“I promised myself, ‘I’m not going to let him do all those marvelous tricks.’ But I’m helpless. Jack’s talent seduces me, and I’m too weakened to resist.” – Billy Wilder
“To be with and work with Billy Wilder is sheer bliss. He is the most extraordinary man I have ever known.” – Jack Lemmon
Billy Wilder arrived in Hollywood in 1934, during what he described as the second wave of German talent who fled the rise of Adolph Hitler. He continued the motion picture writing he’d done in Berlin in Hollywood, but as he explained there were three very lean years before he sold his first story/treatment to Paramount Pictures in 1937. In 1938 Wilder teamed with screenwriter Charles Brackett with whom he’d pen such greats as Ninotchka (1939) and Ball of Fire (1941). The Brackett-Wilder partnership later evolved into a producer/director one when Billy decided he wanted more control over his work, a “defense mechanism” as he would describe it because he was sick of people butchering his work. So…Billy ventured forth into directing with the fabulous The Major and the Minor in 1942 starring Ginger Rogers and Ray Milland. To put things in perspective by 1942 Billy Wilder had worked on 70 films as a screenwriter and the fact that he directed an “A” picture with a top-notch cast for his first go around at the helm gives you a clue as to how well-regarded he was in the industry. This is particularly true at the height of the studio system in Hollywood. This was no easy task. That is unless you were clever, charming, incredibly talented and anti-establishment. In other words, unless you were Billy Wilder.
Billy attributed much of his early success in Hollywood to luck and Ernst Lubitsch on whose films Wilder worked and who he greatly admired. “The Lubitsch Touch,” as Wilder always referred to it is what he aspired to and would achieve in some ways particularly with the humor infused in most of his work. As we all know Billy Wilder would also have his own distinct signature throughout his movies such as the cynicism that permeated many of his stories. As was noted by director Michel Ciment in the 1982 documentary, Portrait d’un homme ‘à 60% parfait’: Billy Wilder, Wilder movies had the “Wilder Touch,” but there was not a Wilder specialty, referring to the fact that Billy’s films spanned all genres (with the exception of the Western as Wilder himself corrected.)
The Wilder-Brackett team continued to impress churning out such critically acclaimed films as The Lost Weekend (1945), A Foreign Affair (1948) and Sunset Blvd. (1950). Despite their success together, however, Wilder and Brackett were not kindred spirits. There was always professional respect between the two men and clearly they worked well together, but they were polar opposites in many ways – culturally, politically, socially and temperamentally. As time passed Brackett was uncomfortable with some of the subject matter and characterizations Wilder was tackling and he didn’t like working on movies that featured disreputable characters such as Double Indemnity (1944), which Wilder wrote with Raymond Chandler and produced on his own. The differences between Wilder and Brackett eventually got the better of the partnership and the collaborations ended. But Billy Wilder had many more movies to make and his next partnership proved as successful.
Billy Wilder began to work with writer I. A. L. Diamond in 1957. These two made a few movies you may have heard of like Some Like it Hot (1959), The Apartment (1960) and The Fortune Cookie (1966). By 1959, which is when Billy Wilder and Jack Lemmon met to work on Some Like it Hot Wilder could boast directing some of the greatest movies ever made. These included the aforementioned Double Indemnity, The Lost Weekend and Sunset Blvd. plus Ace In the Hole (1951), Stalag 17 (1953), Sabrina (1954), The Seven Year Itch (1955) and Witness For the Prosecution (1957). In other words Billy Wilder was Hollywood royalty even if he frequently fought with his subjects.
Jack Lemmon was born to act. Almost from the time he could talk he was imitating people much to the embarrassment of his parents as most of the subjects were their close friends. The acting bug officially bit while Jack was still in grammar school when he substituted for his friend Billy Tyler who was sick and couldn’t make a school play at the last minute. Young Jack was nearly laughed off the stage because he didn’t know the lines and wore Billy’s costume, which was several sizes too big. But instead of humiliation Jack felt pride at the laughter he’d caused and the popularity he enjoyed in school after the performance led him to doing frequent imitations of popular movie stars and more plays.
Years later with a Harvard degree under his belt and having completed training in the Navy ROTC Jack Lemmon hit the pavement in New York trying to get an agent to represent him. To earn money he worked in a beer hall (playing piano), eventually getting his first big break in radio and on off-Broadway, which later led to steady TV work. Jack never aspired to be in movies. What he wanted was a career on the stage. Fate intervened, however, and Hollywood came calling. Lucky for us Jack answered the call.
Jack was starring in a revival of “Room Service” when executives from Columbia Pictures came to see the show. They were looking for someone to play opposite Judy Holliday in It Should Happen to You (1954), which he always thought was a terrible title for a movie. Jack was not interested in leaving the stage, but when he heard names like Garson Kanin (screenplay) and George Cukor (director) associated with It Should Happen to You he changed his mind and moved West making Hollywood his home and the movies his primary source of income.
NY Times critic Bosley Crowther wrote the following about Jack Lemmon in It Should Happen to You:
“As for this new young man, Jack Lemmon—a fugitive from TV, we are told—he has a warm and appealing personality. The screen should see more of him.”
The year following It Should Happen Jack delivered an Oscar-winning performance in John Ford’s Mister Roberts (1955), a role he coveted according to a 1963 Life Magazine article by Peter Bunzel. This is how Lemmon got the part of Ensign Pulver:
Knowing the film was to be directed by John Ford, Jack just showed up on the set as the director was finishing another movie. As he stood watching the behind-the-scenes action he was accosted by an old man wearing dirty sneakers, droopy trousers and a floppy hat. “You’re Lemmon, aren’t you?” the man asked. “What’re you doing next?”
“I should play Ensign Pulver,” Jack snapped back, “but no one has the sense to realize it.”
“I’ll show you an old Irish custom,” said the man. “You spit on your hand, I’ll spit on mine and then we shake.” Lemmon did as told and then the man said, “All right. You’ve got the part. I’m John Ford.”
Jack Lemmon was making his mark in Hollywood, but despite the success of Mister Roberts, despite his working with the great Ford and despite his Oscar attention he was still seen in Hollywood as little more than a reliable, clean-cut comedic foil. Steady work included his doing TV work as well as feature films. He was not a star by any means, which was still the case when Billy Wilder started thinking of casting Some Like it Hot four years later.
The powers that be at United Artists (UA) insisted that Billy Wilder find a big name to star in Some Like it Hot. They specifically wanted Frank Sinatra. They didn’t care who played the female role after that. Wilder’s dream team, the Tony Curtis-Jack Lemmon combination was a no-go as far as UA was concerned. At the insistence of the studio Wilder met with Sinatra, explained the story to him and Ol’ Blue Eyes liked it. The two made an appointment to meet the following week, but Sinatra didn’t show up. He didn’t even call. Frank quickly fell off Wilder’s radar and the director again turned to Jack Lemmon. Only now the studio agreed. By this time Marilyn Monroe had decided to be in the picture so the big name requirement had been met big time. Jack Lemmon was not only about to become a superstar, but his talent would be admired and respected by the best in the business. In a few years’ time even the legendary Harold Lloyd would sing his praises, “I want Jack to do my life story. He’s the best young comic around.”
“Billy thought Jack was the master at communicating comedy.” – Shirley MacLaine
I happen to agree with that statement.
The professional collaboration between Billy Wilder and Jack Lemmon resulted in seven movies, a mere drop in the bucket in the span of either man’s individual career, but the sum of that work constitutes one of the most memorable symbiotic relationships in Hollywood history. That’s true not only because every effort is worth seeing, even the less popular ones, but also because each built upon a unique Hollywood friendship. Well…OK, who am I kidding? Lemmon and Wilder were simply mad about each other. In fact, I’m not sure there’s another director/actor pair that shared such unabashed mutual admiration both personally and professionally. They were a perfect match and complimented each other. For instance, few writers and/or directors recognized and ensured the portrayal of the human condition so effectively for the screen as did Billy Wilder and Jack Lemmon was the ideal interpreter of Wilder’s words on several levels if the works had broad comedic elements. Wilder directed other extraordinary acting talents through the years and Jack Lemmon left us numerous memorable performances not directed by Wilder. But together they were magic. Jack’s talent for delivering performances that combined broad comedy with deep emotion complimented Wilder’s sensibilities. It could be said, in fact, that Jack humanized Billy’s biting humor. Jack was ordinary, but unforgettable – plus charming, genuine, somewhat clumsy, desperate, disillusioned and oh so vulnerable. All of that worked to Wilder’s advantage from the very first movie they made together.
“When we’re ready to do a scene Jack Lemmon closes his eyes and says ‘it’s magic time’ and it works every time.” – Billy Wilder
Some Like it Hot (1959)
Jack Lemmon was more than a little worried about the prospect of having to be in drag for the majority of any movie. Not because it was beyond him and certainly not because he didn’t like the Wilder/Diamond screenplay of Some Like it Hot, but rather because he thought no one would buy the fact that the people in the story would actually believe he and Tony Curtis were women for as long as the story dictated. Still, Jack agreed to do the movie and as filming progressed on Hot Lemmon’s worries were somewhat quelled when he realized Billy Wilder was filming the comedy script as if it were a drama. In other words the situations he and Curtis as Daphne and Josephine encounter are outrageous, but the characters and their story are not. That said Lemmon’s fears surfaced now and again during shooting as he explained was the case about a particularly important scene…
“I thought he was absolutely nuts,” Lemmon recalled about the day that Billy Wilder shoved maracas into his hands and demanded he play them during a scene. No matter. Jack did as he was told and would later say, “it was genius.”
The scene is “I’m a boy” where Lemmon’s character, Jerry dressed as Daphne is celebrating his engagement to millionaire Osgood Fielding III (Joe E. Brown). 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 and doesn’t merely play the maracas he does a jig. Remember, the scene opens and he is alone in the room, not forced to continue the charade. Who else but Jack Lemmon could do this so convincingly? Without the truth he brings to this it would have been only outrageous. It’s not. Again, 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 after Joe (Curtis) reminds him that – He’s a boy! Now, why was the addition of the maracas key? Because according to Jack it gave the audience a break, time to digest the words, to believe that Daphne was honestly excited about her engagement.
That’s a great example of why Wilder’s direction, the words and Jack’s performances forged one of cinema’s greatest relationships. The Wilder-Lemmon Affair as I chose to label the long collaboration between these two talents may have produced lots of jokes, but it was no joke.
Some Like it Hot was the third top moneymaker of 1959 and was voted the number one funniest movie of all time on AFI’s 100 years…100 Laughs list. Perhaps more importantly it introduced Wilder and Lemmon as a team to the world.
Some Like it Hot received a total of six Academy Award nominations including Best Director and Best Actor for Lemmon.
The Apartment (1960)
After working with Jack on Some Like it Hot Billy Wilder actively looked for material so that they could work together again. The idea for the next movie came to him from a thought he’d had in the back of his mind since 1945.
Billy Wilder had story ideas floating around in his head constantly. He’d just let them stew until the right time for the right story came around. When he was trying to come up with his next story to star Jack Lemmon Billy remembered the idea he’d had after watching David Lean’s Brief Encounter in 1945, “…the guy whose apartment was being used for the trysts could be a really interesting character.” And C. C. Baxter was conceived.
“I couldn’t believe how good the script was or that Billy had followed Some Like it Hot with The Apartment….what I loved best about the script was that there were so many faults with the characters. Billy was never afraid. In fact he went out of his way to spotlight imperfections in the characters because in reality none of us are perfect.” – Jack Lemmon
I respectfully disagree with Jack. He was perfect. Just try to imagine anyone else making C. C. Baxter loveable? I mean, this is a guy who lends his apartment out to married men so they can cheat. That’s depravity of the highest order in Hollywood and across the land, but the masses approved and showed up to watch Billy Wilder’s latest and the Academy responded in kind. The Apartment received a total of ten Academy Award nominations including Best Actor for Lemmon and Best Actress for Shirley MacLaine. Billy Wilder won for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Screenplay with I. A. L. Diamond.
Interestingly, during an AFI interview Jack Lemmon discussed that both he and Wilder never understood why The Apartment was classified as a comedy. Jack’s take was that “It’s a serious film,” which is how I’ve always reacted to it mainly because Jack’s performance in it is heartbreaking.
Irma La Douce (1963)
MacLaine and Lemmon reunited with Wilder and the result is an affecting movie with two memorable performances. Irma La Douce is less Shirley’s movie than it is Jack’s, but the appeal of MacLaine’s Miss Kubelik in The Apartment is back. Shirley MacLaine is said to have signed on to do Irma La Douce without having read the script because she believed in Wilder and Lemmon. According to IMDB MacLaine didn’t like the finished film, but she received an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress (her second in a row directed by Wilder since she’d also been nominated for The Apartment) and I think she’s terrific as Irma. The way Shirley could play women in morally questionable situations or careers, but still make them endearing and innocent is unique to her and always a treat to watch. I also enjoy the MacLaine-Lemmon coupling and wish they’d made more than two movies together. But it wasn’t to be. A fun tidbit, by the way, is that in both movies the two wind up playing cards together. Shut up!
By now I imagine this is already getting old, but Jack is wonderful in this movie. Whether acting as a naive policeman or impersonating a bucktoothed and one-eyed English peer Lemmon delivers the goods. His performance here ranges from the outrageous to the genuinely sentimental. Few performers could ever manage that range and remain belieavable. A certain chap named Chaplin comes to mind. And yes, Jack is that good.
Jack Lemmon’s doubts returned prior to starting this movie, by the way. All of his friends told him he was crazy for even thinking about playing such a low-class part because it would ruin his image. Luckily those friends were the same ones who had warned him about making a movie in drag. Instead of heeding their warnings Jack decided to trust Billy Wilder.
Irma La Douce received three Academy Award nominations, including the Best Actress nod for Shirley MacLaine.
The Fortune Cookie (1966)
The Fortune Cookie is an important movie in the Wilder-Lemmon timeline. To start it marks the first pairing of Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau, who would become one of the screen’s greatest and most successful acting teams. The two would also forge a friendship that would last for the rest of their lives. In addition, Cookie is also the first film on which Billy Wilder and Matthau worked together. Wilder would direct Matthau in two other movies. Finally, this one stands out because it’s a terrific film.
In The Fortune Cookie, Lemmon plays Harry Hinkle, a cameraman who’s mildly hurt while shooting a football game. While he’s in the hospital getting checked out, his brother-in-law, Willie Gingrich (Matthau), an ambulance-chasing attorney known as “Whip-lash Willie,” railroads him into feigning serious injury so they can sue for $1 million. Walter Matthau delivers a great performance in this in sync with several other characters he would play throughout his career who have loud and obnoxious on their resumes. Jack’s character is much more subdued and understated, but he exhibits the incredible physicality central to making so many of his roles unforgettable. Part of the “act” requires that his character, 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.
The Fortune Cookie received four Academy Award nominations with one win for Walter Matthau as Best Actor in a Supporting Role.
A rich, old American is killed in a car accident in Ischia. His son, Wendell Armbruster, Jr. (Lemmon) goes to the Italian island to bring back the body. While on the island Wendell learns that his father has been living with a woman who was also killed in the accident. The woman’s daughter, played by Juliet Mills is also there to give her mother a proper burial. The two meet and fall in love.
While this movie doesn’t get the attention of earlier Wilder-Lemmon pairings it’s a charming one well worth spending some time with in large part due to (surprise) Jack Lemmon and Juliet Mills who I think have good chemistry. Present here is that Lemmon je ne sais quoi that makes him so relatable. Perhaps it’s the slight befuddlement that makes him so endearing. I don’t know. He just had my number, I guess.
Anyway – Jack Lemmon won the only Golden Globe of the six nominations for Avanti!
The Front Page (1974)
This is the least of the Wilder-Lemmon collaborations as far as I’m concerned due to the fact that it is a remake, something Billy Wilder had vowed never to tackle, of the 1928 Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur play that received three previous and superior cinematic treatments. That said the Lemmon-Matthau match-up is fun to watch and they both deliver good performances.
The Front Page was nominated for three Golden Globes including one each for Lemmon and Matthau for Best Actor in a Motion Picture – Comedy or Musical.
Buddy, Buddy (1981)
Billy Wilder had retired after directing Fedora in 1978, but agreed to make Buddy, Buddy once Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau signed on to star. Based on his comments in subsequent years Wilder regretted the decision, “If I met all my old pictures in a crowd, personified, there are some that would make me happy and proud, and I would embrace them . . . but Buddy Buddy I’d try to ignore.” I’m saddened to know that the great Billy Wilder would end his career on that note, but this is not a bad movie at all. I won’t repeat why as it has to do with how fun it is to watch the film’s two stars working together.
What’s most notable about Buddy, Buddy and perhaps the best reason why it shouldn’t be given the short-shrift is that it is a movie of “lasts” in the careers of several of those involved and although all are obvious I’m making note of them because these types of things make me a little sad. Buddy, Buddy was Billy Wilder’s final film collaboration with I. A. L. Diamond, the third and final teaming of Wilder and Matthau, the final film Billy Wilder directed and therefore the final collaboration between him and Jack Lemmon.
The friendship between Wilder and Lemmon lasted until Jack’s death in June 2001. Billy’s life ended nine months later, in March 2002. The two shared a love of sports, beauty and of popular American music among other things since the days of Some Like it Hot. Jack instantly marveled at Billy’s knowledge of and passion for Tin Pan Alley and Billy had been delighted to learn that Jack was an excellent jazz pianist. To get him through the (reportedly) grueling shoot of Some Like it Hot Billy had a piano installed on the sound stage so they could pass the time listening to Jack play. The two took vacations together and Jack commented on their trip to Paris (at about the time Irma La Douce was being planned) in particular, saying it represented a high point in his life. Wilder, who adored Paris, introduced the ins and outs of the city to Lemmon and shared his love of art and history. Jack would come to look at Wilder as a father figure. He admired Billy’s sense of humor, grace under pressure, ability to speak his mind as well as his genius as a director. Wilder, on the other hand, enjoyed Jack’s sensitivity and talent. The two shared a deep mutual admiration and never failed to sing each other’s praises when an opportunity arose…
Wilder on Lemmon
“I’m terribly fond of Jack and we understand each other very well. He’s my neighbor and I always look forward to working with him. He is a thinking actor, but not an argumentative one. By that I mean, for instance, we’d start working at nine in the morning and he’d be there at 8:15 excited about a new idea. He’d Say, “Hey, I’ve got a great idea. Why don’t we do this and so forth.” I’d just look at him and he’d say, “yeah, I didn’t like it either.”
“You could ask me about him in every film and my answer would always be the same. He is a complete and professional purist. There is no actor who takes his job more seriously.”
“Jack is a genius. My big problem is holding him down. He is always full of great ideas. He made the first part of The Apartment much funnier than I intended. Now the same thing has happened with Irma La Douce. I promised myself, ‘I’m not going to let him do all those marvelous tricks.’ But I’m helpless. Jack’s talent seduces me, and I’m too weakened to resist.”
“Happiness is working with Jack Lemmon.”
Lemmon on Wilder
“Maybe nobody’s perfect, but Billy Wilder came as close to it as you’ll find among filmmakers in Hollywood today. And also yesterday.”
“I’ve had directors who were marvelous at breaking scenes down and handling people. But when you would string all the pearls together, they wouldn’t make a beautiful necklace. But Billy is the kind of picture-maker who can make a beautiful string of pearls. He makes the kind of movies that are classics and last forever.”
“He’s one of the most intelligent and fascinating people that I have ever met. He’s given us all a lifetime of joy and insight into human behavior with a major body of work that I think is probably unequaled by any other filmmaker.”
“Billy’s level of writing is extraordinary. Not once in all those movies did I ever hear an actor ask to change one word in the script. And his range was astounding. From uncompromising drama in Stalag 17 to the broadest kind of comedy in Some Like it Hot.”
“I’ve been close to Billy for over 35 years and I’ve never spent thirty seconds with him that were dull.”
“Wilder goes for the home run every time, and sometimes he strikes out. So did Babe Ruth, but Ruth was the greatest of them all, and, in my opinion, so is Billy.”
In his 1977 book, “Billy Wilder in Hollywood” author Maurice Zolotow talked to Shirley MacLaine about her relationship with Billy Wilder, which as she noted was near non-existent when not shooting a movie. That was particularly true in comparison to the dynamic between Billy and Jack. Part of that, MacLaine explained is the fact that Billy Wilder was a male chauvinist, but the other part was Billy’s absolute love for Jack’s work. MacLaine was so fascinated by the dynamic between the two that she would be on set even when she didn’t have to be just to watch Wilder and Lemmon at work. She described how Billy loved everything Jack did from the get-go and the two worked diligently to improve what Billy saw as already great. “(Billy) has this intellectual and emotional and appreciative love affair going with Jack.” He didn’t do this with anyone else.
For the Classic Symbiotic Collaborations Blogathon this is The Wilder-Lemmon Affair.
Visit host CineMaven’s Essays from the Couch and read all of the entries focused on director/actor collaborations. This is sure to be fun.