Smilin' Jack Lemmon
An actor in his late 40s sits staring at a mirror. His eyes are red-rimmed, face strain-slashed, day-old beard a blue smear. Frowning at what he sees, he mutters hoarsely, “Happy Beaver! What the hell kind of a name is that for a hair dye?”
Figures crowd around him. A hairdresser snips. A makeup man dabs. Years drop off like dandruff. Stripping to his jockey shorts, the actor flashes muscular legs and trim, hairy torso as he slips into a natty tan suit and a tie striped like the American flag. Then he whirls to the glass, pats his straw hat to a Saturday-night angle, spanks his cane on the floor, flips the pearly ash off a dollar cheroot and, aiming his chin just south of God, cracks an ear-to-ear grin that could only belong to Smilin’ Jack Lemmon.
“That’s The Biggie!” he hoots in self-mockery. “That’s The Winner!”
At 49, Jack Lemmon is back on top of Hollywood’s glittering heap. In the late ’50s, early ’60s, he played young Mr. Nice Guy in a clutch of Billy Wilder-I. A. L. Diamond comedies (Some Like It Hot, The Apartment, Irma La Douce) that made him the Harold Lloyd of the Eisenhower era. In the ’60s nice guys went out of style, and Lemmon began to gather dust. For two years in the early ’70s he didn’t make a movie. Was he finished at 45?
Arroyos of angst cut deep into Lemmon’s boyish face, and directors noted them with interest. The man who had been everybody’s younger brother was, suddenly, everybody’s aging uncle. In 1972, remembering Lemmon’s complex portrait of a lush in Days of Wine and Roses, producer Steve Shagan offered him Save the Tiger, a grim script about the garment business and the things it makes people do. Lemmon dominated the film. As a dress manufacturer sloping into bankruptcy he portrayed a soul sliding toward damnation. In April he won an Oscar as Best Actor of 1973.
“Jack’s off on a second career,” says Shagan. “We always knew he had wit and energy. What we didn’t expect was this incredible depth.” How could they? Lemmon hides such things behind a parapet of twaddle.
“Cuddlechops! Duckbump! Angel fluffpot!”
Answering Lemmon’s dulcet summons, an attractive secretary hustles into a small but elegantly appointed office in Beverly Hills and hands the boss a six-ounce glass of white wine.
“Ah!” Lemmon responds in absent-minded parody of an earlier Hollywood figure noted for his appreciation of spirits. “A small draft of delicious pink tar extracted from the tap root of the Hawaiian oo-oo tree!”
A production team arrives to shoot a scene for a TV special in which Lemmon plays a bit part. The script is a calamity. “Material’s fine!” Lemmon assures the director. “Just a couple of small questions…” Ten minutes later he has skillfully and tactfully rewritten the whole scene. The director is aglow with gratitude.
As the TV unit clears out, O. J. Simpson saunters in. He’s there because some organization has elected Simpson “Athlete of the Year,” and he has come to have his picture taken with the Actor of the Year. Next arrives Barbara (I Dream of Jeannie) Eden in a gilt slacksuit that fits like a skin graft. Simpson has silky manners, a head the size of a bison’s and severe shortness of breath whenever he inspects Barbara. While cameras click, Barbara makes with the cleavage and Lemmon briskly hands Simpson a large, vulgar athletic trophy. Then “The Juice” makes his move. “Before I go,” he murmurs sultrily to Barbara, “may I kiss you?”
Lemmon watches the act with a fixed smile almost hiding his embarrassment. When Simpson turns to say goodbye, Lemmon asks lightly, “Me too?”
Lemmon’s wit is triggered by social discomfort. Once at a dinner party, after accidentally splattering a plateful of red cabbage on the expensively dressed wife of a publisher, he glared at the startled woman and announced: “I demand a clean dinner partner immediately!”
Spiritual discomfort is less easily exorcised, and Lemmon has plenty of it. “Lemmon has a rampant New England conscience,” says a friend. “He feels anxious if he doesn’t feel anxious. He’s the kind of guy who starts avalanches and then spends all his energy trying to outrun them.”
Outrunning his avalanches, Lemmon has developed a sturdy New England character. He is obsessively responsible about his work, his family, his friends, his civic duties. He listens patiently to bores, drives out of his way to take his dialogue coach home from the studio, spends hundreds of hours working with student filmmakers, writes dozens of letters to directors asking auditions for old friends. Walter Matthau says Lemmon made him a movie star in The Fortune Cookie by persuading him to take the scene-stealing role and accepting a duller part himself. “But I’ll get all the laughs!” Matthau protested. Lemmon shrugged and answered, “Isn’t it about time?”
Virtue has some glum rewards. Sometimes at night an avalanche of anxiety catches up with Lemmon, and he prowls the house till all hours, numbing the pain with alcohol and television.
Pain is an old friend. Born prematurely in a hospital elevator, Lemmon started life with a hernia and an acute case of jaundice. “They called me the yellow Lemmon.” The family was comfortably fixed—Lemmon’s father was a Boston manufacturer of doughnut-making equipment—but far from happy. For the first 10 years of his life, little Jack was a skinny, jumpy kid and a chronic invalid. “They took my tonsils and adenoids out five times. Each time they grew back. And in one five-year period I had three mastoid operations.”
Lemmon literally ran away from his childhood problems. At 9 he started distance-running and built up the windmill energy he hurls into his roles. At Andover he discovered his talent for music and acting. At Harvard he worried incessantly about “how I could find time to become both the new George Gershwin and the next John Barrymore.” In New York, after breaking in as a pitchman, singing waiter and orchestra-of-one at the Old Knick, a Manhattan beer hall, Lemmon moved on to radio soap operas and TV dramas. In 1954, in his first theatrical movie, It Should Happen to You, the Boston Bullet knocked ’em dead. But that New England conscience never let up. As a young actor, Lemmon had such attacks of anxiety that sometimes he almost fainted on the street.
Felicia Lemmon, who acts under the name Felicia Farr, bounces onto the sun porch of Lemmon’s $400,000 mansion in Beverly Hills. Lemmon has been married twice. With Cynthia Stone, also an actress, he has a 20-year-old son, Christopher. With Felicia he has an 8-year-old daughter, Courtney. Felicia has brains, beauty and, after 11 years of marriage, a lively fascination with her gifted husband. But she likes to keep him wondering. (“They’re like a madcap couple in a ’30s movie,” says a close friend. “They spar all day and then make up in bed.”)
Jack (deadpan): “Hi, Farfel. Too bad about your Rolls. Garage says it’ll cost $10,000 to fix.”
Felicia: “WHAAT!” (She recovers quickly.) “Well, I guess you’ll just have to come up with $10,000, John.”
Jack: “Ha! I’m getting you a new Volvo.”
Felicia (sweetly): “Why not just get a new wife?”
Jack (eyes rolling heavenward): “Did you ever feel a rich full-bodied mixture of love and hate?”
Felicia (giggling): “Your ears are dirty.”
Felicia (throatily): “But interesting.”
Jack grabs her and bites her neck.
Director Billy Wilder, a 72-year-old six-foot elf in a Tyrolean beanie, is doing a remake of The Front Page, with screenplay by himself and “Izzy” Diamond. Lemmon, facing the camera in his snappy ’20s suit, stands under glaring lights in a grimy replica of the pressroom in Chicago’s City Hall. “Now Jack!” Wilder bellows. “When this kid says he met you in a men’s room, look puzzled—like me trying to remember Peter Bogdanovich.”
Three takes later, Wilder concedes, “I’m getting to like it.”
“Too bad,” Jack says sympathetically. “Because we both know these lines are unusable as written.”
“It’s a problem,” Wilder sighs to the cameraman. “Either you photograph Lemmon through a wet mattress or you put the camera faaaar away.”
Lemmon bridles. “You’re getting awful pushy, Bill, speaking like that to The Winner.”
“What God has given,” Wilder says piously, “God can take away. Be careful. You may be sent to Dachau to make a picture with Otto Preminger.”
“I should get so lucky,” Lemmon answers wistfully.
Lemmon and Wilder keep the set in an uproar and the work going at a gallop. Lemmon performs with fierce energy and concentration, rarely fluffing, snatching up Wilder’s suggestions and folding them seamlessly into his role but always adding a nuance of his own. Two hours later Wilder jabs his head into Lemmon’s dressing room. “Two pages we shot,” he says excitedly, “in 46 seconds screen time! For me it’s a record!” Lemmon looks up, nodding vaguely as he mutters lines. He is hard at work on the next scene and couldn’t care less about the last.
“For a director, Lemmon is a very seductive actor,” says Wilder. “There is so much talent, you are tempted to use it every second. He can drag you with him like a runaway horse. You have to ration him. I squeeze that Lemmon sparingly.”
An intelligent, conscious actor, Lemmon never makes a move without a reason but usually discovers the reason after the move. He works mainly from instinct. Like an athlete, he lets his body lead his mind. Lemmon’s fault is that he sometimes trusts his body too much. In sappy parts he turns off his mind and lets his body produce the grins and gapes and double-takes that are known as “the Lemmon shtik.” But Lemmon’s best work shows a strong, consistent point of view. “His take on reality is unique,” says Wilder, “very different from Brando’s but just as original.”
Brando, the tragic hero, presents life as transcendence. Lemmon, the comic hero, shows life as frustration. Brando is a man against the sky, Lemmon is a man with his foot stuck in a bucket running for a bus that will take him to a job he doesn’t like. In farce or drama, situations of frustration release in Lemmon a terrific intensity. They seem to express a pain he can relieve in no other way. “Acting, for me,” he says, “is what analysis must be for some people. It’s such a terrible self-exposure, such a delicious hell.”
Lemmon is slumped in an old wicker chair on the sun deck of his $170,000 beach house in Trancas, sipping red wine and puffing a Jamaican Macanudo. He is trying to relax but he can’t. After a hard week on the set, he is grey with fatigue and on top of that Felicia has just torn a strip off him for letting the press cut into their weekend. The New England conscience is churning out gobs of guilt.
“What the hell am I doing with all this?” he asks nervously. “Nobody deserves this much money, certainly not an actor. It’s a little embarrassing. I feel I’ve got to give something back. Some of the pictures I’ve made, I was just goofing off. I can’t do that any more. I want to make pictures that excite me, try to raise the level a little. I’m very high on the movie I just finished, The Prisoner of Second A venue. This summer I’m going to do a stage production of Juno and the Paycock with Walter Matthau. And Felicia and I are buying the rights to a very heavy novel, At Play In the Fields of the Lord. Hell, I know I’m not a great artist, but I do want to be the very best I can be. I want…”
Lemmon stops short. In Boston it is bad form to make speeches about oneself. “I want,” he finishes with a wry little grin, “to visit the biffy. But at my age,” he adds thoughtfully as he disappears toward the lavatory, “all the kidneys produce is a little dust.”