The art and insight of Jack Lemmon

Jack Lemmon reached a peak in his career almost unnoticed by the millions who knew him only through films like "Some Like It Hot" - No. 1 in the American Film Institute's list of 100 funniest films.

That peak was a speech on stage in Eugene O'Neill's tragedy "Long Day's Journey Into Night." Lemmon was applauded for the conviction he brought to a character's bitter confession of destroying a career by sacrificing artistic attainment for popular acclaim.

The cry seems almost quaint today in the face of some performers' apparent quest for popularity at any price. But O'Neill knew the conflict was perennial. Lemmon's own vast popularity was not bought by abandoning art, but rather by using the art that conceals art. He was a young pro before he was an old pro, and he treated as a professional even the trifling flicks among the more than 60 movies he made.

Since his passing last week, commentators have been counting the ways Lemmon succeeded or sometimes fell short of his best.

Forgive a personal note on the celebrations of Lemmon's life a dozen years after he had already received the American Film Institute Life Achievement Award:

John U. Lemmon III was just a class behind me at Harvard. How did I know he was Jack Lemmon? He was president of the Hasty Pudding Club for student theatricals. I was an off-Pudding undergraduate playing Lady Fidget in "The Country Wife." A dozen years later, Lemmon reached the pinnacle of drag as a musician dressed to escape the mob in "Some Like It Hot" (1959).

Lemmon had already won an Oscar for "Mister Roberts." He was known around the world even before "The Odd Couple," another on the AFI funniest list, came out in 1968. I remember Irish factory workers laughing when a fellow visitor winked at them, pointed at me, and mouthed "Jack Lemmon, Jack Lemmon." Our slight resemblance only grew in his later phase of grumpy-old-men roles.

But enough about me.

What would Jack have thought about my Lady Fidget? Sorry, that's a variation on a line about music attributed to George Gershwin. He came to mind now, because Lemmon never seemed happier than when playing Gershwin tunes on the piano. He won an Emmy in 1972 for a TV show on Gershwin.

Lemmon was a consummate farceur. Sometimes the comic material flickered with innuendo, but Lemmon somehow kept what was unsavory in proportion with a usually hapless character's efforts to be less hapless.

But he knew he could play drama as well as comedy. When the serious roles came along - "Days of Wine and Roses," "Save the Tiger," "Missing," "The China Syndrome" - he showed he could enlist his art and insight for characters grappling with frailty, injustice, deception.

One could use a Harvard thesis to detail the Lemmon years. They represent the human comedy rather than special effects.

Roderick Nordell is a retired Monitor writer and editor.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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