Magazine article The Spectator

Nobody's Perfect

Magazine article The Spectator

Nobody's Perfect

Article excerpt

I got the full Jack Lemmon a few years back when I asked him about the out-of-- town try-out for a new West End play he was doing. He twitched, he fidgeted, he gave me the entire range of elongated throat-clearing sounds with which he punctuated every two or three words -- 'Errheeyah', 'awyeauheeagh', 'ohyurrhuhurr'. The more vernacular and demotic he got the more stilted and artificial it sounded: `Shit, I loved Manchester. Shit, yeah. Newcastle, jeez, that was a hoot. Shit, man, those are great theatres. Shit.' Yeah, man, no shit. He made a film called Dad with Ted Danson as the son and Lemmon in the title role, as an octogenarian who's given up on life. `But I don't think there's a danger of that happening to me,' he told me, `unless something terrible just pulls the cork out of my ass.'

I don't know why anyone would want a cork in his ass in the first place, but the phrase sums up the Lemmon technique well. A large cork twisted a little further than one would recommend. He was a very anal actor - detailed, painstaking, mannered, fussy, irritating, pandering. In later years, canny directors factored the nervy twitchiness into the equation - it was necessary to the character in David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross (1992), it was virtually the entire film in Blake Edwards's That's Life! (1986). Otherwise, the Lemmon routine seemed to have no organic connection with the material: he's easily the worst thing in Robert Altman's Short Cuts (1993), delivering an interminable monologue to camera like Ronnie Corbett after a week with Stanislavsky.

It was there right at the beginning, in Mister Roberts (1955), where even in embryo Lemmon's meticulous jitteriness as Ensign Pulver seems at odds with the effortless cool of Cagney, Fonda, William Powell. On the other hand, it was eyecatching enough to get Lemmon his first Oscar. He made a nice little film for Dick Powell around that time, You Can't Run Away From It, a musical remake of It happened one night, the Capra classic in which Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert wind up spending the night together in the most artful way. For the equivalent moment with Lemmon and June Allyson, Johnny Mercer wrote a sweet catalogue song called 'Temporarily' and in Lemmon's delightful rendition you spot a hokey, somewhat intense juvenile. Billy Wilder managed to play off this side of him in in his best ever film, The Apartment (1960). …

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