September 19, 2012 by Ian Goldstein
Its fitting that Jack Lemmon was born in an elevator. Elevators are convenient, ride up and down and are usually safe, the way Lemmon’s various characters live their lives.
There’s something oddly intriguing about Jack Lemmon. Lemmon was one of those actors who didn’t stand out on screen with a 6’3 frame like Stewart. He didn’t charm like Bogart nor did he look like Grant. He didn’t have Brando’s finesse or Dean’s coolness. These qualities were there though, but subtly, he wasn’t categorized by them. Anytime his movies are on TCM, I can’t help but be entertained for two hours. He’s an actor who made neurosis compelling. He could play the neurotic, but never bore you. He could play the clown, but never bother you. Few other actors/comedians had that gift.  He was a new type of actor.
There was a time in Hollywood when you’d see the handsome leading man court the girl and eventually win her over. Lemmon was one of those guys who balanced romance with zaniness. He was the Shakespearean fool who was smarter than the rest, but came off likeJerry Lewis.
Billy Wilder’s 1959 film, Some Like it Hot is the perfect example of this. Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis are the two leads, Jerry and Joe, two musicians who, after witnessing the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, are forced to run and disguise themselves in an all-woman band. They are both immediately attracted to Sugar Cane (Marilyn Monroe), but it’s pretty clear Joe will pursue her. He impersonates Cary Grant when he’s not dressed as Josephine and eventually wins her over. Daphne, the woman Jerry is pretending to be, is courted by Osgood Fielding III, a rich older man who can’t frown. In the hopes of living luxuriously Jerry/Daphne agrees to marry Osgood but then realizes something: he isn’t gay. He has to break it off. After Jerry reveals himself to have a Y chromosome, Osgood, now fully aware that he’s been chasing a man for the entire film, smiles and says “nobody’s perfect.” What does Jerry do? He looks around anxiously, thinking of something to say or a way to escape, but does nothing. He’s stuck on a boat with a man who’s either bisexual or insane. And then the credits role. That’s the end. Presumably, Jerry does not go and marry this eccentric man. But we don’t know. That’s why we love Lemmon, he’s able to put himself into terrible situations, but still make us think everything’s ok.
The Apartment (1960)was that transition film that made us start to believe guys like C. C. Baxter could actually win. Not only does Lemmon play it more serious in this one, but he does win, he gets the girl. But not in the way Curtis does in Some Like It Hot. Lemmon has to be pushed around by his colleagues at work; though praised for letting them have affairs in his apartment, he’s still the passive loser. He chases Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine), an elevator operator, throughout the film, until the transition moment when he stands up for himself and tells his boss, Jeff D. Sheldrak (Fred MacMurray) that’s he’s chosen Fran over a promotion. He declares his love for Fran at the end, her reply: “Shut up and deal.” She doesn’t say she’s in love with him, but C.C. Baxter looks like he’s about to happily play cards, telling us he’s ok.
Walter Matthau is revered with Lemmon as being one of the most entertaining actors in cinema, but he’s less nervous. Matthau knows what to do in most situations; even if he’s wrong, he doesn’t care. Lemmon, however, will over-analyze and complain until he is rambling about nothing and has irritated anyone around him. Take this scene from The Odd Couple:
Oscar-“You said you irritated me, I didn’t say it.”
Felix-“What did you say, Oscar?”
Oscar-“I don’t remember what I said, what’s the difference?”
Felix-“It doesn’t make any difference. I was just repeating what I thought you said.”
Oscar-“Well don’t repeat what you thought I said, repeat what I said! My god that’s irritating.”
Felix-“You see you did say it.”
Oscar- “I don’t believe this whole conversation.”
The Jack Lemmon/Walter Matthau collaboration was like Kareem and Magic together in L.A. They didn’t need each other, but it helped that they had the other. They were obviously talented on their own. Kareem had already averaged about 30 points a game and had already got himself a ring in his six seasons with the Bucks. Magic hadn’t yet played in the NBA, but was drafted #1 after leading Michigan State to a championship win (against Larry Bird’s Indiana State team). Kareem didn’t win again until Magic came. They won five championships together. Matthau was building a decent career of his own and Lemmon was already a star. But together they made a string of great films that made them a deadly duo, The Fortune Cookie (1966), The Odd Couple (1968) and The Front Page (1974) was like winning in ’82 and ’85 and ’87 for Magic and Kareem. Of course, Lemmon and Matthau should have never done The Odd Couple II.  Similarly Magic shouldn’t have come back in 1996, but who didn’t want to see Oscar and Felix reunite? Who didn’t want to see Magic play again? And if they hadn’t, we’d all be wondering what it would have been like if they had. Then we’d be upset.
Jack Lemmon was never a character actor. His characters are different in so many ways, yet they all share a common trait of desperation. Jerry is a clown, but he’s desperate for any type of fun. C. C. Baxter is an ambitious passive aggressive office worker, who desperately wants one girl to like him. Felix Unger is an obsessive compulsive who wants somebody to take care of him.
Look at Shelley Levine from GlenGarry Glen Ross and you’ll see a much darker side of desperation—a side that pushes and pushes to sell long after a potential buyer is gone. In one scene, Shelley tries to get a buyer to purchase land. The buyer tries kicking him out of his house, but struggles due to Shelly’s ramblings about fishing. He’s trying so hard to be that sweet talking salesman, but fails. Lemmon makes you cringe as Shelley enthusiastically offers to take his car to pick up the buyer’s wife with him. Later in the film you see a character, on the verge of tears, told to his face by his boss that he is not liked. The character was so sadly memorable that The Simpsons created Gil Gunderson, a down-on-his-luck everyman based on Lemmon’s portrayal of Shelley.
In, supposedly his last interview before his death, Lemmon spoke of his birth: “Yeah, I was born in an elevator, and–as my mother said–naturally it was going down. She said, ‘All I remember is telling your father, ‘That’s it! Never again!’ That’s why I’m an only child. The last I heard, the hospital put a plaque over the elevator. There’s three elevators side by side, and they put a plaque over the one we were in saying that I was born there on February 8, 1925, in the elevator.” Jack Lemmon had the qualities that other screen legends did. They were there, but he chose when to bring them out depending on what role he played. His characters always welcomed you, always made you feel comfortable even in the most cringe-worthy moments; Lemmon didn’t seem like he wanted to prove anything. He was just a talented guy who knew how to entertain.
1) I left out movies like Days of Wine and Roses and Grumpy Old Men, but these are completely worth seeing. Days of Wine and Roses is great to see Lemmon in a serious role and one that hit close to home due to his own struggle with alcohol addiction. Grumpy Old Men was the perfect reunion for Lemmon and Matthau. They’re old. They fight. It’s fun.
2) The Fortune Cookie is tied with The Odd Couple in my unofficial Jack Lemmon favorite movie list; it’s the first Walter Matthau/ Jack Lemmon collaboration.
3) Lemmon won an Oscar for best actor in 1973 for Save the Tiger. It needs to be said.
4) Billy Wilder wasn’t discussed much here, but he’s really the Jack Lemmon of directing. He’ll almost always give you an entertaining movie, while also giving you quality films. He directed Sunset Boulevard, Stalag 17, Some Like it Hot and The Apartment from 1950-1960. It’s crazy how good he was.
5) Ving Rhames likes Jack Lemmon as much as I do. Here’s him giving his golden globe. Ving Wins.
 I’ll give making neurosis cool to Woody Allen.
 Woody Allen being one of them.
 Billy Wilder directed these three films. Pat Riley won the championship those three years as well as ’88. Paul Westhead was the Lakers’ head coach in 1980. Point being: Pat Riley = Billy Wilder.
 The movie I look at that plays off The Odd Couple more than its sequel is Midnight Run. It’s not that the Grodin/De Niro relationship is identical to Lemmon and Matthau’s, but it’s similar with the neurotic playing off the straight man. Without the Jack Lemmon/ Walter Matthau dynamic in place, we wouldn’t have a scene like this. The Duke (Grodin) pries into Walsh’s guarded life like Felix does with Oscar. Just see this movie. It’s great.