Sunday, January 26, 2014

Sunday Best: Actors of All Time #9 - Jack Lemmon


Tuesdays with Morrie (TV Movie)
Grumpier Old Men
Grumpy Old Men
Glengarry Glen Ross
The China Syndrome
The Odd Couple
The Fortune Cookie
The Apartment

Many years ago, my parents were sitting in their living room watching a movie called Missing.  I couldn't understand much, as I was very young.  But I could see that they were captivated.  They tried to explain to me that the man I was watching had lost his son and that he was trying to find him.  I looked at the screen and even though I knew nothing about acting, I felt a knot in my stomach.  I could feel his tension and fear and anxiety, though I could barely understand it.  That man was Jack Lemmon.

There is a reason that Ving Rhames gave away his Golden Globe to Jack Lemmon (not counting for publicity).  Lemmon's body of work and longevity in the business is staggering.

The most notable thing about Lemmon was his ability to move seamlessly from comedy to drama.  It is not as easy at it sounds.  Some comedic actors lack gravitas for drama.  And many dramatic actors can never quite find the right comedic timing.  Lemmon had no trouble at either.

His comedic stammer and double takes milk every laugh out of an audience.  His pairings with legendary Walter Matthau make some truly fun movie-making.  While Walter would play cool and laid back, Lemmon would hype up the anxiety until it was palpable and could only be released by laughing.  His Felix Ungar may be less popular than Tony Randall, but he was much funnier.

And the transition to drama was not a Jekyll/Hyde switch.  He had an uncanny ability to change tones in a movie while staying true to the character.  Watch his performance in The Apartment.  The first half has him play the loveable loser trying to climb the corporate ladder.  But then when someone tries to commit suicide in his apartment, Lemmon infuses his character with real drama.  The scene is not played for laughs, even though there are some tension relieving jokes.  Lemmon pulls you in with his frantic concern.  And it all builds as you see the character grow before your eyes until he finally has to confront the powerful people in his life with full determination.  Lemmon does not change character, but grows his character until he can do what needs to be done.

And when Jack Lemmon brought the drama, it shot you like an arrow.  The China Syndrome, a movie I actually cannot stand, is only watchable because of Lemmon's performance.  He plays a man trying to do what's right but crumbles under the overwhelming pressures of the powerful.  When you watch his breakdown as he his being filmed by a camera crew, you see every last nerve frayed off of him so that he is no longer able to control the volcano of panic inside.

Lemmon's later career was, I think, defined by his role as Shelly Levine in Glengarry Glen Ross.  Levine is a character of supreme impotence.  He is someone completely beaten down by life.  He is a desperate doormat who is one of life’s losers.  Lemmon brings Levine to awkward life in a way that I don’t think most actors could.  His performance is so iconic that it inspired it’s own Simpsons character (good old Gill).  Levine is all desperation, the very worst nightmare of a salesman.  And yet, there is an edge to Levine that Lemmon layers beneath the surface.  This is a character who is a guppy, but would be a shark if he could swim.  He would be vicious and cruel if he only had the power to do so.  That is what makes his smallness all the more pathetic.   And even with this edge, Lemmon gives him such deep humanity.

The reason why I say that this role defined his later career is because there would always be something of Shelly Levine in the roles he played after.  There would always be a little more of that put-upon poser in his characters, even more so than you can see in early Jack Lemmon.

The only role where I didn’t see any of that was in a TV movie, Tuesdays with Morrie.  This movie is a melodrama among melodramas, trying to wrench every tear from your eyes.  And yet Lemmon is surprisingly restrained as Morrie.  As his body wastes away, Lemmon employs all of his physical skills that a master actor has.  And to this day I cannot get out of my mind his words: “This is how we say goodbye: ‘I love you.’”  

Jack Lemmon was that rare actor that could not be boxed in.  He could travel from project to project and bring something new and exciting.  His presence is greatly missed.

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