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Film Essay

Grief and Jack Lemmon

What does it mean to save the tiger? Scale your hurt and loss with things you can help, knowing that somewhere out there, you’ve done something that matters. Or is it the promise that you’ve done something that matters that supersedes the results?

***

 The first time Jack Lemmon won an Oscar was for his supporting role in Mister Roberts (which still isn’t even remembered as much as his other big films), the second for his leading role in Save the Tiger. In both films, he’s not paired with his usual stock, he’s almost alone. No Tony Curtis, no Walter Matthau, no Judy Holliday, no Shirley MacLaine. It’s no mistake that most of the films you remember Jack Lemmon by also star any of his frequent collaborators, but his Oscar wins eschew this great legacy, his ability to collaborate so generously with others, in favor of his isolated talent. Of course he could stand on his own, but that’s not what made Jack Lemmon great, or what we remember him by.

When you think about Jack Lemmon, Save the Tiger is not the first film that comes to mind. The Apartment, Some Like it Hot, The Odd Couple, Grumpy Old Men (one or two), or if you’re like me: The Prisoner of Second Avenue, It Should Happen to You, Days of Wine and Roses, The Great Race. When you think about Jack Lemmon, you think about Billy Wilder, or if you’re like me: Richard Quine and Blake Edwards. When you think about Jack Lemmon, you think of an old pro, a master, one they just don’t make like anymore. Or if you’re like me: a confidant, a kind man, a friend.

***

My cousin died two weeks ago. We were never exactly close, but growing up I always lived about fifteen minutes from my uncle’s, her father’s house. She was thirteen when I was born, and I’ve only ever seen a few photos of me as a baby and her as a young teenager, together. After that it was random Thanksgivings, maybe a few Christmases when both of us were younger. Then it was my mom and my brothers and I taking care of her child. Then it was her memorial service. I’ve never known anyone in my family to die before, and I almost didn’t go to her service. I asked my dad if he needed me to be there, as it was his older brother who’d lost his child, and he said yes. So I went.

One of those photos from me as a baby, her as a young teenager, was shown in a slideshow, accompanied by one of those modern worship songs. “Hosanna, Hosanna, Hosanna in the highest”— it’s our new house in Colorado, it’s my brother and I as kids, it’s mom and dad as thirty-somethings, it’s our old dogs, it’s my aunts and my uncle, it’s my cousins who I never see anymore (or haven’t since the day that photo was taken). “Hosanna, Hosanna, Hosanna in the highest” — it’s my younger brothers, now three of them, on the couch with her. “Lord, we lift up your name, with our hearts full of praise” — it’s a her thick eyeliner and flat-ironed blonde hair that makes her look like Evan Rachel Wood, a photo that was surely used for her MySpace profile back in the day. “Be exalted, O Lord, my God” — it’s her with her child, who is beautiful, smart, and bright, who just stopped bouncing up and down on the stage to pick at the fake flowers and watch these photos of his mommy come and go. “Hosanna in the highest!” — it’s a photo of my uncle, who has always reminded me of Spencer Tracy, feeding her a bottle on his lap as a baby. I’ve gotten all of these photos out of order, they really just came chronologically, but this is how I remember my cousin. I didn’t know her as a person, ever, I only knew her through my uncle and my aunt, my brothers, my mom, my dad, the dogs who have all come to pass throughout our family and theirs. Her baby. I didn’t think I needed to go to her memorial service because I didn’t know her, and closer to what I now know as the end, it looked more and more like I never would. But I did need to go, not just because of her, but because of the effort both of our families made in keeping her alive. I don’t need to know the roads she took in her life, why she isolated herself, why I never knew her, because I can see just how much she affected those around her, the weight of her sudden and sad death on my family members who I’d never seen cry until yesterday. It always rocks my world to see the men in my life, sans my three younger brothers, cry. The devastating way Spencer Tracy goes into that good night in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner—that’s what it was like seeing the men in my life cry. It turns your insides to hot mush and fogs up your glasses because you’re breathing through the tears inside of your mask. It makes you want to never leave these people, to prove that you can be good, you can live through them, make them never know loss again. But of course you can never anticipate the ways a life can be cruel, so you just stay by their side, and promise that you’ll live one.

***

Life just doesn’t go right back to normal after you’re in a room with crying, hurt, grieving people. I didn’t try to do anything but stay with my mom and dad yesterday after the service. We struggled to find something to do or watch, but as my mom and I like to joke when we can never settle on a movie: “Let’s just watch Some Like it Hot! Tony Curtis hops from one identity to another, from his impenetrable pursed lips as the respectable “Josephine” to a spot-on Cary Grant accent in ridiculous stolen coke-bottle glasses and sailor suit, faux-millionaire style. Marilyn Monroe is glamorous but soft, with a sparkling vulnerability that melts hearts and moves mountains. Jack Lemmon is lawless, his “Daphne” persona completely eclipses his male ego in the most wonderful, non-threatening and endearing proportions. Fashioning this Daphne after his mother, Jack Lemmon as a woman is insightful and fun, a complete abandon of himself and an homage to a great woman in his life, that’s not exactly profound in presentation, but exciting in its novelty and recklessness. Jack Lemmon was never afraid to jump the shark, and Some Like it Hot is the first real time he fully commits to escalating a role for the sake of our laughter (to Curtis’s question: “Why would a guy wanna marry a guy?” he answers, unwaveringly, “For security!”). There’s also no perfect spectrum of femininity presented by the film, so while Lemmon and Curtis are always somewhat floundering in their female personas, they are never attacking what it means to be a woman, they are simply figuring it out. To me, this is more refreshing than anything. Ultimately, though, lives (their lives) are at stake throughout the film, and while there is so much fun that fills the space in between, once George Raft and his troupe show up at the Hotel del Coronado, there’s that oh shit moment of remembering that these men are on the run for their lives, after all. And of course there’s the bombastic get-away, the reveals, that perfect last line. This trio of fun and mobility, the starry high-life and rush of the 1920s, lends to the wild chase that Some Like it Hot is, and always will be for me. My mom loves it in the way I do, too (she once turned to me while we were watching this film to say, “You know Jack Lemmon is actually kind of a handsome guy”), but it wasn’t the movie we landed on. While Some Like it Hot is a showy escape from an immediate reality, it’s just not an exoneration from blame and the excruciating rat-race of being a person. The film we were looking for? The Great Race.

***

Dedicated to Laurel and Hardy, the magic of The Great Race is its ability to recognize and honor what makes comedy the best medicine. Vaudevillian gags with comic heroes, villains, and stooges are all played out by the hottest stars of the mid-60s: Jack Lemmon, Tony Curtis, Natalie Wood, and Peter Falk pre-Columbo. There’s absolutely no reality to the film. Sure Natalie Wood’s character is a suffragette, sure the film fills the space of a historical event (the real 1908 New York to Paris Race), but Jack Lemmon is a cartoon villain with painted eyebrows and mustache, Peter Falk is his comically persistent henchman who accepts the blame for all of his shortcomings, Tony Curtis is never not wearing white and his eyes and teeth sparkle (literally) in front of the camera. Against all of this, there are constant, unending callbacks to masters of slapstick and famous gags that fill the film with so much frivolity, it’s hard to place any of it in any kind of reality whatsoever. With flimsy rivalries, this cast of characters race from New York to Paris and endure events throughout that force each pairing (Natalie Wood with Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon with Peter Falk) to switch around and come together in the most marvelous ways to champion their circumstances, wherein the goal of finishing the race first doesn’t seem to surface until the very end (when, even as it happens, doesn’t matter much—the real great race is the friends we made along the way). A rematch is demanded because Jack Lemmon’s Professor Fate can’t accept that he won the race under false pretenses, and there is a return to the ridiculous. But was there ever really a break from it, though?

Lemmon and Curtis as Professor Fate and The Great Leslie.

In Some Like it Hot, the break from the ridiculous manifests itself in showers of bullets and terrifying, powerful men. In The Great Race, the break from the ridiculous actually never happens—even before the race starts, the rivalry between Curtis’s Great Leslie and Lemmon’s Professor Fate and Falk’s loyal Max sinks you into this obvious hero-villain tug-of-war, with Wood’s “emancipated woman” Maggie DuBois challenging and entangling the two for her own professional gain. The conflict is silly. Inconsequential, even. As the race itself ends, Lemmon is shouting “I won!” (Falk is echoing “We won!”) and Curtis and Wood embrace in a long-awaited kiss just before the finish line. What even was the race for, then, if not to be won fair-and-square? Between these ends, there’s the travel from New York to the Wild West to the Bering Strait to a fantasy Russian kingdom to Paris, wherein each character is double-crossed, their plans foiled, their bodies thrown around the room, with pie soiling each of their carefully-curated outfits (except for Curtis, who in his crisp white trappings, is immune to it all). Each actor is thrown into a comedy style that continued to become less and less relevant, certainly not what any of them had experience in before. But the remarkable thing? Everyone rises to the occasion. Wood emotes with silent film sensibility, Falk becomes a slapstick maestro, Curtis, like in Some Like it Hot, fastens himself to a machismo persona and never sheds it, and Lemmon, well he does and tries everything. He whips is body around in bizarre cadence, plays the dual role of a boozing prince with remarkable sharpness, and never lets up on his focused, albeit short-sighted goals of destroying The Great Leslie. He’s a character. He’s Professor Fate, not Daphne or Jerry, not Jack Lemmon. He’s the villain of the story who lives in a comically dark, spider-webbed mansion, who has all these resources to create and inevitably destroy wacky contraptions to try and thwart his make-believe enemy, who can’t be grounded in his modern world like all of his other characters, because in The Great Race, reality is second to the race. The forward motion of all of these characters lets the world around them match their chaos, and not the other way around. Their reality is a vaudevillian, silent film-scape, wherein every wrench in their race from one dot on the map to another, is just for laughs. You can choose whether or not you buy it, but it’s much more fun if you do. The perfect film to watch when all you need to do, when all you can do is laugh.

The Great Race is technically a Lemmon-Curtis joint, but it’s really the four-way pairing at the heart of the film that sells its non-reality and vaudevillian homage. It was also his fourth time working with Blake Edwards, who had previously been credited as a writer on Operation Mad Ball, My Sister Eileen, and The Notorious Landlady and had directed Lemmon in Days of Wine and Roses a couple years prior. With his repeat costars, directors, and writers, it doesn’t take much to understand just how much of a team player Jack Lemmon was. Throughout his film career, though, Lemmon never played anyone like Professor Fate before or after The Great Race (you might make a case for his character in Irma La Douce, but I certainly wouldn’t); perhaps his greatest anomaly? Maybe. He looks happy to play a character who is not grounded by his own comic, worldly sensibilities; The Great Race was a break for him from often-taxing characters he played, who always required a bit of him, who always drew from something personal inside of the real Jack Lemmon. It’s tiring to be so much of a person all the time. Professor Fate and The Great Race are a break from all that. For almost three hours, it’s Jack and I who get to live inside of this ridiculous play-world, where nothing is ever so bad that can’t be fixed, cleaned up, or lived through. 

***

In thinking about Save the Tiger, I also think of Days of Wine and Roses. Maybe you would consider The Apartment as Jack Lemmon’s biggest dramatic role, but I always think of Days of Wine and Roses. It’s just different. There’s promise at the end of The Apartment, that you can shut up and deal your way through life, new relationships, new people and jobs. There’s no such promise at the end of Days of Wine and Roses. It’s a story about addiction. I don’t want to, or maybe I can’t, talk about addiction because of my family. But it does mean something to see Jack Lemmon’s character in that film, Joe Clay, champion his addiction, even though it has nasty side effects in the way of destroying his wife, played brilliantly by Lee Remick. He does try to help her, but it’s messy and it’s hard. I won’t talk any more about Days of Wine and Roses, but knowing that that was a film that he did, that he was proud of, means a lot.

To save the tiger means to literally save the tigers. It’s a petition that Jack Lemmon’s character signs during the movie. Tigers and other animals in the wild will return to places of remembered beauty to die, and that’s what Lemmon does throughout Save the Tiger. Tossing that slogan around in my head enough, I’ve bended it into odd iterations of how I remember that movie (which I now can see is very little), and how I think about life. So for me, saving the tiger means to stay alive regardless of how terrible things get. In the film, Jack Lemmon’s character doesn’t commit arson or kill himself or do any of these drastic things he’s (maybe) planned for. (He just sleeps with a younger woman, which is still weird to see Jack Lemmon do, but I digress.) It’s hard to see the men in your life cry. Jack Lemmon isn’t an extension of Spencer Tracy—that hard-to-crack decency that characterizes a lot of good men—like the way uncle and my dad are, he’s a completely singular man in my life. I don’t actually remember if he cries in Save the Tiger, but I know that Jack Lemmon can cry, and he’s on the brink of crying in complete exhaust the entirety of that film. It’s enough to register as strange, to turn my insides into hot mush, to make me cry, too. 

I do hope my cousin is in a better place, and I know that my brothers and I will do damn near anything to make sure her child grows up healthy and strong. So really, saving the tiger is not just a sign, a promise or an effort, but it’s the results, too. Only most of the time, you never live to see the results play out completely. Jack Lemmon died just a little over a month after I was born. What he is to me is all the results, all the proof of what it’s worth to save the tiger. It’s not just about making ‘em laugh, it’s about doing and being something good for other people. Jack Lemmon has championed my grief by showing both integrity and humor in human weakness, living proof that he could be both in it and above it. His navigation is my own, and it’s nice to have a friend.

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