As far as I’m concerned all of you proto swingers can hang with the Rat Pack for as long as you like, if I had my choice, I would have loved to have partied with Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon. It’s hard to know what is or isn’t true in Hollywood until someone’s been dead for a while, but it seems like these two guys were always laughing when they were together, and yet it never for a second seemed fake or staged. How cool would it be to really have that best friend who is humble, your biggest fan, and enjoyable enough to be around that you’d do your best to work with him time and again. Both those guys seemed that lucky, and never failed for a second to point it out.
Lemmon’s death really came as a surprise to me. Matthau’s passing had been so expected that Howard Stern had been betting on it for months, but you never heard a word from anyone that Lemmon was ill. Maybe it shouldn’t be surprising that Lemmon’s death came so soon after Matthau’s almost the way you see old married couples where one can’t bear to be around without the other. The way Elvis never had any will to live any longer than his mother had.
I’m not saying that this justifies “Grumpier Old Men” or “The Odd Couple II,” but aside from Henry Fonda and Jimmy Stewart has there ever been two more talented and decent guys around who weren’t boring?
The thing that I find amazing about Lemmon is that he was actually able to pull off the elusive feat that Jim Carrey dreams about and Jerry Lewis apologists work way too hard trying to prove. He went from playing silly comedy to intense drama without anyone ever for a moment suggesting that he couldn’t do it. Check Lemmon out in “Mr. Roberts” as Ensign Pulver. He’s in a completely different universe from low key good guys Henry Fonda and William Powell. It’s almost as if they were filming War and Peace, while Lemmon is doing Ace Ventura joins the Navy, and yet he never for a moment derails the drama of the movie. When he responds to the news of Roberts’ death by storming in on Jimmy Cagney and bellowing “Captain, it is I, Ensign Pulver, and I want you to know that I just threw your stinkin’ palm tree overboard. Now what’s all this crud about no movie tonight?” it is one of the most liberating and determined moments in the history of American film.
I’m not a huge fan of physical comedy, but check out Lemmon’s Pulver, because I would bet my life that Michael Richards did. Try to watch Pulver’s first accidental meeting with Cagney after having avoided him aboard a war ship for months and see if you don’t see Kramer’s very first entrance into Jerry Seinfeld’s apartment.
In “Some Like It Hot” he actually makes you believe that he is enjoying being hit on by rich men while posing as a woman, and yet in the very next year he pulls off a low key great performance as a meek and lonely office worker in The Apartment. Two years later he was a perfectly credible drunk in The Days of Wine and Roses. Remember when Bill Murray desperately tried to be taken seriously in “The Razor’s Edge.” Lemmon did it and never looked back. By the time he went hyper serious as the ultra pathetic has been Shelly Levine in “Glengarry Glen Ross,” it was hard to ever remember that he was once thought of as a lightweight comedian.
Imagine a guy as talented as Lemmon, who could take over a movie comedically being generous enough to play straight man and second banana in The Fortune Cookie and The Odd Couple. It would be like finding a Robin Williams movie where it wasn’t all about Robin Williams. Jim Carrey may eventually be taken seriously, but I’m willing to bet that he never makes a comedy where his co-star wins an Academy Award for best actor like Matthau did in the Fortune Cookie.
There have been a ton of talented people who have passed across our peripheral vision but finding one that was a decent generous guy that you’d want to hang with is like winning the lottery. Bill Murray is always a riot when he plays in the Pebble Beach Pro Am golf tournaments, but the truly cool story was Jack Lemmon year after year just trying to make the cut. Year after year he’d be there and year after year without anger or venom he’d assure you that he’d be back the next year where he’d surely be more fortunate. Somewhere along the way you had to know he was never going to make it, but it almost seems heroic that he kept on trying.
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