|Al-Ahram Weekly Online
5 - 11 July 2001
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875||Current issue | Previous issue | Site map|
Some like it 'lemmon'!
Stressful as it is for this pen to mourn, week after week, the passing of a major figure in the entertainment world, this mega-star's death cannot, in all good conscience, be overlooked. A gross oversight it would be indeed, not to eulogise this consummate perfectionist, symbol of all that is fine and refined in the world of spark and sparkle, called Show Business.
Boston native, John Uhler Lemmon, was to the manor born. Son of affluent parents, his father president of a doughnut company, his mother an affable socialite, Jack attended the finest New England prep schools, all the way to the prestigious Harvard. Unknowingly and ironically, his father launched his son's acting career, when he volunteered Jack's efforts in an amateur stage production. Jack was only four. He discovered in himself a passion for acting, which remained puissant until his death, last week, at 76.
Jack often said: "I don't know when I was not an actor." In almost half a century, and almost 50 films, he fashioned with care, a distinguished and brilliant career that only few can match. His name was associated with quality and we were conditioned to expect nothing less. As a young boy, school chums often teased Jack because of his name, Jack-U-Lemmon! He would not change it to appease the Hollywood types, but proceeded to prove he was no "lemon". On graduating from Harvard, Jack headed for New York, N.Y., with $300 in his pocket and a million dreams in his head. He was to fulfil every one of his dreams, and then some.
He landed his first job at a beer-hall, playing the piano, a self-taught skill, in which he excelled. In a few short years he covered the gamut, from radio, TV, Off-Broadway and Broadway, and off to Hollywood, in 1954 where he appeared in 4 films, two with the zany Judy Holliday. A year later he was cast in Mervyn Le Roy's, Mister Roberts with Henry Fonda, James Cagney, and William Powell, enough to frighten any green novice. Not Lemmon! He walked away with his first Oscar. It was the beginning of a staggering eight academy nominations. Only Spencer Tracy and Laurence Olivier received more nods; and very recently Jack Nicholson.
Beneath his simple, calm demeanor, a raging giant lay within, ready to explode. His on-screen nemesis, and off-screen buddy, Walter Matthau, described his friend as having "quiet hysteria, seeping out of every pore". A proto-typical American, his average boyish looks were not romantic lead material. He mainly portrayed the character humorist who seldom got the 'girl'. In Some Like it Hot, 1959, his most beloved and most popular film, he did however, get 'the boy'. Who can resist a chuckle as both 'boy' and 'boy' drive off in the sunset? This was the first in a long list of collaborations with the, exceptional and versatile, Austrian-born director, Billy Wilder. For Wilder "Happiness is working with Lemmon". For us, happiness is watching Lemmon's work.
'It's hard enough to write a good drama, it's much harder to write a good comedy, and it's hardest of all to write a drama with comedy.Which is what life is.' -- Jack Lemon--
A thinking actor, Lemmon had a penchant for the challenging and unpredictable. He picked his scripts wisely, and his directors even more wisely. He had the gift of bringing alive the neurotic, frenzied character with all its anxieties. He divided his talent equally between comedy and drama, achieving great heights in both ranges.
His screen persona of the hapless, downtrodden, ordinary man, victim of his own inadequacies, was one we could all identify with. Like a ballet dancer he tiptoed around life's pitfalls with grace and good nature. The renowned film critic Judith Crist called him the Chaplin of our time - "Lemmon's everyman has become the clown of the Age of Anxiety". In a profusion of comedic and dramatic portrayals, Lemmon left an indelible impression on celluloid. He won his second Oscar for the emotionally charged Save the Tiger, 1973, becoming the first actor in Academy history to win in both supporting and leading categories.
In half a century of stardom, averaging a film a year, Lemmon was as selective as he was meticulous. He only settled for the crème de la crème. Shirley Maclaine, his friend and screen partner in The Apartment and Irma la Douce, deeply saddened by his loss cried: "We have lost a profound master of emotional canvas-painting. Name the feeling, he could paint it, with himself as the brush". He gauged the strength and frailties of the human heart and brought grace and dignity to characters, when they lacked both grace and dignity.
A gentleman, as well as a genteel man, he was much loved and admired by his peers. His very manner was a lesson to his fellow actors; a lesson in honesty, geniality and politeness. His peers rewarded him with accolades and awards that would fill pages. The Empire Magazine of the UK voted him number 47 in "The Top 100 Movie Stars of All Time". They hailed him as an American icon. In spite of his typical American 'genre' his appeal extended beyond the confines of his geographic perimeter.
If Karma applies, this life of his was of a higher state, bordering on nirvana. It was as near perfect a life and a career as it can ever get. He did not tempt fate and fate did not mess with him, a condition so rare in the hills and valleys of a town named Hollywood. Rarer still are the likes of Jack U. Lemmon. He may not have been Prince Charming on the screen, but he was indeed a Prince among men.
What school did he belong to? His very own. The school of perfect pitch, pathos, and timing. Reflecting on his career Lemmon wrote "It's hard enough to write a good drama, it's much harder to write a good comedy, and it's hardest to write a drama with comedy. And that is what life is!". This perfect blend that makes us laugh wholeheartedly with a lump in our throat and tears dancing in our eyes, defines the Lemmon essence.
His father, who disapproved of his only son's choice of career, eventually conceded and gave him this advice - "Go out and spread some sunshine". Like the dutiful son that he was, he did just that.
As the curtain descends on this beloved clown, we doff our hats and bow our heads in reverence and gratitude. Goodnight Sweet Prince. We thank you for the rapture of moments divine, we thank you for your gentle grace and gentle humour, and above all we thank you for the 'sunshine'!
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