I hadn’t planned to write about actors specifically, as my intent was to focus on certain key films and directors. However, as this is also a personal journal it should reflect its author to some extent and those who knew me in my teens surely thought I had an unhealthy obsession with this particular Hollywood star, but with hindsight I would say that it marked the apex of my calling as an actor, which transmogrified by puberty was almost a religious fervour with me in those days.
John Uhler Lemmon III was born in Boston in 1925 to middle class parents, his father was the president of a doughnut company and his mother, in early life, had followed aspirations as an actress in comedy and light opera. Jack was their only child and from the age of 8 he was convinced that he would become the next George Gershwin and the world’s greatest actor.
Lemmon studied at Harvard majoring in War Time Sciences, he was a member of the Navy Reserve Officers Training Corps. and served as an Ensign after graduation. Whilst at Harvard he was also active in theatrical pursuits and was the president of The Hasty Pudding Club, a long-standing tradition of which was to put on a Christmas show in drag.
After his brief spell in the Navy Lemmon took himself to New York and worked as a piano player in a beer hall, he started auditioning and got regular work on radio and in off-Broadway productions eventually leading to appearances on live television shows like TV Playhouse and Kraft Theatre. In 1954 he did a screen test for Columbia Pictures and was offered a contract by legendary tough movie mogul Harry Cohen, with the proviso that he change his name from Lemmon to Lennon. Thinking on his feet, and determined to keep his own name, he played to Cohen’s business-savvy by suggesting that people might mistake it for Lenin and associate that with Communism, a serious problem for the American entertainment industry in the McCarthy era.
Lemmon made his big screen debut opposite Judy Holliday in It Should Happen To You, a likeable romantic comedy that lightly satirises the concept of celebrity. The film was lifted by the sure hand of veteran Gone With The Wind director George Cukor, who also had hits with screwball comedies starring Katherine Hepburn, The Philadelphia Story and Adam’s Rib.
Whilst cutting his teeth on the Columbia lot Lemmon would meet two young writer/directors, whom he would work with more than once. Richard Quine was a very solid director with a gift for comedy, he liked to shoot outdoors in real locations. He made a total of six films with Lemmon, My Sister Eileen, Operation Mad Ball, Bell, Book & Candle, It Happened To Jane, The Notorious Landlady and How To Murder Your Wife, each one well-crafted with a strong narrative and solid performances from a good ensemble cast, often including Ernie Kovacs, Kim Novak and Dick York.
Blake Edwards, who would famously go on to make the Pink Panther series with Peter Sellers, worked as a writer on Quine’s Operation Mad Ball and The Notorious Landlady and after making his directorial breakthrough feature Breakfast At Tiffany’s he teamed with Lemmon and they turned their focus to a serious subject matter in Days Of Wine And Roses, a poignant and powerful character study of young newly-weds whose social drinking escalates into soul-destroying alcoholism, earning both Lemmon and his co-star Lee Remick Academy Award nominations. Ironically, at the time of shooting, Lemmon, a self-confessed alcoholic, was teetotal.
Edwards and Lemmon teamed up again shortly after to make the epic comedy The Great Race, dedicated to Laurel & Hardy. Whilst I enjoy Lemmon’s malevolent performance, as the dastardly Victorian villain, Professor Fate (complete with twirly moustache) and the Prisoner Of Zenda detour allowing him to camp it up in the dual role of the lush Crown Prince Hapnik, the movie is overlong, lacks real charm, and is nowhere near as funny as it thinks it is.
The first Lemmon film I remember watching, and the one that convinced me, aged 12, that I was going to be an Actor, was Some Like It Hot, now regarded by the American Film Institute as the funniest comedy ever made. The simple notion of two down at heel musicians having to flee in drag after witnessing the St. Valentine’s Day massacre, tapped into my sense of the absurd and I marvelled at Lemmon’s incredibly facile performance both as Jerry and his feminine alter ego, Daphne.
This was the first of several films by Austrian émigré, writer/director, Billy Wilder, the others most notably were The Apartment and The Fortune Cookie which first teamed Lemmon with his life-long friend and co-star Walter Matthau. I shall go into each of those, along with Avanti! which I have a particular soft spot for, in greater detail in future posts.
I was extremely fortunate that my passion for Lemmon’s work coincided with two events both in 1986. The first was a season of his films at the British Film Institute where I was, not only, able to see some of his greatest films, including The Odd Couple, for the first time, but also saw him interviewed live in the theatre by Jonathan Miller, who was directing Lemmon’s London stage debut Long Day’s Journey Into Night, co-starring Bethel Leslie and newcomers Kevin Spacey and Peter Gallagher. I was 15 at the time and I am very thankful that I shared these experiences with my Father who died a few years later, I shall always treasure these fond memories.
Most people only associate Lemmon with his comic work but he also made some superb dramas including The China Syndrome, Missing and Save The Tiger for which he won an Best Actor Oscar in 1973. In later life he would make tour-de-force performances in David Mamet’s screen version of his 1984 Pulitzer Prize-winning play Glengarry Glen Ross and Oliver Stone’s JFK. He was a lifelong Democrat and follower of liberal causes just as much as he was a devotee of golf.
I shall be writing in more detail about Lemmon’s movies, specifically those directed by Billy Wilder, who probably summed it up best when he said, “Happiness is working with Jack Lemmon”.