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Top Ten Jack Lemmon Films
Jack Lemmon is an actor who was beloved for his comedic work, but critically acclaimed and revered for his more dramatic fare, as well. An Oscar-winning dramatic actor who was, also, famous for the comedies he made with writer/director Billy Wilder and his memorable team-ups with Walter Matthau. Yes, Jack Lemmon could appear in anything from the broadest of comedies to the most heartbreaking of dramas. He simply did whatever project happened to interest him at the time. Jack always called the moment the cameras started rolling “magic time” and he treated it as such.
A generous soul, Jack Lemmon was beloved by many in the industry. Quite famously, Ving Rhames, actually, gave Jack his Best Actor Golden Globe when he won against him in 1997 (the Hollywood Foreign Press even had to send Rhames a new one when he refused to let Jack return it to him). Jack, also, served as a mentor and father figure for Kevin Spacey, often telling him that those who have made it in the industry have an obligation to "send the elevator back down" to those who are starting out. So, when Spacey won his Oscar for American Beauty in 1999, it comes as no surprise that he dedicated it to Jack. Indeed, it might be impossible not to love Jack Lemmon. One of his onset mantras was “I’m spreading a little sunshine throughout the day” and with many of the films he’s left behind, he continues to do just that. If you’re not yet familiar with this lovable actor, you’re in for a treat.
FYI: I chose the order of my Jack Lemmon top ten by considering each film's importance in Jack’s overall career, the size/importance of his role in them, and their overall popularity today as evidenced by their ratings on sites like IMDB, Netflix, and Rotten Tomatoes. Naturally, feel free to watch them in any order you like (this is merely a recommended top ten). You might watch them in the order listed here, chronologically (like I did), or in a way that corresponds with your own movie tastes. If you discover your favorite Jack Lemmon film is missing, feel free to post a comment explaining why you would recommend it.
And now, on with the Top Ten:
- “THE APARTMENT” (1960)
Directed, produced, and co-written by Billy Wilder, The Apartment is, probably, the film that best captures the unique film personae of Jack Lemmon. A dark comedy that manages to be simultaneously hopeful and cynical, The Apartment was, actually, written specifically for Jack by Billy Wilder (who wanted an opportunity to work with Jack again after directing him a year earlier in Some Like It Hot). Jack stars as C.C. Baxter, a low-level employee at an insurance company, who has been allowing a handful of his superiors to use his apartment for their extramarital affairs. In exchange for his cooperation, they have agreed to put in a good word for him with the head of personnel, Mr. Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray). Although highly inconvenient for Baxter, the arrangement seems to be working out, until Mr. Sheldrake asks to use the apartment for his own affair, as well. The situation is made even more uncomfortable when Baxter learns that the boss’ mistress happens to be the pretty elevator operator he’s had his eye on (Shirley MacLaine). Frequently included in lists of the greatest movies ever made, The Apartment ended up winning 5 Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay. While both Jack and Shirley MacLaine give career-defining performances in this film, Fred MacMurray was, actually, cast against type for his role as the philandering Mr. Sheldrake. Best known at the time for playing “nice guys” in light comedies and family films, MacMurray received a negative reaction from some his fans for his less wholesome role in The Apartment. Feeling a level of responsibility to his fans, MacMurray vowed never to play an immoral character again (and he never did).
2. "SOME LIKE IT HOT” (1959)
Ranked by the American Film Institute as the greatest comedy of all time, Some Like Hot, actually, marks Jack’s first time working with the brilliant writer/director/producer Billy Wilder (the start of what would become a long and celebrated professional relationship). Set in 1929, the movie follows the exploits of Jerry (Jack) and Joe (Tony Curtis), two jazz musicians living in Chicago, who have the unfortunate luck of, accidentally, witnessing the Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre. Desperate to get out of town before the gangsters find them, the two men disguise themselves as women and take a job with an all-female band. But, it’s questionable whether Joe and Jerry can really pass themselves off as women for very long. And once they meet the band’s beautiful lead singer/ukulele player, Sugar Kane (Marilyn Monroe), they may not even want to. Partially inspired by the French film, Fanfare of Love, Some Like It Hot is a classic farce that not only features Marilyn Monroe in one of her most memorable roles but, also, a tour-de-force performance from Jack. Absolutely hilarious in every scene, Jack really relished the role of Jerry (as well as, his female alias “Daphne”). In order to help the men learn how to feminize their mannerisms, the studio, actually, brought in well-known drag queen and aerialist Barbette to coach them. Although color films were becoming more common by the late ‘50s (especially for comedies), Billy Wilder insisted on making Some Like It Hot in black-and-white. This was partly due to the movie’s 1920s period setting but, also, to make the men’s heavy drag makeup look more natural.
3. “DAYS OF WINE AND ROSES” (1962)
A revelatory role for Jack, Days of Wine and Roses is the film that, finally, revealed his hidden skills as a dramatic actor after becoming known almost exclusively for comedic roles. The movie tells the story of Joe Clay (Jack) and Kirsten Arnesen (Lee Remick), a relatively ordinary couple of New York professionals who meet at a work event and soon fall in love. Joe works in public relations and, as such, has gotten used to a fair amount of social drinking at various work-related events. Kirsten, on the other hand, has never touched a drink in her life. That is, until Joe introduces her to sweet Brandy Alexanders (taking advantage of her love for chocolate). After Joe and Kirsten get married and begin to build a life together, Joe’s “social drinking” starts to take a more serious turn. And as the man she loves descends into addiction, what can Kirsten possibly do but follow suit? Directed by Blake Edwards, Days of Wine of Roses was a landmark film, dealing with the horrors and heartbreak of alcoholism as no film has done before or since. Originally staged as a live teleplay for the anthology TV series Playhouse 90, the movie has been credited with helping many alcoholics come to terms with their problem and is required viewing at many substance abuse rehab clinics across the country. Bill Wilson, the co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, even acted as the film's technical advisor. Behind the scenes, Blake Edwards, Lee Remick, and Jack were all battling with their own alcohol addictions. Edwards, actually, went into recovery a year after the film was completed, while both Remick and Jack would, eventually, seek help from AA themselves in the following years. Days of Wine and Roses is an emotionally shattering movie with a heartbreaking performance from Jack that will stay with you long after its final scene.
4. “GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS” (1992) –
Based on the Pulitzer Prize winning play by David Mamet and adapted by him for the screen, Glengarry Glen Ross follows two days in the lives of four real estate salesmen working for a small firm in Chicago. Jack plays the role of Shelley “The Machine” Levene, a once-great salesman who has fallen on a rough patch and has been unable to close a substantial deal for quite some time. Normally, the men are given the names and phone numbers of prospective buyers (called leads) that are rationed out by the office manager, John Williamson (Kevin Spacey), on a regular basis. But, during a seminar, the men are, suddenly, informed that they will only be given access to the new leads for the Glengarry Highlands development if they prove themselves “worthy” by closing a deal with one of the older sales leads. More distressingly, they are told that only the top two salesmen will remain with the company and the rest will be fired. Frustrated by the stale leads they’ve been given, the men start to become increasingly desperate to close a big deal and save their jobs. Filmed on location in New York City, Glengarry Glen Ross features an incredible all-male ensemble cast made up almost entirely of Oscar-winning and Oscar-nominated actors (including Jonathan Pryce, Alan Arkin, Ed Harris, Alec Baldwin, and Al Pacino). It's no surprise that Jack once called them the greatest acting ensemble he had ever worked with. Famous for its razor-sharp (and profanity-laced) dialogue, Glengarry Glen Ross was partially based on David Mamet’s own experiences working as an office manager in a real estate office much like the one in the film. Glengarry Glen Ross is, also, notable for being one of the few times Jack would appear onscreen with his real-life protégé, Kevin Spacey, who has cited this film as one of the highlights of his career.
5. “MISSING” (1982) –
This brutal political thriller tells the true story of Charles Horman (John Shea), an American journalist living in Chile who disappeared without a trace in the days following the 1973 Chilean coup d’état. The film follows Charles’ wife, Beth (Sissy Spacek), and his father, Ed (Jack), as they try to uncover the truth of what has happened to Charles. At first, Ed goes to the US Ambassador for answers, but he soon discovers that if they want to know what really happened to Charles, they may be forced to investigate on their own. Based on the book, The Execution of Charles Horman: An American Sacrifice by Thomas Hauser, Missing ended up winning the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay, while Jack won Best Actor at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival for his emotional portrayal of Ed Horman. Banned in Chile throughout the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, the film, actually, very carefully avoids ever explicitly identifying the Latin American country Beth and Charles live in as Chile. However, knowledgeable viewers will be able to recognize the names of several major Chilean cities referenced throughout the film. Director Costa-Gavras made the decision not to be so specific about the film’s time and place in order to highlight the idea that these things could happen anywhere and at any time. This controversial film (and the book its based on) was, actually, pulled from circulation for a time when former US ambassador Nathaniel Davis, along with a few others, sued Universal Pictures for defamation of character. Ultimately, the suit was not successful and the film was, finally, released on DVD in 2006. Missing was, actually, controversial enough when first released to provoke an official response from the state department denying any allegations the film might put forth (however, thanks to newly declassified documents, it seems much of what is asserted in the film did, in fact, take place).
6. “THE ODD COUPLE” (1968) –
Based on the play by Neil Simon and adapted by him for the screen, The Odd Couple marks the second time Jack would co-star opposite Walter Matthau. The two had first appeared together in the comedy The Fortune Cookie a couple years earlier and became fast friends. The two would, eventually, appear in 10 films together but, it was the success of this film that forever cemented Lemmon and Matthau as an unforgettable comedy duo. The Odd Couple follows the exploits of Felix Ungar (Jack) and Oscar Madison (Matthau) two friends who have both recently gotten divorced. Felix is not taking his divorce particularly well so, concerned for his friend’s well-being, Oscar suggests that Felix move in with him for a while. The only problem with this arrangement is that Felix is a neurotic neat freak, while Oscar is an easy-going slob. So, once these two friends become roommates, they immediately begin to drive each other nuts. Neil Simon, actually, based the story of The Odd Couple on his neatnik brother’s real experiences living with two messy roommates. The success of the film version helped spawn the equally successful 1970 television series of the same name starring Tony Randall and Jack Klugman as Felix and Oscar (with the film’s iconic theme music becoming the theme song for the series, as well). While Matthau originated the role of Oscar on Broadway, Art Carney (of The Honeymooners fame) was the original Broadway Felix. Although Carney would, no doubt, have given a great onscreen performance, choosing to bring in Jack for the movie version proved to be a stroke of casting genius. If you are only familiar with the original 1970s TV series or the current TV remake with Matthew Perry, it’s time to take a look at the film that started it all, featuring Jack’s hilariously neurotic performance as the original on-camera Felix.
7. “AVANTI!” (1972) –
Based on the play by Samuel Taylor, this American/Italian co-production reunited Jack, once again, with writer/director Billy Wilder. Jack plays the role of Wendell Armbruster, Jr., an uptight business executive traveling to Italy to bring home the body of his late father, Wendell Sr., who was recently killed in a car accident while vacationing on the Italian island of Ischia. However, shortly after he arrives, Wendell discovers that his father was not, actually, traveling by himself. Turns out, his father had a mistress and, in fact, the two of them had been meeting in Italy annually for many years. And since said mistress was killed in the car accident, as well, her daughter, Pamela Piggott (Juliet Mills), has, also, arrived in Italy to collect her mother. The free-spirited Pamela and straight-laced Wendell clash almost immediately. While Wendell is shocked to hear of his father’s affair, Pamela has been aware of it for years and finds the whole thing terribly romantic. In fact, she expresses a desire to have the two of them buried together, but Wendell’s only concern is how to prevent the news of this scandal from getting back home. Billy Wilder, actually, asked Jack if he would star in Avanti! very early in the film’s writing process, which meant that he (and co-writer I.A.L. Diamond) were able to, specifically, tailor the script to suit Jack’s natural rhythms. The charming Juliet Mills (sister of Hayley and daughter of John) was, also, asked directly by Wilder to appear in the film, thanks to him being familiar with her work in the TV sitcom, Nanny and the Professor. But, since Pamela is described in the movie as being slightly plump, Mills was, actually, required to gain 25 pounds before filming could begin, something she readily agreed to do. Although some of Avanti! was shot on location in Ischia, most of the exteriors were, actually, shot in other areas around Southern Italy, including Capri and along the Amalfi Coast. This movie is lesser known than many of Billy Wilder’s classic films, but it is a hidden gem worthy of attention, featuring solid performances from everyone involved.
8. “THE CHINA SYNDROME” (1979) –
Produced by Michael Douglas, this character-driven thriller stars Jane Fonda as Kimberly Wells, a local news reporter covering an ongoing series on alternative energy sources. As part of the series, Kimberly visits a nearby nuclear power plant, along with her cameraman, Richard (Michael Douglas), and soundman, Hector. While at the plant, the three of them end up witnessing an emergency shutdown. Unable to hear, specifically, what is happening and, purposely, kept out of the informational loop by the plant manager, Richard secretly films the entire incident in order to review it later. Richard, Hector, and Kimberly are all convinced that the incident was much more serious than they were led to believe. And it turns out, they are so very right. Jack plays the pivotal role of the plant’s shift supervisor, Jack Godell, an engineer right in the middle of the emergency. Although, he and his team were able to avoid a meltdown, details about the event are alerting Jack to possible safety hazards at the plant. But, not everyone is so willing to allow this information to go public. Eerily released only 12 days before the infamous Three Mile Island nuclear accident in Pennsylvania, The China Syndrome has been credited with alerting the general public to the very real dangers of nuclear power and the necessity for stricter safety regulations within the nuclear industry. Before the Three Mile Island accident, many people (particularly within the nuclear power industry) saw the incident portrayed in the film as purely fiction and completely implausible (that is, until it, actually, happened). Immediately intrigued by the film’s premise, Jack had signed onto the film very early in its development. As pre-production dragged on for over a year, he, actually, refused to take any other work in the meantime, just in case it would end up conflicting with his China Syndrome schedule. Michael Douglas later stated that he was forever grateful to Jack for waiting on the film for that long, when any other working actor would've backed out long before.
9. “THE GREAT RACE” (1965) –
Reuniting Jack with his Days of Wine and Roses director, Blake Edwards, this wacky slapstick comedy, also, gave Jack the opportunity to, once again, work opposite his Some Like It Hot co-star, Tony Curtis. Set in the 1900s, the film stars Jack as Professor Fate, a professional daredevil obsessed with out-doing fellow daredevil, The Great Leslie (Curtis). So, when Leslie helps to organize a highly publicized auto race from New York to Paris, Professor Fate is the very first to enter. Also entering the race is journalist Maggie Dubois (Natalie Wood), a pushy suffragette determined to cover the race at all costs. As the race begins, extreme wackiness ensues. Made as a homage/parody of the classic Victorian melodramas of stage and screen, The Great Race was, actually, the most expensive comedy film ever made at the time (costing $12 million). Indeed, many of the film’s sight gags were extremely expensive to make, ballooning the movie way over budget. The main plot of The Great Race was, actually, inspired by the real 1908 New York to Paris Race (also known as The Great Auto Race of 1908). The Great Leslie’s car, the Leslie Special, was even built to resemble a Thomas Flyer, the car that, actually, won the 1908 Race. The Great Race is famous for featuring one of the largest pie fights ever put on film and, in total, 4,000 pies are thrown throughout the sequence with 300 pies left over after filming wrapped (which the crew then ate). But, filming the pie fight was, actually, more dangerous than it looked. Jack was knocked out more than once throughout the scene and he once compared being hit in the face with a pie to being hit with a ton of cement. But, where Jack really gets his chance to shine in the film is when the racers meet the drunken Prince Friedrich Hapnick of Pottsdrof, a hilarious drunken dandy who happens to be Professor Fate’s doppelganger.
10. “THE OUT-OF-TOWNERS” (1970) –
Written exclusively for the screen by famed playwright Neil Simon, The Out-Of-Towners revolves around the exploits of George and Gwen Kellerman (Jack Lemmon and Sandy Dennis), a couple from Ohio who are taking a short trip to NYC so George can interview for a position at his company’s New York office. At first, the Kellermans are extremely excited to visit New York City and look forward to the possibility of moving there if George gets his promotion. But, before the couple’s plane even lands, everything starts to go terribly wrong. Filmed on location in Manhattan, this hilarious comedy plays out as every traveler’s worst nightmare (and, also, works as a primer on what not to do when things go wrong on vacation). The Out-Of-Towners was, originally, intended to be a segment within Neil Simon’s successful play, Plaza Suite. However, Simon soon realized that the story had way too much opportunity for humor to fit into a single sequence and that it would be much better suited as a film than a play. It, also, didn’t hurt that throughout the late 1960s, New York City had been hit by a succession of catastrophes, including a transit strike in 1966, a sanitation strike in 1968, and an overall extreme rise in crime (particularly within Central Park). All of this provided a perfect backdrop for the Kellerman’s nightmare vacation. The Out-Of-Towners was, eventually, remade in 1999 with Steve Martin and Goldie Hawn in the lead roles, but the NYC of the 1990s was, frankly, nowhere near as harrowing a place as it was in the ‘70s. What makes this original version’s comedy work is that the Kellerman’s troubles were very much based in New York’s reality at the time, making their story all the more hilarious and anxiety-inducing.
HONORABLE MENTION: “SAVE THE TIGER” (1973)
Although I considered giving my honorable mention to one of Jack’s many comedies, I simply couldn’t finish a Jack Lemmon Top Ten without including Save The Tiger. This downbeat drama is the film that, finally, won Jack his Best Actor Oscar, making him the first actor to ever win Oscars for both Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor (Mister Roberts). Based on the novel by Steve Shagan and adapted by him for the screen, Save The Tiger focuses on two days in the life of Harry Stoner (Jack), a WWII veteran and executive at a garment company on the very brink of ruin. Harry realizes that the only way to save the company is to set fire to their warehouse in the hopes of collecting the insurance money afterwards. This compromise of morals is only one of many Harry has found himself doing lately and it’s left him both jaded and beaten-down. No longer feeling like he fits into the modern world, Harry begins longing for his younger days, when life (and the difference between right and wrong) seemed so much simpler. Made with a small budget and no expectation of box office success, Save The Tiger was a passion project for most of the people involved (Jack, actually took a major pay cut in order to be cast). Unlike most movies, Save The Tiger was filmed entirely in sequence with 3 weeks of rehearsal before filming even began. Jack gives a powerful and nuanced performance as the beaten-down and newly cynical Harry Stoner, making it easy to understand why his performance was universally praised even when the movie, itself, wasn't very popular at the box office.
And if you would like to learn more about the versatile Jack Lemmon, I recommend the book, A Twist of Lemmon: A Tribute To My Father written by Jack’s son Chris Lemmon.
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