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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,556

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This is the grave of Jack Lemmon.

Born in 1925 in Newton, Massachusetts, Lemmon was a sickly child in a well-off but broken home. He had three ear surgeries by the time he was 10 and his parents had divorced by then too. But his father was an executive in the doughnut industry so financially there were no real issues. In fact, he went to extremely fancy schools–Phillips Andover and then onto Harvard, where he graduated in 1947. I guess I’m not surprised by this, since Lemmon played the kind of characters who you could imagine having gone to Harvard. He was a terrible student though, one far more committed to both social activities and acting than his classes. Guess it worked out though.

Lemmon briefly was in the Navy after graduation but was discharged pretty quickly. He went to acting school in New York, while also playing piano in local bars. He got acting work pretty quickly. The first few years were the kinds of roles you would expect–small parts in films, some TV work, quite a bit of stage work. The talent scout for Columbia, Max Arnow, saw Lemmon work and felt he had potential in Hollywood. Lemmon was certainly fine with that idea. Harry Cohn desperately wanted to change Lemmon’s name, fearful that critics would call his films “lemmons,” but the actor said nope to that. Standing up to Harry Cohn was no easy task either, but it helps when you have family money.

Lemmon’s first major film role was in It Should Happen to You, with Judy Holliday and directed by George Cukor. His performance was generally liked and he soon moved into pretty big parts. In fact, he won Best Supporting Actor for Mister Roberts. That was directed by Richard Quine, who would go on to direct Lemmon in several films, many of which are perhaps a bit middling. But Lemmon also became a favorite of Billy Wilder, who would direct him in seven films, which range from very good to great. People love Some Like It Hot, and I don’t know that it ages particularly well today, but it certainly was a huge deal at the time and more importantly for our purposes, Lemmon demonstrated himself a superb comic actor in the role. The film was loved and so was Lemmon’s performance.

Then there is The Apartment, which Wilder directed in 1960. I love this film. It’s perhaps my favorite Wilder. Lemmon is so perfect as the young ambitious middle-level executive who gives his apartment to the boss (Fred MacMurray) for his assignations with Shirley MacLaine, who Lemmon of course then falls for. This open discussion of extramarital affairs in a way that wasn’t even really disapproving was seen as extremely controversial by the prudes who tried to control the industry, but it managed to be released anyway. Everyone is fantastic in this film, but Lemmon is just next level good here. It’s such a perfect window into the corporate culture of that time. The film won Best Picture and Lemmon was nominated for Best Actor.

Lemmon did however have concern about being typecast as a comedic actor. So he gladly took the lead in Blake Edwards’ film about alcoholism, Days of Wine and Roses. He is so great in this film. It’s a bit hard to watch, yes, though I’ve been thinking about giving it a whirl for the first time in several years. Lee Remick is great in this too. Lemmon received another Best Actor nomination. Lemmon even went on to play a completely evil villain in Edwards’ The Great Race, which I have not seen. Lemmon also went into production. He produced Cool Hand Luke, which was of course a huge success for Paul Newman. Newman attempted to pay Lemmon back by offering him the role of the Sundance Kid in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, but Lemmon rightfully turned that down. I really cannot imagine him in that role, not with what Redford did with it.

In 1966, Lemmon began the greatest collaboration of his career, with Walter Matthau. They starred together in The Fortune Cookie, which I haven’t seen. They would work together for the rest of their long careers, most notably in The Odd Couple, but of course much later in Grumpy Old Men and sequel. They were so perfectly matched. In fact, it’s hard to imagine a better comic pair in film history. Neil Simon’s great writing was naturally critical for The Odd Couple, of course, but the casting was perfect. For that matter, Lemmon was generally the right man for a Neil Simon adaptation, as he had that urbane but not that serious persona.

Another Simon script adapted for the screen was The Out of Towners, which is a classic piece of American ridiculousness about its fears of cities, one of the few things that really is unique about this nation. As a complete side note, this reminds me to recommend Steven Conn’s book Americans against the City to everyone interested in these issues, as he notes that basically every major American urban planner has fundamentally hated cities and wanted to bring the countryside into them.

Wilder would bring Lemmon back into his fold, along with Matthau, in 1974’s The Front Page, a highly enjoyable if not truly great film about American newspapers. Lemmon himself decided to direct a film–Kotch, starring Matthau. The latter was nominated for a Best Actor award. In 1973, Lemmon finally won Best Actor himself for Save the Tiger, a film he wanted to make so badly under the skepticism of every studio exec that he agreed to work for union scale if someone would green light it. Lemmon became the first actor to win Best Supporting Actor and Best Actor, which surprises me, except to say that when the Studio System truly held sway, actors were so locked into particular places in the film universe that lead actors just didn’t play supporting roles and if supporting actors did play lead roles, it was in B-level films. This has since happened on several occasions, beginning with Helen Hayes just a few years later.

Lemmon received another Best Supporting Actor nomination for The China Syndrome, in which he is just fantastic. It’s true that this is a movie very much of late 70s liberalism, but it is also a fantastic piece of work, with great performances from Michael Douglas, Jane Fonda, and Wilford Brimley as well. And of course it became one of the most influential films in American political history when the Three Mile Island accident happened shortly after its release. Other late life Oscar nominations came for Tribute and The Missing. It’s kind of remarkable to me that Lemmon won so few Oscars for all his nominations. But Cannes loved him and he won a bunch of its awards, which might have meant close to as much for him.

By the 90s, Lemmon was doing a lot of stage work. He was nominated for a couple of Tony Awards, including for A Long Day’s Journey into Night. He became a major mentor to the young Kevin Spacey, who was nearly adopted by Lemmon. And whatever you think of Spacey’s later performances, not to mention his extremely unfortunate personal behavior choices, Spacey was the perfect descendant to Lemmon’s acting style and skills and has many of the great performances of late 20th century cinema. Spacey and Lemmon famously worked together on Glengarry Glen Ross, obviously one of the core films of the LGM universe and for damn good reason. It’s basically a perfect stage adaptation and while Alec Baldwin may have stolen the show, Lemmon is absolutely perfect as the aging and desperate Shelley.

The greatest tribute to Lemmon ever came in 1998. Lemmon was up for an Emmy in the Made for TV Movie category for his work in an adaptation of Twelve Angry Men. Ving Rhames won that award for a Don King biopic (actually, that sounds kinda interesting). Rhames called Lemmon up to the stage and just gave him the award. Lemmon tried to turn it down but Rhames was like, nope, it’s yours.

Jack Lemmon died of bladder cancer in 2001. He was 76 years old. He was truly one of the finest actors to ever live.

Jack Lemmon is buried in Westwood Memorial Cemetery, Los Angeles, California. This is one of my favorite gravestones of all time.

If you would like this series to visit other people nominated for Best Supporting Actor Academy Awards in 1956, the year in which Lemmon won his first award, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Arthur Kennedy, nominated for Best Supporting Actor for Trial, is in Lequille, Nova Scotia. Joe Mantell, nominated for Marty, is in Hollywood. Previous posts in this series are archived here and here.

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