We Knew Jack

Lemmon's legacy lives on in far-flung video canon

Easily the best performance in the last year's wheezy The Legend of Bagger Vance was by the drawly, plainspoken J. Michael Moncrief, a boy with an old man's face, as the local kid who idolized Matt Damon and helped Will Smith caddy. The same character, as an adult, also narrated the film from a modern-day frame. He was played in these scenes -- the second-best acting in the film -- by Jack Lemmon, an old man with a boy's face.

Lemmon's uncredited cameo in Bagger Vance appears to have been his last screen acting, alas. Perhaps the perennial youthfulness of that face is part of why the news of Lemmon's death last week, at 76, was such a jolt -- as many times as he had looked hurt and yet come back to suffer again in the next movie, you'd have thought he would never die.

By the time you read this, you will already most likely have endured innumerable fulsome tributes to the actor. Turner Classic Movies and American Movie Classics will probably have pre-empted regular programming to show some of Lemmon's highlights. Cable documentaries will have been unearthed and rerun, magazine covers will display his smiling mug.

You'll get no argument here to all this tribute. Lemmon had his detractors (as an actor, that is; as a human being he seems to have been loved by all) -- there were critics who thought him hammy, telegraphic. But his best work -- and there's a lot of it to choose from -- doesn't support this opinion. The emotional nakedness of his performances, both comic and serious, simply doesn't seem false no matter how many times you watch them, and no matter how much you may recognize the light-footed skill and precision of the technique supporting them.

Unlike many other leading men, Lemmon had no interest in looking cool and seeming in control. He delighted in roles that allowed him to play frazzled, frantic, scared, aggrieved, perplexed, and his specialty, to quote King Lear (a part he had wished to play), was characters "more sinned against than sinning." He didn't forget his wit in heavy drama; conversely, when he was playing for laughs, he always seemed to on the edge of poignancy. Though the two men had nearly opposite styles, Lemmon may have been the most likable sad clown the American cinema has produced since Buster Keaton.

If you want to do your own Lemmon Festival, here are some rental suggestions: Start with the heavy stuff -- most obviously, his acclaimed turns in The Days of Wine and Roses, The China Syndrome and Missing. He's even good in the movie for which he won his Best Actor Oscar, Save the Tiger, though the film hasn't aged especially well. Less obvious choices, maybe, are his potent monologues in Robert Altman's flawed Short Cuts, or his stunning turn in the 1992 film of Glengarry Glen Ross, in which Lemmon does, perhaps, his best screen acting. In the final moments of Glengarry, as the trapped, defeated real-estate salesman Shelley "The Machine" Levene, Lemmon attains a level of desperation and agony that are so believable as to be almost unwatchable. Watch it. Follow these up with some comedies. The obvious ones include Some Like It Hot, Irma la Douce, The Out-of-Towners, The Apartment, Avanti! and his Oscar-winning turn in Mister Roberts, as well as his curiously dark, troubling Felix Ungar in The Odd Couple. Most of his other teamings with his longtime costar and crony Walter Matthau -- who died almost exactly a year ago -- warrant another look, too. Especially in comedy, Lemmon could shine in even lackluster films, like the slovenly Grumpy Old Men -- pay attention to how he inflects the "I hit the cans again!" in that film, or to his riotous muttering of the simple phrase "What the hell . . .?" as he is awakened by noise. There aren't many actors who can bring their line readings that kind of imagination, of delicacy, of originality.

 
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