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Jack Lemmon's sweet misfits of life


© St. Petersburg Times, published July 1, 2001

The tributes to the late Jack Lemmon concentrated on his comedies, especially his hilariously odd couplings with Walter Matthau.

The tributes to the late Jack Lemmon concentrated on his comedies, especially his hilariously odd couplings with Walter Matthau.

Fair enough, but not a complete argument for why Lemmon, who died Wednesday at 76, was the finest actor of his generation.

That statement could rile fans of Brando, Steiger or any other aging Method thespians. Lemmon simply didn't seem to work as hard on his portrayals. He wasn't a man of a thousand faces, or even that many accents. All he had, all he needed, and what so many actors lack, was a malleable screen persona marked by tics and tricks that never got stale.

Think of great male movie stars -- from Gable and Bogart to Eastwood and Nicholson -- and their trademark facial traits. Most of those squints and smiles come from confident, assertive men one step ahead of everyone else. Lemmon's characters were typically one step behind; watching him catch up was the fun part. More like our own rat races, instead of heroes with the world in their pockets.

Lemmon never played a true villain because nobody would believe it. Sure, there was that moustache-twirling role in The Great Race, and all degrees of jerks. But those morally or socially flawed characters Lemmon played only got that way by having no other choice. Their own decency didn't get them what they wanted, and villainy was beyond their limit.

In comedies such as The Apartment and Some Like It Hot, the line between adoring and dismissing Lemmon's characters is razor-thin. There was always something appealing about their duplicity. In dramas, the dynamics were reversed; Lemmon's nice-guy image made viewers search for redeeming qualities, giving vast benefits of doubt to despicable characters.

Why shouldn't we reserve judgment on these people when they seem so unsure of themselves? Many of Lemmon's best lines were delivered at breakneck speed, yet with the sputter of a man instantly second-guessing himself.

The typical Lemmon character would walk into a scene, unaware of what would occur, yet already calmly apprehensive of what would no doubt be one more disappointment in his life. Just to see that initial hesitation told more backstory than a reel of flashbacks.

These portrayals aren't accidents, but the result of an actor who considered much more about a character than he showed on screen. Even though Lemmon had read the screenplay, of course, there was a sense that he was stumbling on the next twist at the same time as the people he portrayed.

All of this unfolding knowledge would be released by the Lemmon look, a signature expression propelling his roles to the next laugh or tear. It always emerged in the midst of his rattling on about something.

Lemmon's character could be distracted for an instant, then return to focus with the intrusion -- a wisecrack or new information -- still processing in his mind.

For all of his stammered line readings, the Lemmon moments that count came when he finally stopped talking. Intrusion snapped back into focus, a fresh realization derailing his runaway train of thought, his face brightened by an imaginary lightbulb clicking on over his head. The Lemmon look.

From there, the actor could go anywhere, from Central Park, where George Kellerman breaks a tooth on Cracker Jack before a job interview in The Out-of-Towners, to Latin America, where Ed Horman can't deny his son's fate any longer in Missing. It's the expression Ensign Pulver flashed before dumping the captain's palm tree overboard in Mister Roberts, same as Shelley Levene smelling a set-up in Glengarry Glen Ross.

From that look, Lemmon's face could melt into the look of a suitor who doesn't need to try hard any more. Or else a schemer hatching one more plot. Everything sprang from that sudden expression of comprehension.

The actor was at his dramatic best when his character finally realized what was going on and couldn't do anything about it. The happy-go-lucky audience rapport established by his comedies made the actor's tragedies even more heartbreaking.

Listen to Harry Stoner's wistful desperation in Save the Tiger, begging to walk in one more rain, the kind that doesn't wash away perfume. Or Jack Godell's conscience speaking out in The China Syndrome. Watch Joe Clay's greenhouse rampage looking for a drink in Days of Wine and Roses. Lemmon played dying characters as well as anyone, but he excelled at misfits who might wish to be put out of their misery.

They're as vital to Lemmon's posterity as those comedic misfits who made our miseries seem less significant, from grumpy old John Gustafson to the quintessential primp, Felix Unger in The Odd Couple.

Most movie stars are who we want to be. With one look, Jack Lemmon was who we are.

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