it even better.

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