Billy Wilder’s favorite ham looks back on a career of playing loveable losers at a 1975 tribute.
Last summer, the Neighborhood Theater Foundation screened Some Like It Hot in Dolores Park. The lawn was packed with the typical Mission District crowd: big groups of twentysomethings picnicking and drinking, which is to say, an audience whose parents were hardly their age when the 1959 film was released. One could only wonder how well the film had aged over the years. After all, aging well is one measure of good comedy and unusually rare. But the movie killed, and the crowd was hooting and hollering as Jack Lemmon, its star, hides from the mob by dressing in drag. It’s an amazing performance.
Although he’d appeared in It Should Happen to You (alongside Judy Holliday) in 1954 and he won an Oscar for his role in Mister Roberts in 1955, perhaps Lemmon’s most memorable work was his cross-dressing Jerry in Some Like It Hot. He went on to win one more Academy Award (for Save the Tiger in 1973).
In 1975, Lemmon attended the 19th San Francisco International Film Festival for a retrospective tribute to his versatile and impressive career at the Palace of Fine Arts. As with most tributes, the Festival screened two hours of Lemmon clips from 20 movies, after which Lemmon participated in a lengthy and lively Q&A.
“I’ve always been drawn to contemporary characters,” he said. “Perhaps that’s why audiences find them identifiable and therefore consider them average joes.” Indeed, from 1960’s The Apartment (one of several performances in Billy Wilder-directed films) 1962’s The Days of Wine and Roses (“My name is Joe C., and I am an alcoholic”) to his role as a cop turned pimp alongside Shirley MacLaine in 1963’s Irma la Douce to his classic role as Felix Unger with his friend Walter Matthau in 1968’s The Odd Couple, Lemmon became an empathetic, scene-stealing actor, capable of doing drama just as well as comedy. His filmography is studded with must-see American movies.
It’s worth noting, as many journalists did in 1975, that although Lemmon shared the screen with some of the movies’ biggest stars and best actors—Marilyn Monroe, Walter Matthau, Shirley MacLaine, Judy Holliday, Henry Fonda, Tony Curtis and more—it’s Lemmon’s performances that stick.
“I prefer doing drama,” Lemmon told the San Francisco crowd. “A lot of people don’t realize to make good comedy, it has to be a drama. In other words, a comedy isn’t a comedy if you try to make it one. You have to be serious to make it funny.”
Lemmon, of course, talked at length about Some Like It Hot, for which he was nominated for an Oscar, explaining that the studio didn’t even want to make the movie. “The word in Hollywood was that Billy Wilder had lost his marbles to even consider making it. I wasn’t the first choice for the film by a long shot. The studio wanted Frank Sinatra. I didn’t have a big name in those days, and the studio thought the only way to salvage it was with big stars. A lot of them turned it down because of having to play 90 percent in drag. But I accepted immediately because I didn’t know any better and, needless to say, I’ve never been sorry.”
Lemmon won a Best Actor Oscar for his dramatic performance in 1973’s Save the Tiger, as a desperate businessman who winds up setting his own factory on fire. “I felt furthest from that character than any I’ve ever done,” he said. “I wanted to do the role because I felt that I understood Harry Stoner, and the film made a strong statement—a year before Watergate—about the kind of society we live in that has lost its morals, it ethical guidelines.”
Lemon also expressed a frustration with the studio system—a frustration that seems to have as much staying power as his performances. “It seems to me that studio opposition is often a significant reverse straw in the wind. Save the Tiger is a perfect example. We all worked for the bare minimum on that film because nobody wanted to touch it. The studios felt that the movie audience, which is preponderantly young, wouldn’t want to see a film about a middle-aged businessman’s ethical and financial problems. But we were right. The young people did come to see it because it was about their fathers and the erosion of moral standards in this society.”
Lemmon was born John Uhler Lemmon III in 1925 in Newton, Massachusetts and attended Phillips Academy before Harvard University, where he was president of the Hasty Pudding Club. After a stint as an officer in the Navy, Lemmon decided to pursue an acting career, working mostly in those early days on radio, television and the stage.
He went on to work with some of the biggest names in the business, and, at the tribute, Lemmon was happy to dish. “Shirley MacLaine hated to rehearse at all. She also had a bad habit of ad-libbing. That didn’t sit too well with Billy Wilder who would spend a year on a script and didn’t like hear new words. . . . I loved Marilyn [Monroe], but it was difficult to work with her. She acted at you, not with you. If a scene wasn’t going her way, she would stop. She had a built-in alarm system, so she would determine when to stop a take.”
Lemmon also talked about his good friend and longtime collaborator Walter Matthau, saying that his “full potential hasn’t yet been tapped.”
Although perhaps not a conventional sex symbol, Lemmon did show skin in Avanti! (another Wilder collaboration), creating a minor stir. “It’s fairly common now to run around bare-assed as we say in the trade. The scene I was in was in the behavior of the character and was basically funny. Not enticing or erotic. In the first review I read on Avanti!, they commented on my rear and said it had a tremendous blush, a brilliant crimson. My blush was described in great length in Newsweek, so I stopped reading after that.”
Of course, Lemmon’s career didn’t end in 1975, and he went on to perform in dozens of classics, including JFK, Short Cuts, Glengary Glen Ross and Grumpy Old Men. In addition to his two Oscars, Lemmon was nominated six other times for Best Actor over the years for roles in a range of films, including The Apartment in 1960, Days of Wine and Roses in 1962, The China Syndrome in 1979, Tribute in 1980 and Missing in 1982. He was the first to win Oscars for both Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor.
But perhaps what outshines all the awards and accolades is Lemmon’s reputation as a good and decent man. Back at the 1998 Golden Globe Awards, Ving Rhames won the award over Lemmon for Best Actor in a Made for TV Movie. Rhames famously called Lemmon up to the stage and gave him the award instead. Actor Kevin Spacey has also said he would always remember Lemmon encouraging him to pursue acting as a career. Of course, the two later teamed up to deliver one of the most memorable scenes in Glengarry Glen Ross.
Lemmon left the Palace of Fine Arts stage to a standing ovation, an upsurge of praise and admiration not unlike what the audience in Dolores Park felt at the closing credits to Some Like It Hot.