It’s hard not to like an actor like Jack Lemmon, there’s something about him that feels inherently decent and kind. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a film from him where he didn’t play someone you wanted to root for. Lemmon was constantly cast as the underdog, or the lovable loser; you could like him, but you could also sense he was a bit of a push over.
Take his C.C. Baxter in The Apartment for instance, was there ever a nicer guy in a movie, but also was there ever a bigger schnook? Lemmon could embody that idea of the little guy struggling to get ahead in a cynical world, but the bigger powers were always trying to bring him down.
As Lemmon moved on to middle age, there was a certain melancholy that hung in some of his most notable work. In his Oscar winning role Save the Tiger, he plays an executive going through a midlife crisis. While in one his most powerful performances, The China Syndrome, he plays a nuclear power plant engineer who doesn’t realize how in over his head he is until it’s too late.
Often Lemmon would complement these sorrowful roles with more comedic fare, usually with his buddy Walter Matthau. But no matter what he was doing, he never lost that common man decency. It’s hardly a wonder why Lemmon was considered one of the greatest actors of his generation, he could do broad comedy, but also could be restrained and subtle in powerful dramas.
I could go on about Lemmon all day, but I specifically wanted to highlight a few performances showing off his range. Lemmon was a multiple Oscar winner as well as nominee, but one could argue there are many performances in his cannon worthy of consideration. Not all of his great performances garnered Oscar attention, here are three which in my opinion were overlooked.
The Odd Couple (1968)
Definitely the most well known film on this list, The Odd Couple has since become a comedy classic, and the definitive film starring Lemmon and his good friend Walter Matthau. As Felix Unger, Lemmon becomes the epitome of the obsessive compulsive neat freak who is juxtaposed with Matthau’s slob Oscar Madison. It is probably the simplest premise for any comedy, and Lemmon and Matthau are pros at handling the sparkling Neil Simon dialogue.
One thing of note about Lemmon though, is he plays Felix very real here. If you watch the beginning of the film, you might not think it’s a comedy, as Lemmon is walking aimlessly through New York a broken man, and suicidal. It’s only when he hurts his back after trying to kill himself, do we realize what a hopeless case Felix is. Lemmon isn’t afraid to play the tragedy of Felix, otherwise we might just be annoyed with him as Oscar is, it’s definitely a great comic performance.
This was the fifth of seven films Lemmon made with Billy Wilder in one those great actor/director partnerships. Released the same year as The Godfather, one could argue Avanti may seem a little dated by comparison. Wilder was definitely a few years removed from his heyday of classics like Sunset BLVD and Double Indemnity, and Lemmon was moving further away from farcical comedies into more mature films. However, all that being said, Avanit! is an unsung masterpiece of satire, black comedy, romance and sex, that I wish was talked about more.
Lemmon plays American business tycoon Wendel Armbruster Jr., who must rush to a small Italian village to to collect his father who was killed in a car accident. However Wendel discovers his father was not alone, and he died along with his lover of many years in the same car. He meets that woman’s daughter Pamela Piggott (Juliet Mills), and the two unsuspectingly fall in love. In many ways Wilder constructs this film the same way he did for all of his romantic comedies, adding a dose of sentiment, but balancing it with some cynicism. The film is a rather telling indictment on corporate America in the way Lemmon’s character is perceived in the beginning. Wendel starts off as a narrow-minded, mean-spirited businessman, who is only softened when he begins to take in the atmosphere of Italy, and falls for Pamela.
This is a lovely film, and a testament to Lemmon’s star power, that he can get away with being a complete jerk at the beginning of the movie, only to have a complete turn around at the end. Movie stars usually don’t get the credit they deserve for being able to get the audience on their side so quickly. We identify with Lemmon in this film, even if we don’t want to at times. He shows how even the most cynical person can lose their heart without even knowing it.
Glengarry Glen Ross (1992)
If someone were to ask what Jack Lemmon’s greatest performance was, and you would mention this film, it would be difficult to argue. Made late in Lemmon’s career, he is the stand out performance in a film full of stand out performances. As Shelley Levene, the senior salesman who was once a hot shot but is now desperate to keep his job, Lemmon is utterly heartbreaking. One just has to look at the pain in his eyes, and the feeling of having nothing left to lose to know the whole sad story of Levene’s life.
Lemmon walks through the film agitated, and hopeless, as he sees how his life has added
up to nothing. Characters like Shelley are the antithesis of the American dream, and it’s easy to mourn for men like him. Everyone in this film gives a great performance, and at the time of its release it was actually Al Pacino as the salesman on a winning streak who received the Oscar nomination.
However, reflecting back on it today, it’s Lemmon’s performance that has remained the most memorable. The movie ends on a harsh note, that in a world full of long shots and lucky chances, you can’t stay on top forever and someone is gonna get burned. Lemmon fully epitomizes this tragedy, and he brings the message home without sentiment, but with a shrug of his shoulders which are slumped over in defeat.