February 8, 1925 – Jack Lemmon:
“Death ends a life, not a relationship.”
The American Film Institute named Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot (1959) the Best Comedy of All Time. I realize that best lists are a bore, but few would dispute the status of Some Like It Hot. And, how cool that the most entertaining comedy of the last century features a pair of American males in drag.
Drag is used to perfection in this famous film whose theme is deception. A pair of small-time jazz musicians: Joe, a saxophone player (Tony Curtis), and Jerry, a bassist (Lemmon) accidentally witnesses the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. Pursued by a Chicago mobster, “Spats” Colombo, played by George Raft and his gang, they dress as women and join an all-female band on a train to Florida. There Joe, who has become Josephine, makes one more switch, pretending to be an oil baron to attract the band’s vocalist, Sugar Cane, played to perfection by Marilyn Monroe. Jerry, who is now Daphne, becomes the object of affection for the insatiable Osgood Fielding III (Joe E. Brown), a motor-mouthed millionaire. It has a happy ending with both couples heading for a moonlit yacht.
Some Like It Hot, with a screenplay by Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond is endlessly quotable. The closing zinger, Daphne yanks off her wig declaring herself to be a man, and Osgood replies: “Nobody’s perfect”, ranks up there with “Here’s looking at you, kid.“, “Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.”, and “Fasten your seatbelts. It’s going to be a bumpy night.” It is the funniest final line in film history, and just happens to be unambiguously queer.
It is amazing in the way drag liberates Lemmon’s character. At the start, he is easily manipulated. But, once he begins to explore his feminine nature, he becomes increasingly strong and self-assertive, and he goes directly for what he wants, which is to marry another man. The message, in 1950s America, could hardly have been more subversive. The gayness is played for laughs, of course; it was 1959 after all.
Made at the height of the conformist Eisenhower era, film is notable for playing with the idea of gayness, which led to its being released without approval from the Motion Picture Production Code. The code had been gradually weakening in its scope during the early 1950s, due to increasing social tolerance for previously taboo topics in film, but it was still officially enforced. The overwhelming success of Some Like It Hot is considered one of the final nails in the coffin for the Hays Code.
The film cuts against the cultural grain so sharply it’s amazing that it even got made. Yet, that might be why it connected so forcefully with fans and remains a classic.
It was also the first film that I really took note of Lemmon. My parental units took me to see it at the drive-in theatre, and I never have quite recovered. Seeing Some Like It Hot at an early age changed me, and it also brought a life long love for Jack Lemmon, the man and the actor.
He was the first actor to go from winning an Academy Award for a supporting role, in Mister Roberts (1955), to winning a second Oscar for a leading role, Save The Tiger (1973). Appropriately, the first award was for a comic performance, and the second a dramatic one.
Lemmon thrived on close professional associations. With Wilder, he made seven films, beginning with Some Like It Hot: The Apartment (1960), The Fortune Cookie (1966), Irma La Douce (1963), Avanti! (1973), The Front Page (1974) and Buddy Buddy (1981). He made six films with director Richard Quine, but his longest and most fruitful on-screen partnership was with the actor Walter Matthau.
Matthau and Lemmon first co-starred in The Fortune Cookie with Lemmon playing an injured television sports reporter and Matthau as his crooked lawyer drooling over the prospect of damages. Matthau won the Academy Award for his work. The two actors became the firmest of friends and they worked together in seven more films, including Kotch (1971), the only film Lemmon directed.
Their most famous film together was, of course, The Odd Couple (1968), based on the Neil Simon stage comedy, in which they played two gentlemen sharing a Manhattan apartment. Their relationship is a sort of distorted reflection of a married couple. The gay subtext is hard to miss. Lemmon:
“I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention my favorite leading lady. Without a doubt, it’s Walter Matthau.”
At the start of his career, Lemmon used his best tricks: double takes, startled eyes, and grimaces. He was ofen cast as a character who is morally malleable. In Wilder’s The Apartment (1960), he lent his apartment to his bosses for sexual trysts; in Save The Tiger, he considers committing arson to collect insurance money. In Buddy Buddy, Lemmon plays a would-be suicide continually sabotaging the work of a bungling hit-man played by Matthau.
In one of my favorite Lemmon permeances, The China Syndrome (1979), he played a senior employee at a nuclear power station about to suffer a Chernobyl-style meltdown. The character was torn between loyalty to the company and his conscience, and hesitation was shown in close-ups in his face. He was oddly overlooked for an Academy Award.
His gives a master class in film acting in David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross (1992), for which he won the top acting prize at the Venice Film Festival but was again passed over at the Oscars.
My number one Lemmon performance is in Missing (1982), in which he plays a Right-wing American father, whose trust in the U.S. government is destroyed when he confronts the lies of its representatives in Chile as he in searches for his son who disappeared during the 1973 coup. For this one, he was Oscar nominated and won Best Actor at the Cannes Film Festival.
After graduating from Harvard, Lemmon served in the U.S. Navy for three years. Then, he worked as waiter while trying to get work as an actor. He had a rich career in radio and television, with hundreds of performances in early television shows.
Lemmon’s television work caught the attention Columbia Studios who thought he would be perfect to star with Judy Holliday in the film It Should Happen To You (1954) directed by George Cukor. He signed with the studio for seven years but stayed for 10. His contract was for two pictures a year, but he was free to make one film for another studio each year. He appeared in four Broadway plays, and took a year off from Columbia, something no contract player had even done before.
He was often cast as the agreeable, naive do-gooders, typecasting he seemed unable to escape. Columbia cast him in musicals, such as My Sister Eileen (1955) and Three for the Show (1955), and as a contemporary warlock in the gay allegory Bell, Book And Candle (1959).
Away from Columbia, he had more interesting roles. Warner Bros cast him as the sly, lecherous Ensign Pulver in Mister Roberts, for which he won his first Oscar.
Lemmon made 50 films in 40 years. His work had a certain glibness that he was not always able to shake until his dramatic role in Blake Edwards’ Days Of Wine And Roses (1962), a study of a advertising man and his wife, played by Lee Remick, sliding into alcoholism.
He never played gay characters, but there is Mass Appeal (1984), in which Lemmon plays a sexually ambiguous Catholic priest torn between his affluent congregation and an undeniable connection to a gay seminary student played by real life gay actor Željko Ivanek; and in 1971’s Avanti!, there is a scene in which Lemmon and a fellow airline passenger are mistaken for lovers by everyone else on the plane. Wilder said that he wanted to make Avanti! as a gay film, with Lemmon’s character coming out in the course of the story, but he couldn’t get backing for it and was forced to make it ”straight”.
Throughout his career, Lemmon returned to the theatre. I saw him live on stage was in 1975, when he and Matthau starred with Maureen Stapleton in a glorious production of Sean O’ Casey’s Juno And The Paycock at L.A.’s Mark Taper Forum, and in 1978, playing a dying actor in Tribute on Broadway.
At the 1998 Golden Globe Awards, he was nominated for for his role in Twelve Angry Men losing to Ving Rhames. After accepting the award, Rhames asked Lemmon to come on stage and, in a move that stunned the audience, gave his award to him. The Hollywood Foreign Press had a second award made and sent to Rhames.
One can find fault with much of Lemmon’s work. His acting was sometime too big for the screen and he liked to be liked too much. But, Lemmon was well liked in the industry and loved by film fans. His best qualities were intelligence and vulnerability. He played characters who struggled with their own flaws and with the world.
Lemmon was taken by cancer in 2001. He fought the cancer privately for two years. He is interred at Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery, buried near Matthau, who died exactly one year before Lemmon. His gravestone reads like a title screen from a film: “Jack Lemmon in”.