Monday, June 28, 2010

Remembering Jack Lemmon

Nine years ago yesterday, Jack Lemmon died.

Young moviegoers may only remember him as Walter Matthau's sidekick in the far inferior (and nearly three decades overdue) sequel to "The Odd Couple," as well as the original "Grumpy Old Men" and its sequel.

And it is true that his screen partnership with Matthau (and the friendship it spawned) was one of the most successful in Hollywood history. Over the years, they were in 10 movies together — 11 if you count "Kotch," in which Matthau appeared and Lemmon directed.

It's been a long time since I've seen "Kotch," but I think Lemmon had a cameo role in it. That isn't the same thing as co–starring with someone, though, is it? For that matter, it is hard for me to include "JFK" among the films in which they appeared together. They were both part of an ensemble cast so neither was the star, and their characters never interacted.

"JFK" was an exception to the rule in another way. Lemmon and Matthau seldom appeared in dramas together. Most of the time, they appeared in comedies. The first time was in the mid–1960s, in a Billy Wilder comedy, "The Fortune Cookie" — in which Lemmon played a cameraman who was injured at a football game and Matthau played his shyster lawyer brother–in–law. Matthau won an Oscar for his performance — and deservedly so — although Lemmon often played his straight man.

But Lemmon did have a career that was separate from Matthau, a career that paired him with many of the greats of filmmaking, both in front of and behind the camera. And it was a career that often took him in dramatic directions.

About 10 years before making "The Fortune Cookie," Lemmon was cast as Ensign Pulver in "Mister Roberts," eventually winning an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. The role allowed him to appear with legends like Henry Fonda, William Powell and James Cagney.

A few years later, he appeared in what may have been Billy Wilder's comedic masterpiece, "Some Like It Hot," in which he was paired with Tony Curtis, Marilyn Monroe and Joe E. Brown, who delivered the film's memorable final line in the clip at the top of this post.

He was nominated for an Oscar for Best Actor for his performance in that film, as he was the following year for his role in "The Apartment," another Wilder film that cast him with Shirley MacLaine and Fred MacMurray.

In 1962, Lemmon was nominated for Best Actor again — this time for portraying a recovering alcoholic in "Days of Wine and Roses." That role may not have been as much of a reach for him as many no doubt thought at the time. Both he and director Blake Edwards reported drinking heavily while the film was being made, and both men, as well as Lemmon's co–star, Lee Remick, eventually sought treatment for alcohol abuse.

In that film, I suppose, it could truly be said that life imitated art — to an extent. I don't think Remick's character sought treatment in the film, but Lemmon's did.

A decade later, Lemmon finally received the recognition he had long deserved from the Oscars, receiving a Best Actor award for his performance in "Save the Tiger," in which he played an executive doing whatever he could to preserve the lifestyle his failing business had made possible — even to the point of considering arson to destroy the warehouse and win an insurance settlement.

As much as I always enjoy watching Lemmon in his comedic roles, I have always had a special fondness for the dramatic roles he played in the next couple of decades. Some were widely recognized, others were not.

And, while each of those dramatic roles was unique, there was an honesty in Lemmon's performances that told the audience that what he said and what he did were genuine — men in these conditions, knowing what they knew and believing what they did, would behave as Lemmon did.

"The China Syndrome" attracted a lot of attention at the time, in part because its theatrical release was followed closely by a nuclear accident in Pennsylvania. Talk about life imitating art. When one of Lemmon's co–stars, Michael Douglas, appeared on The Tonight Show shortly after the accident, Johnny Carson said to him, "Boy, you sure have one hell of a publicity agent." Perhaps, but Lemmon was the one who was nominated for Best Actor. Jane Fonda was nominated for Best Actress.

Lemmon was nominated again the following year for "Tribute," in which he played a terminally ill man trying to reconnect with his estranged son, played by Robby Benson. In some ways, the role always reminded me of his performance in "Save the Tiger." Each character was trying to retain or recapture something of personal value.

There was nothing, really, that I could have seen that would have prepared me for "Missing," a movie that was inspired by the true story of the disappearance (and, as it turned out, execution) of an American journalist during the Chilean coup of 1973 — although the character did have certain qualities that he shared with the other two.

Lemmon played the father of the missing journalist. His son (played by John Shea, who is better known, perhaps, for his TV work) and his son's wife (played by Sissy Spacek) were virtually polar opposites of the ultra–patriotic Lemmon, who came to search for his son believing his son had been at least partially responsible for his disappearance, only to conclude that he and his family have been lied to by their own government.

Lemmon's career continued on a dramatic arc in the 1980s. Late in the decade, he appeared in a made–for–TV film based on the death of a young girl in an Atlanta pencil factory near the turn of the century. The case formed the basis for a new documentary about the case on PBS last fall. But I don't think there have been any new developments since Lemmon was nominated for a Golden Globe for his performance as Georgia's governor, who sought in vain to prevent the lynching of the plant manager.

Then, in 1991, Lemmon was reunited in film with Matthau when both appeared in Oliver Stone's "JFK." They were never on screen together, as I mentioned earlier. Their real–life counterparts — Lemmon played a private investigator, Matthau a U.S. senator — were both from Louisiana but, otherwise, had nothing apparent in common.

Lemmon resumed his comedic ways in the last 10 years of his life, doing the "Grumpy Old Men" movies and the sequel to "The Odd Couple," but he continued to impress me with his dramatic performances, most of them on television.

An exception was his turn in 1994's "Short Cuts," another ensemble production, in which he played a man haunted by his past infidelity and his inattention to his son who seeks to reconnect with his son when his grandson is in the hospital.

A few years later, he appeared in a TV remake of "12 Angry Men," playing the role Henry Fonda played in the movie 40 years earlier. Then, in 1999, he appeared in a TV remake of "Inherit the Wind," playing Spencer Tracy's role. In both productions, he co–starred with George C. Scott.

There are times when it is hard for me to believe Lemmon has been gone for nine years. But he has.

That's a shame. I always thought he had more to say to us.