Tribute By Monica Sullivan
When Ving Rhames gave his Golden Globe to Jack Lemmon, it made a great Kodak moment, sure, but it also said something about the very special relationship Jack Lemmon has always enjoyed with movie audiences. From the very beginning of his career, he made every part he played count, no matter what its size or script importance. When he won his first Academy Award for “Mister Roberts”, he had taken a supporting role & through sheer personality & enormous skill he made Ensign Pulver equal in importance to the title character (played by Henry Fonda) and the captain (played by James Cagney). Moreover, he stole every scene he was in, even when he was onscreen with Cagney! “Mister Roberts” didn't turn Jack Lemmon into an above-the-title star, not by a long shot. Four years later, he was still in support of Jimmy Stewart & Kim Novak in “Bell, Book & Candle,” but his performance as Nicky was a gem of manic energy & comic timing, made even funnier by the fact that he shared most of his scenes with the great Ernie Kovacs.
In 1960, he wound up with a dream part that had been inspired by-you guessed it-yet ANOTHER supporting character. When Billy Wilder saw 1945's Brief Encounter, he was struck by a short scene in which the actual tenant of an apartment is annoyed because a friend of his has used it for-well, a brief encounter. Wilder thought about that situation over the years and eventually came up with the Best Picture of 1960, “The Apartment.” For the tricky leading role, there was, literally, no actor that year who could have played it as well as Jack Lemmon. It's an altogether unsavory predicament: a little guy wants to scale the labyrinthian corporate ladder & finds that his chief asset is his apartment. Just about every big wig in the company wants to use it for romantic assignations, including a callous boss played by Fred Mac Murray. How do you transform the audience's perception that the little guy is either a spineless schnook or a 20th century incarnation of Uriah Heep? Well, for that, as Billy Wilder well knew, you need a wizard like Jack Lemmon. He could bring Out the innate appeal in a fellow audiences thought had none, as well as sterling qualities in everyone else believed he lacked. This was Lemmon's special gift: to find a glint of deep humanity in every character he played & no one could do it just like he did. Think of the rich gallery of characters he brought to life: the skittish musician forced by circumstances to go drag in “Some Like It Hot,” the desperate alcoholic, tearing a greenhouse apart to find a bottle of booze in “Days Of Wine & Roses,” the meticulously tidy Felix Unger forced by circumstances to live with a slob like Walter Matthew’s Oscar Madison in “The Odd Couple”, the guy who actually thought he would make every rude New Yorker quiver in fear if he wrote down their names in his little black book for “The Out-Of-Toners,” the heart-tugging convincing grief-stricken father in “Missing” & the list goes on & on. It won't be the same as wondering what sublime sleight of hand Jack Lemmon's going to surprise us with next time, but he did leave us with a great deal of himself for us to remember him by, so there's plenty of his performances to watch on video. Like all great artists, he left the world a more interesting place by sharing his unique gift with us his whole life long.
© 2001 - Monica Sullivan - Air Date: 7/4/01
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