Saturday, March 29, 2014

Jack Lemmon: America’s Everyman (Gene Feldman & Suzette Winter, 1996)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film I watched on KPBS last night was Jack Lemmon: America’s Everyman, a 1996 TV documentary on the long-lived actor which benefited immeasurably from the fact that he and a lot of his closest associates, including director Billy Wilder and frequent co-star Walter Matthau, were still alive and willing to be interviewed. The profilees also included actress Betty Garrett (who made the 1955 musical version of My Sister Eileen with Lemmon while he was on his way up and she was on her way down) and actors Gregory Peck (who recalled being the on-air presenter when Lemmon won his Best Actor award for the 1973 film Save the Tiger, which I remember as a quite lovely film about an alienated middle-aged businessman even though I suspect it would seem dated if I saw it again now) and Kevin Spacey (who appeared with Lemmon in the 1992 film of David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross, though oddly the movie wasn’t mentioned in this documentary, nor was a clip of it shown) along with Maureen Stapleton and Charles Durning. The most interesting person shown, aside from Lemmon himself, was Garson Kanin, who wrote the script for what became Lemmon’s first film, It Should Happen to You, and who was on the soundstage when director George Cukor shot Lemmon’s big scene over and over again, every time telling him, “Less, Jack, less.” Lemmon himself recalls that he finally blew up at Cukor — the first and only time he ever yelled back at a director — and said, “If I give you any less, George, I won’t be acting at all!” “That’s right, Jack, that’s right,” Cukor said, and Lemmon was man enough to admit that that was the best piece of advice he ever got from any director. Lemmon was a fascinating actor in that he was virtually born to be a comedian — that mobile, rather chiseled face, not particularly attractive by conventional movie-star standards but still readily believable as the demon seducer he played in a surprising number of movies, and that inherently wisecracky voice — and yet he was certainly able to play serious parts in films like Days of Wine and Roses, Save the Tiger, The China Syndrome (a film Lemmon, a staunch environmentalist, particularly wanted to do because of its message against nuclear power) and Glengarry Glen Ross.

I remember watching Wilder’s 1948 film A Foreign Affair — set in postwar Berlin and featuring Marlene Dietrich as the former mistress of a Nazi bigwig and current affair partner of an American servicemember (John Lund) being investigated by a visiting Congressmember (Jean Arthur) — and reflecting how Lund’s woodenness hampered what was otherwise a quite interesting movie … and realizing how he really needed Lemmon in the part even though Lemmon was still an aspiring stage and radio actor who wouldn’t make his on-camera debut until 1949 (in “Pride’s Castle,” an episode of The Philco-Goodyear Television Playhouse) and he and Wilder wouldn’t work together until Some Like It Hot in 1959. The point was that Wilder was writing “Jack Lemmon roles” well before Lemmon was around to play them — roles with a particularly bittersweet meeting of comedy and drama Wilder increasingly relied on to soften his cynical films about human nature, a contradiction Lemmon was particularly good at. The documentary also featured an interview with Lemmon’s acting teacher, Uta Hagen (who also played Martha in the world premiere production of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in 1962 — and as good as Liz Taylor was in the movie it’s a pity no film of that performance exists), and though it has little to say about just how she coached him, it is clear that by hooking up with Hagen he got first-rate training without being sucked into the maw of Lee Strasberg and the “Method” that essentially ruined a couple of generations of actors who tried to be Marlon Brando or James Dean without the chops for it. It also mentioned Lemmon’s first job in New York — not as an actor, but as a piano player and MC at the Old Knickerbocker Theatre, run by silent-film maven Paul Killiam (one of the key people, along with Kevin Brownlow, who helped revive interest in silent films in the 1950’s and 1960’s after they had been virtually forgotten for many years), which at least gave him a chance to study the work of the great silent comedians, notably Charlie Chaplin — well, if you’re going to make your career playing bittersweet comedy, it’s certainly going to help if you go to the master of it as a role model!