Greetings once again, all and sundry. It has been my distinct pleasure to proffer two heaping helpings of the life, times and career of one of the true greats of the actors’ craft. Trying my best to keep each segment in chronological order to highlight changes and improvements in delivery and venue. Due to unexpected, though much appreciated feedback. I am going to have to warm up the Halden Collider~Way Back Machine in my basement and cheat a bit, though not much. I’m pretty sure you will be pleased with the end result. That said, allow me to introduce …
Jack Lemmon: Defining Himself
Well on his way to being a recognized name in both Comedy and Drama. It seemed that Mr. Lemmon needed a bit of well earned vacation and down time. And what better way to fill that time, than to sign onto another Blake Edwards project that latched onto the wave of boffo box office generated by Ken Annakin’s laugh out loud romp, Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines… With a few obvious and better changes, of course.
The Great Race (1965)
Now, anyone so handsome, gallant, clever and heroic NEEDS a villain of equal or greater reputation and stature. And Mr. Lemmon fills that bill with room to spare as Professor Fate. Sneeringly eloquent and often elegant in black greatcoat, suit and nearly always present stove pipe hat. The Professor has his own skin in the game with the ‘Hannibal Twin-8’. Complete with smoke generators, a huge boring drill bit and 3 pound cannon.
The drivers, associates and their machines line up the next morning and the flag is waved. Leslie takes the lead with Fate not far behind as two machines crash through store fronts and assorted street and roadside obstacles. Leaving Leslie, Fate and Miss DuBois in the running. Until her car breaks down and she rides with Leslie and Heekiah. Through the Wild West, encounters with a gunslinger (Larry Storch) and an overblown barroom brawl, courtesy of singer, Lily Olay (Dorothy Provine).
Things only get funnier as the Bering Strait as true love wings its way during a snowstorm and fate kidnaps Miss DuBois. Only to have things kick into high gear when Fate and company arrive in Potsdorf. A small Duchy in the midst of a quiet coup, whose Crown Prince Frederick is under arrest and who also bears an uncanny resemblance to Professor Fate. I’ll let you connect the dots from there as the Duchy is left in a shambles and the racers head towards Paris and the Eiffel Tower…
Though not mentioned as prominently as in earlier critiques. Mr Lemmon and his wily Professor Fate brings all four corners of this tale together quite nicely and delivers it wrapped in a bow. Reacting in ways clever, deft, though not completely thought out or tested. Creating a character who is one third Robert Walker’s Bruno Anthony from Strangers on a Train. One third Wile E. Coyote, Super Genius and one third Snidley Whiplash from the old Bill Scott Dudley Do-Right cartoons of the 1960s. Gleefully popping a child’s balloon one moment. Only to have his rubbery face scrunch up in evil schemes the next. His impersonation of the foppish and just a tad effeminate Crown Prince Frederick at the receiving line of an overly elegant ball is not to be missed! As the fawning crowd responds to upwardly raised hands to laugh. Then stop as they are chopped downward. Very shades of Ernie Kovacs and his dandy creation, Percy Dovetonsils.
In one splendid segment of what was to be one of the last great Hollywood slapstick comedy blockbusters. With many stops pulled out. Including an over the top pie fight between Fate, his handlers. Cooks, chefs, bakers, Miss DuBois, Hezekiah, Maximilian Meen and Leslie, who stays immaculately clean until the last moment.
Nicely rounded out with Oscar-nominated music by Henry Mancini. Between quick sight gags, prat falls and delightfully drawn out attempts at revenge that often blow up in Fate and Max’s faces. Very high kudos to cinematographer, Russell Harlan and editor, Ralph Winters. Who understood what TechniColor was all about and uses its advantages wisely. Also production design and art direction by Fernando Carrere. Set decoration by George James Hopkins and costume deign by Don Feld. For taking the audience on a stylized trip across the world. Without leaving the Warner Brothers Studios.
Which brings us to…
The Out of Towners (1970)
As mentioned briefly in an earlier comment, no one does exasperation as believably as Mr. Lemmon. And in this film the topic is given every opportunity to be toyed with, teased, stretched and pulled in all directions like Silly Putty. On what should have been an overnight vacation and second honeymoon in The Big Apple. With Reservations at the Waldorf Astoria. Dinner, dancing and a 9 a.m. interview for Mr. Lemmon’s George Kellerman. Up and coming VP of a precision plastic machines in Ohio. Whose sister company is looking for someone like Kellerman to fill a lateral slot.
A journey that begins under sunny cloudless skies as George and his wide Gwen, magnificently underplayed by Sandy Dennis pack up the station wagon and make their flight with time to spare. Once airborne, George’s doubts seem to rise to the fore. Fixated on time and their evening reservations at The Four Seasons as the Boeing 737 buffets ahead of bad weather. A delay is announced from the flight deck and George and Gwen start to regret passing on their in flight meal. The weather doesn’t improve and the flight is diverted to Boston’s Logan Airport instead of JFK.
George is frazzled, though Gwen is upbeat. Until she discovers that their luggage is missing. Which sends them off to report the loss to Billy Dee Williams in the Lost & Found. Then off to find a cab to take them to the train station and then to Grand Central in NY. The ride leaves five minutes to spare. Three of which are wasted over 20 dollars (The only bill he has since his and Gwen’s NY money is in the lost luggage) for a 5 dollar can ride.
The train ride is one from Hell. Cramped, crowded, with no place to sit. And arrives in mid rainstorm over Manhattan. Leaving Gwen and George stuck in the rain amidst a sanitation strike. Near broke and following faulty directions the wrong way as one of Gwen’s heels breaks. Leaving them ripe to be robbed by a friendly man with an umbrella. At wits end, they walk to the local precinct and report their robbery to a desk sergeant (Dolph Sweet) who arranges for a unit to take the Kellermans to the local Armory to sleep for the night. En route, the unit responds to another robbery. George and Gwen are told to sit tight while the cops pursue, are eluded and the thieves hijack the police unit. Dropped in unfamiliar territory, they make their way to Central Park as the rain abates and George cracks a crown. Tired, hungry and fed up to here with the ill hospitality of The Big Apple. They fall asleep under a tree. Only to have Gwen surrender George’s watch to a caped mugger.
The morning comes bright and sunny. As shoeless George searches for Gwen who has found a half empty box of Cracker Jacks for breakfast. Only to lose it to an large, errant Dalmatian. Leaving them time for George to get caught up on current events in about as loud and long argument the two could have while sharing the remains. Before trying to get to the Astoria. En route, they are kicked out of a church. Gwen breaks her other heel. George tries to retrieve it in mid intersection and finally loses it. Screaming at the top of his lungs as pressured neuroses slowly brought to a seething boil throughout leaving Boston and Grand Central Station finally kicks loose internal relief valves. Professing loudly that the city will never wear them down! Pausing briefly as he smells something strange and steps away from a manhole cover seconds before it blows. Shooting skyward and landing inches away….
As with any Neil Simon play, the magic is in the dialogue. Sometimes overalpping. Often repeated with a slight change of inflection. Yet always clever and fresh. And this film is positively awash in dialogue and telling facial expressions from Mr. Lemmon and Ms. Dennis. As they put up with fate’s or God’s progressively worse ‘sickening factors’ of rain, darkness, piled garbage, stolen wallets and broken heels. And people on the opposite sides of desks or counters who have better things to do. In other words. Just another day or night in Manhattan. Whose names and badge numbers wind up scrawled on a crumpled scrap of paper. George’s growing ‘Who to Sue’ list.
Kudos to Mr. Lemmon for having the bravery to completely and concisely illustrate the ‘Slow Burn’ of running up against a deck of cards stacked so solidly against his meticulously detailed schedule of getting things done. Obstructed so nonchalantly by a city that has other ideas. Wondrously, yet creepily highlighted by locations so dark and foreign looking without landmarks, that you feel the plight of the principals. Equally high marks go to Ms. Dennis’ Gwen. Who lovingly holds her own. While somehow always seeing the light at the end of the tunnel.
Cinematography by Andrew Laszlo is exceptional. Especially at night. As is an early Quincy Jones’ soundtrack and the ever so brief appearances of secondary characters. Who add to the film’s wickedly dark comedy under Arthur Hiller’s less than subtle touch.
Save The Tiger (1973)
This is the film where Mr. Lemmon comes into his own as a legitimate and recognizable dramatic actor. Giving less than perfect life to Harry Stoner. An executive of an L.A. apparel company that’s come upon rocky, less than prosperous times. Whose recent trip to France to flog spring fashion brings back waves of guilt. For surviving a war begun on Omaha Beach on D-Day. Only to see its snow white sandy beach be the playground for the young, lithe bikinied bottoms and bare chests of those who could care less. Harry’s speech to introduce his company’s lines goes over less than well. Stopping in mid rambling sentence. As a belated mid life crisis stares Harry in the face. And Harry blinks.
Shuttling back to L.A., Harry picks up Myra. A hitch hiking twenty year old free spirit. Played with equal parts curiosity, naivete and ebullience by Laurie Heineman. Who becomes a companion and willing sounding board for Harry as he waxes nostalgic for the long forgotten days and treasured memories of his youth. The post coital scene where Harry and Myra compare cultural, musical, political and sports icons of their times is both melancholy and sweet. Well worth the price of admission or effort to seek out.
Refreshed, if not invigorated, Harry returns to the office and discovers that the company’s financial picture is far less healthy than he had first imagined. Money is owed. Loans are overdue. Designers are squabbling. Sewers and seamstresses aren’t happy with the quality of material. A simple solution would be to torch a company warehouse and collect on its insurance. Though after the idea is broached to a local arsonist. Due diligence is performed and the warehouse is found to be so far below code and standards that several thousand would have to be spent to disguise arson in the first place.
Discussions with Harry’s business partner, Phil Green. Wondrously underplayed by Jack Gilford only buy some time as Harry sees everything he’s been, done and worked for and held dear slip through his fingers. Wanting nothing more than another season….
In what should have been a just over an hour and a half very low budgeted personal project for Mr. Lemmon. A near unknown classic evolved. Through initial viewing and then through word of mouth. Working from a first effort, solid story and screenplay by Steve Shagan. With John G. Avildsen’s deft direction and a prototype film system developed by Fouad Said (‘I Spy’). Cinematography by James Crabe is sharp and uncompromising. Creating a film that is a model of straightforward simplicity and economy of story telling. Aided by a soundtrack composed by a just being recognized Marvin Hamlisch.
Is there action in this film? No. Though there is great power in the spoken words, expressions and body language of a man pushed to his limits. While dealing with changing times, morals, attitude and culture. Well worthy of the Best Actor Oscar win for Mr. Lemmon and a Supporting Actor Nomination for Jack Gilford.
Though not a huge fan of Costa~Gavras. Sometimes he gets it right, as with ‘Z’, which was very of its time, external and seething with suspense. And with ‘Missing’. Which is the inverted. Post action packed coup. Pick up the pieces story of a father, Ed Horman. A conservative businessman. Marvelously played to tamped down perfection by Mr. Lemmon. Who fights a near vertical uphill battle with the U.S. State Department and Augusto Pinochet’s newly installed, corrupt fascist government in 1973. Aided by daughter in law, Beth, stoically delivered by Sissy Spacek. The two ask questions very few want to answer between sporadic gunfire and the all too familiar sound of Bell Huey and Jet Ranger helicopters.
Told with occasional flashbacks. We discover that missing son and husband Charlie Horman is a wide eyed naif whose political leanings are just slightly to the right of a 70s stoner hippie, minus the drugs. With dreams of writing either children’s books or the great American novel. Who asks too many questions of people he should have no business knowing. Taking too many notes while being seen by too many people. Making entirely too much noise in a country that is suddenly crawling with too many young Chilean soldiers given the power of life and death. Equipped with U.S. rifles, jeeps and other sinews of war. Charlie is played to ridiculous, near embarrassing perfection by John Shea.
Even with his dumb as a sack of hammers naivete. And stout belief that being an American citizen will get him out of any sticky or surreal situation. There is something noble about Charlie’s quest. Not really following leads, but doing the grunt and groundwork by accident that no US journalist would be able to touch. Even as he is slowly, unwittingly signing his own Death Warrant.
Worthy enough to send his father to his N.Y Senator who knows less than nothing and is quite lame at obfuscating and spouting non-answer answers. Dissatisfied, Ed flies down to Chile. Meets his daughter-in-law, Beth at the airport. And together are given the full press run around from many of the same people Charlie had met and asked questions of only weeks earlier.
Mr. Lemmon’s Ed Horman delivers in many subtle ways. Using all of the tools acquired years earlier. His posture, initially ram rod straight. His words, succinct and sometimes hurtful towards Beth. Who fires back with equal fervor as tiny streams of light, often as slow as molasses begin revealing a trail to dark places neither one really wants to go. Keeping fears under wraps. Never raising his voice as he sits opposite the Chilean liaison and tells him that he will initial, sign or authorize any and all paperwork if he can just see his son.
The absolute high point of the film and pinnacle of Mr. Lemmon’s vast talents. As his body and face seem to deflate while shoulders droop and body sags and shrinks inside its suit seconds before tears threaten to flow, but are stanched. To no real avail…
Mr. Lemmon at the then top of his game delivering much more than required. In a role that would lure other actors into chewing all kinds of angry scenery. The principal projects inwardly in a tightly woven world of surreal external grotesques. Reacting jumpily at first to sporadic gunfire as a reminder of how dangerous the land is. To almost ignoring or shrugging it off as his journey continues. Never losing hope. Even while trying to find his son’s body amongst hundreds awaiting autopsy. Until a final sit down with another journalist who obliquely lays events bare.
It is then that the old Ed returns. Rigid, robust, knowing just enough and speaking just a bit too loudly as he applies leverage to those who prefer staying in the shadows. Aided along his journey by a notable swath of then unknown, but soon to be known talent. Most notably, Joe Regalbuto and Keith Szarabajka as fellow writers Frank Teruggi and David Holloway.
High marks to Ricardo Aronovich’s cinematography. Also Peter Jamison’s production design in getting parts of Acapulco and its Federal Districts to fill in so believably for parts of Chile in upheaval. Notable for Oscar nominations for its Best Actor, Actress and Film. Not for the faint of heart, but definitely worthy of seeking out.
Glengarry Glen Ross (1992)
This is the film most people remember and associate Mr. Lemmon with. And rightly so. Not as the lead player, but being a major part of a superb, A List cast. In a brilliant, yet gritty adaptation of David Mamet’s long running, cross country stage play about less than reputable real estate salesmen faced with a tightening economy. Less than stellar clients and poor prospects that must be sold before the much more lucrative, desirable and coveted Glengarry properties can be touched.
Delivered by sarcastic and evilly grinning Blake. Sent by the unseen, all powerful ‘Mitch & Murray’. Malevolently brought to Satanic llife by perfectly coiffed and adorned Alec Baldwin. Brought in a dark and stormy night’s pep talk. Focusing on the branch’s poor numbers with visual aids both standard and exotic. Offset by scathing dialogue that angers more than helps, before revealing the bundled, treasured Glengarry index cards of potential clients. That are to be locked up in Manager, John Williamson’s office vault until the present dross can be closed upon. In two days. Or people will be fired!
Not the most stirring motivational speech for four salesmen who have been around the block more than a few times. Led by the too smooth for his own good, top salesman Ricky Roma. Seamlessly fleshed out by rarely better Al Pacino. Who learned most of what he knows from the branch’s wise old man, Shelley Levene. Salesman, par excellence, who is starting to drop a stitch here and there and hasn’t closed a deal lately. Played with a hint of growing desperation and an ancient bag of tricks by Mr. Lemmon as hospital bills for his daughter continue to pile up.
With Ed Harris as slow and reliably steady, though loud mouthed Dave Moss. Who lives for the sale, but has a hard time closing. And Alan Arkin as quiet follower George Aaronow, who sometimes thinks he should be in another business. All overseen by the bespectacled and somewhat fastidious, milquetoast John Williamson. Marvelously underplayed by Kevin Spacey. Who understands that his neck could be out there as well.
Once the gauntlet has been thrown down. Shelley tries his best to cajole, con, threaten and bribe John out of some of the Glengarry leads. While Dave floats the idea of stealing them to George.To either use or sell to a competitor. As Ricky grudgingly dives in to re-work over plowed soil and possibly sift out a few new clients. Each finds a task and make far too many phone calls, cold calls and introductory offers. Watching Mr. Lemmon work the phones from a cold start. Then lying through his teeth to play on the potential client’s insecurity and greed would put many confidence men to shame. And is worth the price or effort of seeking out as same day appointments are made and the chance to close draws nearer.
Shelley focuses on a couple, the Nyborgs. Closes a questionable deal and arrives at the office full of bluster. Only to find that John’s office has been vandalized and is crowded with cops. Ricky is upset that his client, James Linkg (Jonathan Pryce) has gotten cold feet and wants his uncashed retainer check back. And dave and George are awaiting being questioned. Undaunted, Shelly regales Ricky with the thrill of the sale and closing. Only to have things turn ugly when John steps from his office and is caught in a crossfire of verbal abuse. First by Ricky. Then by Shelley. Who lets slip one tiny, revealing mistake about Lingk’s check that John latches onto. After telling Shelley that the Nyborgs are bankrupt and delusional and the deal has fallen through. Crushed, Shelley asks “Why?” Only to have Williamson reply coldly. “Because I don’t like you.” As the cops and detectives wait to talk to Shelley…
A proven and superb cast in a near flawless film. Written by one of the masters of moody, often profane and sometimes melancholy dialogue. Where words define much more quickly and fully than a tailored suit, cheap watch or aged, washed out, rumpled trench coat. Spoken by men who are in involved in the cut throat world of sales and commissions. Knowing that their potential client is going to be stand offish at first. Until a flaw is revealed that can be exploited and worked on. And ‘Opportunity’ is sold in ways that may be immoral, but not illegal.
In this arena, Mr. Lemmon’s Shelley Levene reigns supreme. Coaxing and cajoling one moment. Then gently applying pressure to innate greed and later, pride in that soothing voice of his. To get names on papers to pieces of land unseen by either the seller or the buyer. Is there remorse afterwards? Possibly, but it is never revealed in the office.
Check out the first two parts of the Jack Lemmon series:
PART I and PART II
Well, what do you think on the third and final post on the Jack Lemmon series? Do share your thoughts about the actor and/or these films in the comments.
24 thoughts on “Classic Actor Spotlight: Jack Lemmon Part III… Defining Himself”
Thank you Kevin, this is a great post about a great artist! I’m so glad to see MISSING on this list, you have coined another stunningly appropriate phrase “pinnacle of Mr. Lemmon’s vast talents,” which it is, Lemmon’s just brilliant in it.
It’s fascinating to see him take the exasperation and cluelessness that he always played for laughs and channel it into a drama, during which no one is tempted to laugh at all. He really is mean to his daughter-in-law at times, and it’s a new experience, not really liking a Lemmon character.
Also Lemmon makes the only hopeful note in the film believable as Ed progresses in understanding and empathy towards Beth (Sissy Spacek). What else can I say…it’s like an acting class.
Hey Paula, I knew you’d be well versed on Mr. Lemmon. There are so many I want to see in his resume, amazing that he are perfect in drama AND comedy, that takes a real talent for sure!
Ha, yes indeed doll, he is a favorite of mine definitely. I was late in discovering him, but what I lack in timing I make up for in enthusiasm 😉
Thank you for dropping by and starting the conversation with such a delightful comment!
Tackling ‘Missing’ and getting my thoughts through the keyboard proved the toughest of this last post. It’s easy to like a funny Jack Lemmon. Even a sad Jack Lemmon. But a Jack Lemmon you don’t like within the first half hour is a hard nut to crack.
I also found Sissy Spacek’s Beth a bit flighty at first. But she proves to be the magnet keeping Mr. Lemmon’s Ed Horman both grounded and focused. In a film that despite its backdrop, is a solid lesson in theatrical give and take from two proven talents.
Definitely a film to be studied by any number of young actors wanting to learn to spread their wings!
Everything you say here is so true. I agree, Spacek is equally good. During the scene where he finally apologizes, I almost forgot I was watching a movie.
I was telling people about this film all yesterday because it was Lemmon’s day for Summer Under The Stars on TCM but they didn’t schedule it. I’ve tried to review it but as you say, it’s tough…kudos to you 🙂
And the Lemmon walk continues…
Absolutely superb post Jack. I’m highly impressed with the scrutiny you have afforded one of the screen greats. These three parts have been some of the best I’ve read since I started blogging. Bravo sir!! Bravo!!
Lemmon walk, I always smile reading it 🙂
Thanks so much for such a gracious compliment!
My idea for just reviewing five initial films went out the window once I started delving into ‘Mister Roberts’. The more I dug, the more I found connections with directors, Quine, Edwards and Wilder. Which made later selections just a bit tougher.
I think I covered Mr. Lemmon’s best and most memorable works. And added a some personal favorites. If even a few titles spark interest, I’ve done my job well and truly.
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Absolutely loved Glengarry Glen Ross and Jack Lemmon was a big part of that. Excellent retrospective on an awesome actor, Jack
Thanks so much!
‘Glengarry Glen Ross’ is a superb piece of work. And probably Mr. Lemmon’s most accessible today. His Shelley Levene is someone to watch from a distance the first time. Then closer and more intently with each later viewing as more and more nuances are revealed.
Rumor has it that Joe Mantegna, who’d played Ricky Roma on stage for more than a year was slated to carry on when Mamet was translating the play to film. Until Pacino became available and expressed an interest.
The same holds true for Peter Falk’s Shelley in the stage production. Until Mr. Lemmon happened along.
Fantastic piece Jack. Love all of these performances by Lemmon, and I’m glad you agree that his win for Save the Tiger was a worthy one.
Thank you very much!
‘Save the Tiger’ is something of an enigma. A film with next to no serious ad campaign. That I discovered through word of mouth and an ad in the local paper for a matinee.
Within its first fifteen minutes, I knew I was watching something special. And that Mr. Lemmon would get an Oscar nomination and win as the final credits rolled. Happily thinking that he could rise no higher. Until ‘Missing’ and ‘Glengarry Glen Ross’ rolled around.
Such a splendid set of films of Jack Lemmon’s, Kevin. All of these are stellar representations of this actor’s work. I can tell you for a fact that my kids love ‘The Great Race’. The mix of characters you name truly fit Lemmon’s pair in this. The man could certainly deliver a performance, be it comedic or dramatic. Awesome post for an awesome actor. Well done.
Thanks for such a great comment!
I was on the fence for including ‘The Great Race’ in my previous post. Your comments and others caused me to fudge a bit and include it in this one.
For great, overblown pratfall and slapstick humor, you don’t have to look much farther. Mr. Lemmon’s Professor Fate is a superb foil. With Bruno Anthony’s smug condescension. Snidely Whiplash’s flair for dramatic evil and Wile E. Coyote’s penchant for elaborate traps and mayhem which Tony Curtis’s Leslie glides right through.
Thought you might appreciate this one: Mr. Peel looks at another Lemmon film worth checking out.
I’m so glad to see a thoughtful gaze turned towards Jack Lemmon. He was a favorite in my household growing up.
Any actor with such a large and memorable body of work deserves some close scrutiny and appreciation. While pointing out some favorites and waxing nostalgic about what made them so unique.
Amazing overview of movies. I have to admit I only saw the last one and since I love Lemmon’s work I should check out the other ones!
Thanks so much!
Where to begin?
How to Murder Your Wife
The Great Race
The Days of Wine and Roses
Glengarry Glen Ross
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Awesome, Jack, I was looking forward to this third part! I noticed Glengarry Glen Ross was added to Netflix Instant recently, and I plan on catching that ASAP. You really can’t beat that cast, either. Great writeup as always!
Thanks much. And good catch!
‘Glengarry Glen Ross’ kind of strikes me as the as an inverted ‘Mister Roberts’, in regard to casting. With Mr. Lemmon as the clan’s elder statesman in ‘Glengarry,,,’. When he was the youngster in ‘Mister Roberts’.
Great casts in both. Performing at the tops of their abilities.
does anybody remember the film two of them in it on a camp site realy funny
cant remember the name any one help and were i can watch it or buy