A Legend, not an Icon

Jack Lemmon often related how, as a young man, he told his father that he wanted to become an actor. Lemmon's skeptical father originally tried to change his son's mind but finally asked "Do you love acting?" When Lemmon answered yes, his father, who worked as a baker, replied "Good, because the day I can't find romance in a loaf of bread, I'll quit." Notice Lemmon's father said a loaf of bread, not a wedding cake or pastry. Jack Lemmon, like his father, found romance in the ordinary. We remember other actors of his generation for playing larger-than-life figures, but we loved Jack Lemmon for characters that we might bump into on the street or see in a meeting. Critics will sometimes use the term "everyman" to describe actors who are more substance than flash, but that term applies to no one more than Lemmon.

Why did he have such an everyman quality? Perhaps because he often did not get the glory in his own films. Lemmon was usually the straight man in his numerous pairings with Walter Matthau. While they would share top billing and screen time, it seemed that Matthau would get the best lines and the most laughs. In the classic comedy Some Like it Hot, Tony Curtis lands Marilyn Monroe, while Lemmon needs to settle for Joe E. Brown. Lemmon even plays the straight man to Brown, who after an exasperated Daphne (Lemmon) says "I'm a man" replies "Nobody's perfect" perhaps the best-remembered and most quoted closing line in film history. Lemmon was often exasperated and put-upon in his films, reacting to circumstances far beyond his control. Who hasn't felt that way sometimes?

Years before Woody Allen made his mark, Lemmon defined nervousness and insecurity on film. While so many other stars that debuted in the 1950's projected a swaggering confidence, Lemmon played characters were often worried and unsure of themselves. C.C. Baxter in The Apartment does not have the backbone to stand up to his boss or the courage to tell the woman of his dreams that he loves her (at least not until the very end of the film). Felix Unger in The Odd Couple is so despondent over his wife leaving that he attempts suicide, only to fail at that. Lemmon so convincingly conveyed doubt and angst without venturing into the neurosis that Allen personifies. Perhaps that's why we could identify with him.

For many actors growing older is a liability but Lemmon turned it into an asset. Lemmon aged gracefully by playing men who didn't. Witness Harry Stoner in Save the Tiger, a shell of a man trapped in the past while his present falls apart. Witness Shelley Levene in Glengarry Glen Ross, a once-great salesman who struggles to hold on while his livelihood passes him by. These are just two of his compelling characters that are losing their place in life, whether they knew it or not (Stoner did, Levene didn't). Lemmon's unique ability to show flaws and frailties kept bringing us back.

We loved Lemmon for his humanity but also for his durability. So many other stars came and went, but Lemmon was always there. He transcended generations, trends and styles. He worked with Billy Wilder and Oliver Stone. He appeared with Monroe and Julia Roberts, with Henry Fonda and Kevin Costner, with James Cagney and Al Pacino. He won an Oscar in 1956 for Mister Roberts and an Emmy last year for Tuesdays with Morrie. It seemed as though he were timeless; that we would always have him.

But now that Jack Lemmon is gone we see a movie star who was not an icon like John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, Humphrey Bogart or Jack Nicholson. He was simply an actor who did his job well, be it comedy or drama, be it large role or small. Through ordinary characters Jack Lemmon became extraordinary. He became immortal by showing mortality better than anyone else. As Wilder said when hearing of Lemmon's passing, "Nobody's perfect, but he came close."

Adam Spector
July 6, 2001

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