Thursday, March 20, 2014

Chris Lemmon, Hollywood Royalty

What a delightfully different father and son relationship.

His dad wore a dress.  But, even in women's clothing, he still came off as the Everyman.  That was Jack Lemmon's great cinematic quality.

To me, actor/writer Chris Lemmon is Hollywood royalty.  His late father, 2-time Oscar winner Jack Lemmon, got one of his Best Actor Oscar nominations for making us howl with laughter at a man's most desperate situation.  In Billy Wilder's truly classic Some Like It Hot, he's one of two best buddies and musicians.  They're running for their lives from killer gangsters in the 1920s because they witnessed a gangland slaying.  To keep from being recognized and taken out by deadly phallic symbols called "machine guns", they dress like dames and join an all-girl band boarding a train from Chicago to Florida.  Jack Lemmon was Jerry. Tony Curtis was Joe ("Josephine").
As if masquerading as one of the girls in the band to keep from being caught and gunned down isn't enough, Jerry ("Daphne"), is being pursued by a daffy, babe-chasing millionaire well into his AARP years.
My mother will confirm this:  When I was a kid, there were two people I wanted to be like when I grew up.  One was Fred Astaire and the other was Jack Lemmon.  I told Chris Lemmon that when he graciously invited me to his elegant Connecticut home for a podcast interview.  In his sweet memoir about his father, A Twist of Lemmon, there's a photo of him with his dad -- and Fred Astaire.  I'm still jealous of that photo.  For me, Jack Lemmon was a reason to ask my parents if I could go to the movies and use my student discount card for a Saturday matinee.  I didn't care about the movie's plot or the reviews.  If it starred Jack Lemmon, I'd be entertained.  Under the Yum Yum Tree, How to Murder Your Wife,  The Great Race, The April Fools and The Odd Couple all sent me home with a smile on face.

I told Chris that, when I watched his dad's movies on television and on the big screen, there was something specific about him that always connected to me and touched my heart.  For as much as Jack Lemmon made us laugh as he battled some funny working class humiliations, there was a mist of sadness behind the eyes in that sunny face.  You see it in Billy Wilder's other classic, The Apartment, as he plays C.C. "Bud" Baxter.  He's the white collar man moving up in the corporation.  Fran Kubelik (played beautifully by Shirley MacLaine) gives him a lift in the company.  She's an elevator operator.
You see that sadness as lonely, complicated Mr. Baxter gives Miss Kubelik an unexpected Christmas gift.  The gift of life.  He nurses her back to physical and emotional health after a failed suicide attempt in his apartment.  They're two lonely people who work in the same building and for the same company.  They're involved with the same boss.
That sadness is really evident in the shot the breaks my heart every time I see it. It's the last shot in Days of Wines and Roses.  Lemmon gave a devastating dramatic performance as the family man who joins Alcoholics Anonymous and tries to get his wife to do the same.  His last scene brings tears to my eyes every time.  What a brilliant, true performance.  In the memoir, Chris wrote about that sadness and his father's work in Days of Wine and Roses.
The Apartment (1960) and Days of Wine and Roses (1962) brought Jack Lemmon two more Oscar nominations for Best Actor.  In A Twist of Lemmon, Chris wrote honestly and proudly about how his father successfully battled alcoholism and used his experience to help others.  We talked about this in the interview.  My father joined A.A.  It took me years and years before I learned why he drank.  I shared that with Chris to let him know that I, too, had a dad whose drinking could get excessive.

One of the other things we talked about was Jack Lemmon's care for the world around him.  He got involved.  You can see it in his choice of film roles.  They're not all light-hearted comedies.  He took on social issues in dramas like Days of Wine and Roses, Save the Tiger (for which he won Best Actor of 1973), Missing (Oscar nomination for Best Actor of 1982) and his cameo appearance in Oliver Stone's JFK.  His Oscar nomination for Best Actor of 1979 came for the nuclear plant danger drama, The China Syndrome.  In this, he was a longtime employee for whom the job at the plant was like the spouse he didn't have.  He loved that job.  Then, when approached by a local news reporter, he must choose between social conscience and corporate loyalty when a plant mishap could put millions of lives in danger.

The box office hit film, co-starring Michael Douglas and Jane Fonda, was released shortly before America's real-life Three Mile Island crisis.  A partial nuclear meltdown happened at the plant located in Pennsylvania.  Three Mile Island became a top national headline.  Life imitated film art.

Jack Lemmon could tackle a social issue even in a comedy.  His 1996 White House comedy co-starring James Garner, My Fellow Americans, had a presidential embrace of gay rights.  Look at the Billy Wilder comedy that teamed Lemmon with Walter Matthau for the first time.  In The Fortune Cookie, Matthau plays the crooked lawyer whose brother-in-law was injured on the job.  The lawyer is so shady that he's nicknamed "Whiplash Willie."  For this performance, Matthau won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor of 1966.

This is a Wilder comedy that deserves re-appreciation.  I never read or heard this mentioned  in reviews of The Fortune Cookie, but it's something that my parents liked a lot when they saw it.  I tell Chris in the podcast interview that my parents saw The Fortune Cookie as a clever, sophisticated statement on race relations in the Civil Rights era above the Mason-Dixon line.

Jack Lemmon played a network TV cameraman doing live NFL coverage on the field.  Number 44, Luther "Boom Boom" Jackson, is in the Cleveland game.  During one play, "Boom Boom" accidentally tackles the TV cameraman.  In the pic below, director/writer Billy Wilder gives direction to actor Ron Rich as Jackson while Lemmon as cameraman Harry Hinkle watches on the far right in a hooded jacket.

Harry's injuries are minor.  Willie sees his brother-in-law as the fortune cookie.  He coaxes him to feign serious injury so they can cash in for some big insurance money thanks to an accident seen on live national television.  The cameraman is uneasy about Willie's scheme but he goes along with it.  He gets more uneasy as he becomes friends with Luther, the articulate African-American gentleman of an NFL star.
Greedy, dishonest people in the cameraman's life are suspicious of the football star and regard him as a second-class citizen merely because of he's black.  What infuriates the cameraman so much that it causes him to break out of his unnecessary apparatus and break away from those greedy, dishonest people in his life?  Racist comments about his black friend.  Through the years, I've come to appreciate The Fortune Cookie as deeply as my parents did.  It's still an effective film.  The football star experiences the kind or racism many of us in "liberal" Northern states have experienced.

Chris Lemmon talked to me about his Uncle Walter.  Matthau and Jack Lemmon must've been brothers in a previous life.  From The Fortune Cookie... The Odd Couple... Grumpy Old Men....
...they were one of the best teams that Hollywood ever had.  In the interview, I think I made a mistake about Matthau.  He won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.  I may have mentioned that he got only one Oscar nomination for Best Actor.  Wrong.  He got two.  The Sunshine Boys brought him one.  Chris' dad helped him get the other for 1971's Kotch.

On this I make no mistake -- if a movie was being shot about moviemaking in the 1960s and a scene involved the making of The Odd Couple, the only person who could play Jack Lemmon would be Chris Lemmon.  Wait till you hear his uncanny imitations of his dad ... and the guy he called "Uncle Waltz," Walter Matthau.  Chris needs to be in a big screen comedy or doing TV sitcom gigs.  He's definitely got the skills and the charisma.
By the way, Chris hasn't written just a book.  He wrote a comedy screenplay that his dad read as he was being treated for cancer.  Jack Lemmon loved his son's screenplay.  Chris Lemmon would love to get it into production -- and he'd love Walter Matthau's actor/director son, Charlie, to be involved.  We talked about that also in the interview.

The energetic, animated Jack Lemmon made his film debut opposite Judy Holliday in It Should Happen To You.  That 1954 comedy feels fresh today.  Holliday played a sweet, ambitious single woman in New York City who dreams of fame.  She wants to become a celebrity.   And she does, thanks to what we'd nowadays call "reality television."  Lemmon plays the photographer who teaches her that it's not about being on-camera and having the masses know your name that's important.  It's about making your name stand for something.  That's what counts.

It Should Happen To You was directed by the Hollywood master, George Cukor (Dinner at Eight, Camille, The Women, The Philadelphia Story, Gaslight, Adam's Rib, Born Yesterday, 1954's A Star Is Born and My Fair Lady).  This bright comedy is one of Cukor's best of the 1950s.  For his introduction to movies, Jack Lemmon learned a very valuable lesson on screen acting from the acclaimed veteran director.

Chris tells us what Cukor taught his father.

Chris and his father appeared in a few films together.  Chris made his big screen debut in a thriller that starred his dad.  It was another in the Airport franchise.  Airport '77 boasted a big name cast, but the movie didn't take off at the box office or with critics.  Many felt that the plot about a jumbo airliner full of passengers that just seemed to disappear in flight was ludicrous.  Today, in 2014, it wouldn't be ludicrous.  Look at the Malaysian airliner story making news.  For his film debut, Chris had a few moments at a radar screen speaking naval terms that he really didn't understand.  Here's the trailer.

Chris has funny stories about making that disaster movie.

Chris Lemmon is an actor, a gentleman, a great storyteller and an excellent pianist.  Like father, like son.  Here they are together.

Chris gave his memoir the same name given to one of his dad's record albums.

It would be wonderful to see Chris' charm and talent back on TV and back on the big screen again. Trust me, he did go on to work in movies that were way better than Airport '77.  And I really want him to get the money and a green light to shoot the screenplay that his father loved.  If I was a TCM executive, I'd tap Chris Lemmon to be a Guest Programmer one night on Turner Classic Movies with Robert Osborne.  He could present his favorite of his legendary father's classic films.  Chris tell us what that classic is in my podcast.  It would be interesting to see him select classics that didn't star Jack Lemmon and hear why they're some of Chris' favorite films.

Chris Lemmon is utilizing his piano and acting skills in a one-man show based on his memoir, A Twist of Lemmon:  A Tribute to My Father.  Tell the Hollywood folks that he's bringing his show to Southern California.
Interviewing Chris Lemmon this month was like a sweet full circle moment for me.  When I was just starting my professional broadcast TV career, one of my first assignments was an interview of Jack Lemmon.  I was nervous.  Imagine:  It's 1980.  My first TV job.  And I'm interviewing one of my favorite stars, a world-famous and beloved actor who'd won two Academy Awards.  I asked him a question about his early days working in TV in the 1950s and about making Mister Roberts with James Cagney.  That film brought Lemmon his first Oscar.  Cagney had seen Jack Lemmon in a 1950s TV production and thought he was left-handed because of his performance.  Lemmon wasn't a southpaw.  That was his acting choice.  Cagney then realizd that this new kid on the Hollywood block was a serious actor and in for the long run.  For Mister Roberts, Jack Lemmon won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor of 1955.  The question I asked Mr. Lemmon was so specific that he was impressed with the homework I'd done.  After the interview, he advised me to continue along that path of doing interviews.  He felt I was good at it and needed to pursue it.  I took his advice.

I got to tell that story to Chris.  I treasured my time with his father.  I treasured my time with him.

Oh!  One last thing.  For decades, I've wondered if special pumps had to be made for Jack Lemmon to wear in Some Like It Hot because of men having bigger feet.  The answer is "no" and Chris told me why his dad was the perfect guy to wear women's shoes.
Not every son can say that about his father.  I hope you have as much fun listening to our interview as I had doing it.  Hear me with Chris Lemmon this Monday, March 24th, on my podcast at We'll be there all week.

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