Late in life, the brilliant American actor Jack Lemmon had a surgical facelift that smoothed out the wrinkles, removed the bags from under his eyes and sadly, took the expression and elasticity from that wonderful face. Few people noticed, but I did. In his last few movies - the grumpy old actor bookends the poor Odd Couple II, and the even poorer Out to Sea, all with Walter Matthau, and a couple of other turns - Lemmon relied on his voice, the inflections, the tart and sarcastic reaction, the exasperrated diatribe, but it wasn't the same. He died in the pre-September 11th world in June of 2001, just a year after Matthau.
Despite the last few half-hits, Lemmon's legacy is unassailable. To me, he's the greatest actor in American cinema (or at least amidst the rare peers of Fonda, Stewart, and Grant) and for some reason, in these January doldrums, his incredible body of work came to mind like a warm breeze. Maybe it was Lance Mannion's thoughtful posts on liberal (and conservative) Hollywood conventional wisdom and the complexity that really governs cinematic politics. Perhaps it's the fact that my new Netflix account seemed to bring on an instantaneous Lemmon festival, almost unbidden. Or maybe it's the fact that Lemmon once said this:
If you really do want to be an actor who can satisfy himself and his audience, you need to be vulnerable. You must reach the emotional and intellectual level of ability where you can go out stark naked, emotionally, in front of an audience.
It's very hard to do a better job of describing the thespian arts than art, and Lemmon didn't just say it - he lived it. The antic comedy of a skinny young stage actor morphed into the serious, internal stories of a middle-aged man not afraid to show his age, and his sense that the world is moving on and he cannot crontrol it. Of course, his work with Billy Wilder was among his best and they span the full range - Some Like It Hot, the Apartment, Irma La Douce, The Front Page.
But lately, I've been thinking of a handful of Lemmon dramatic roles: the father searching for his son in Missing, the nuclear engineer turned whistleblower in The China Syndrome, and the conflicted suburban parish priest in Mass Appeal. Generally, these characters are little people - or at least, the guys we don't notice next door. But Lemmon inhabits them with an incredible sense of humanity. Each has a job that comes with a conventional point of view, a set of rules that are not to be challenged - until somebody, or something, or some event does. No one expressed that transition from staid convention, to puzzlement, to anger, to inner turmoil, to rage better than Jack Lemmon - no one.
So here we were this old last weekend, firing up The Out-of-Towners on the DVD and laughing aloud at the antics of Lemmon's Ohio executive who hits the perfect New York storm of transit strike, garbage strike, and a fogged-in Kennedy Airport. (Considering he played two of the great New York characters of all time in Felix Unger and C.C. Baxter, Lemmon can be forgiven this silly anti-Gotham farce). So I started jotting down my Lemmon Top 10, and here's what I came up with (in no partiular order):
Some Like It Hot
Days of Wine and Roses
The Odd Couple
Save the Tiger
The China Syndrome
Glengarry Glen Ross
The Prisoner of Second Avenue
It's funny: Lemmon's characters can usually be divided between comedic and dramatic, but in truth each of the good ones had a bit of both. The priest in Mass Appeal was funny, as the was the failing fashion maker in Save the Tiger - but each was tragic. And in his hilarious character (Unger leaps to mind) there is something of the resignation of the clown, the knowledge of a tough life that compels humor. The man himself summed it up best:
It's hard enough to write a good drama, it's much harder to write a good comedy, and it's hardest of all to write a drama with comedy. Which is what life is.
UPDATE: Wintering is an indoor sport in these parts, and along with sports in pre-pitchers and catchers territory, it seems to turn fertile minds to the movies - especially these days, when downloads and Tivo and Netflix makes every easy chair into a cinema seat. James Wolcott turns his attention to movie criticism, where these days, he finds "critics living so high in their heads that they've severed themselves from the wit and physicality of good acting, or even enjoyable bad acting." Wolcott confesses to Lemmon non-fandom in the same post, but graciously turns on his traffic spigot here anyway for precisely the latter value - enjoyable bad acting. Yessir! I love enjoyable bad acting,even the loud yammering of Lemmon's goofball low-level comedies (especially in January).
Indeed, "bad" acting and film-making of a higher order is a recurring theme in the exellent pair of posts by Lance Mannion and Jason Chervokas on Woody Allen. Outside of the brilliant book-ends Annie Hall and Manhattan, my favorite Woodman moments are the goofy ones - the silly lines, the purposeful mangling of language in shining a light on all of our insecurities that Allen masters. When he is at his most pretentious, he is at his worst - the farther from humor, the farther from truth, in my view. (This does not bury the human drama in his work; it merely raises those that retain the humorous edge, the delight at the absurd). Woody Allen is a humorist - the "great director" tag has been a drag anchor on his critical acclaim, despite an incredibly prolific career - and yeah, Bananas should be on any top 10 list (but to follow Wolcott's theme, I'd put Manhattan Murder Mystery - a thin Thin Man - on the list too, because it's got some great bad acting in it). Interiors? Nah - and certainly not in January, when it could push this indoor sportsman over the freaking edge.