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Dreaming of Jack Lemmon

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By MARY JO MELONE

© St. Petersburg Times,
published July 1, 2001


No man who tried to impress me by making me dinner drained the spaghetti with his tennis racket.

No man mistook the sound of my popping a champagne cork for the sound of a gun going off and came bounding up to the steps to rescue me from suicidal distress.

These gestures beat roses any day of the week.

They explain why Jack Lemmon appeared not just in movies like The Apartment -- where the tennis racket did double duty as a colander and the sound of a popping champagne cork could be misunderstood -- but in my dreams.

Don't you tell me he's dead. Not my C.C. Baxter.

People called him (and what else would they call him?) Bud. He was a clerk at an enormous New York insurance agency. Married men -- Bud was not one -- played around as they always have, but the office computers worked only on punch cards. Girls got paid to run elevators but they fell in love with rats as they always have. And guys like Baxter, never a rat a day in his life, wanted to succeed. So Bud lent his apartment key to his married boss so the boss had a place to make love to the elevator girl while Bud slept on a park bench and caught cold.

That is the plot of The Apartment. It was the Best Picture of 1960. Jack Lemmon played Bud Baxter. Shirley MacLaine played Fran Kubelik, the elevator girl. Fred MacMurray played the rat.

Bud gets Fran. In the greatest declaration of love ever on screen, Bud tries to tell Fran over a hand of gin rummy in that sorry apartment.

"I love you, Miss Kubelik," he says.

She pretends not to hear. He implores her. "Did you hear what I said? I absolutely adore you."

Fran, still pretending not to hear, replies, "Shut up and deal."

I always cry at this point, the movie's last lines.

I have seen Harrison Ford in the dark with most of his clothes off, but he will never do for me what Jack Lemmon did.

The tributes coming in call him Everyman. When you are a woman, this idea has particular meaning.

Everyman is wise to the world and scared the world is wise to him.

He sometimes comes in second, sometimes third, even when he knocks himself out, which he usually does.

But he also cuts corners. This he confesses to no one, unless he's drunk.

His upper arms are not what he thinks they should be.

Neither is his middle.

He has been known, more often than now and then, to look at women not his wife.

You would never call him handsome, and certainly not heroic.

Lumpishly and warmly ordinary is as precise as I can get.

That was Bud Baxter, and Bud Baxter became my idea of a man. It just took me years to grasp this about myself, and him.

Beyond the movie theater, two kinds of men existed -- the pretty ones who never wanted a girl like me, and the others who I concluded must not be worth having if they did want me.

Fran Kubelik was like that. "Why can't I ever fall in love with somebody nice like you?" she asks Bud early on in the movie.

"Yeah, well, that's the way it crumbles, cookie-wise," replies Bud, no fool to how bad his bad luck runs. But he never quits hoping that Fran will wise up. If only she knew. He thinks he's a loser the way she thinks she's a loser. The only person who doesn't think Fran is a loser is Bud.

I carried this idea of Bud Baxter to every Jack Lemmon movie I've seen. Mister Roberts. The China Syndrome. The Odd Couple. I carried Bud Baxter through the rest of my life, although I had to kiss a few rats before I understood.

So excuse me. I get weepy over the ending of this one, too. Jack Lemmon is gone and I never got to say, "I love you, too, Mr. Baxter."

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