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Jack Lemmon - Unstrung Hero

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By Kerry Reid

Ten years ago, in the throes of post-collegiate angst and romantic heartbreak, (not to mention Chicago's ghastly summer humidity, which, for the uninitiated, is akin to living in somebody's mouth (Eth) close, damp, smelly and oppressive), I sought solace in an air-conditioned rep movie house and saw Billy Wilder's The Apartment for the first time. That evening marked the beginning of my fascination with Jack Lemmon--the nervous conscience of post-World War II America. Prior to that night, I just thought of him as a pretty funny actor that my parents liked a lot. After, I saw him as the quintessence of American experience, distilled into acting that was pure, vulnerable, distinctive, and unerringly on-target.

Lemmon's characters capture the truth of living in 20th-century dissonance in a way few others do. From the trickster Ensign Pulver in Mr. Roberts to the cross-dressing musician in Some Like It Hot to the yes-man learning to say "no" to "the old payola" offered by Fred MacMurray's corporate king, Lemmon's earliest characters offer a cross-section of survival techniques for a capricious and callow age.

That night, I wrote in my journal "Where does one find a young Jack Lemmon today?" The answer today is the same I gave then: Nowhere. One could reasonably argue that we don't have any directors on par withWilder, or any screenwriters with the wit and depth of I.A.L. Diamond, either, and I wouldn't disagree. But who else besides Lemmon could embody the venality and romanticism, yearning and cynicism, of C.C. "Bud" Baxter in equally moving measure? Tom Hanks may be our generation's Jimmy Stewart, but the palpable, barely-controlled edginess of a man who's had it with being the nice guy and getting screwed over for his troubles is absent from most film actors today. (Unless you want to count Michael Douglas' chrome-plated gallery of put-upon white guys. Please don't.)

Lemmon also has that rarest of gifts in an actor: the ability to be ironic without being sarcastic, something I appreciate more and more as snark-meisters like David Spade are hailed for their "ironic" wit. Witness the scene in The Apartment, when an unenthusiastic Baxter is picking up a fellow Christmas Eve barfly. When she asks "My place or yours?," he replies "Might as well go to mine. Everybody else does." The masterful way Lemmon underplays the line speaks volumes about the degree of hopeless resignation his character is experiencing.

As I sat down to write this, Bravo, the cable arts channel, was re-running the 1970 Neil Simon comedy, The Out-of-Towners. A transformation in my admiration for Lemmon has occurred over the years.Whereas, years ago, I wanted to date someone like a young Lemmon, I now found myself identifying with the middle-aged George Kellerman. Like him, I've wanted to stand in the middle of the street and yell "I'm a person! And a person is stronger than a city!" (or a corporation, or a presidential administration, or a state bureaucracy, or any of the other faceless monolithic entities driving the hamster-wheels of society.) So, OK, I may have a touch of Tourette's Syndrome. But I'm thankful that Jack Lemmon's characters are around to show us that anyone who doesn't have a partial case of psychic Tourette's has effectively entered the world of the living dead.

"There is no such thing as the world's greatest actor," Lemmon once said. "But I do think there are a lot of wonderful actors who, given the right part at the right moment in their life, can give you a performance that no other actor can duplicate." Lemmon has forever earned my affection for giving more unduplicated moments of greatness than any living actor I can think of. BS

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