At first glance the images seem rather ordinary: a cocky ensign grumbling over his laundry detail; a young bachelor returning home from work to face another TV dinner in his lonely apartment; that same young man now ten years older and facing the dissolution of his company and his dreams. As these moments flash by they seem to be drawn more from our memory of everyday life than from the grand and glamorous world one immediately identifies with the cinema. Yet these memories were all created by an actor whose greatest talent and power lie in his unmatched ability to let us recognize and feel the depths and the glories of ourselves. This is the achievement of Jack Lemmon.
By the time Jack Lemmon appeared in his first film he was already a veteran of the theater, music halls, radio, and over four hundred live television shows. The publicity for that film, IT SHOULD HAPPEN TO YOU!, heralded the new screen star with the modest phrase, “Introducing Jack Lemmon — a guy you’re gonna like.” Yet somehow that said it all. As Judy Holliday’s down-to-earth boyfriend he was every guy you ever knew — romantic and charming one minute, frantic and frustrated the next. And somehow he managed it all with such rapid and surefire ease that we never had a chance to marvel at the skill and potential underneath until long after the film had ended.
For the next thirty-five years that potential would continue to be realized. Through each decade and every film, that actor would both serve and reflect the image of our times. Through the 1950s, in films such as MISTER ROBERTS and SOME LIKE IT HOT, he was the “kookie” young man, the fellow slightly out of kilter with the rest of the world. In the ’60s that young man began to settle down. He was now an aspiring executive fighting to fit in from THE APARTMENT to THE DAYS OF WINE AND ROSES he showed us the struggle of a basically decent man trying to hold on to his dignity and sanity in a world gone slightly askew. By the 1970s he seemed to have it all figured out. But then circumstances would force him to question the rules he had learned. The middle-class hero of SAVE THE TIGER, THE PRISONER OF SECOND AVENUE and THE CHINA SYNDROME was now fighting a system he once thought he was a part of. And through each performance Jack Lemmon could make us know him and care about him and confront him in a way we might never be able to do in our real lives.
Jack Lemmon entered Hollywood during the last days of the studio system enabling him to collaborate with and learn from some of the leading artists of the day, men like John Ford and George Cukor. He has inspired some of the finest work of filmmakers like Billy Wilder and Blake Edwards. Yet Jack Lemmon always gave as good as he got. Recently asked why he chose a certain role, the actor simply replied, “Because I didn’t know if I could do it.” He is an actor constantly reaching and growing, still challenging himself in every medium whether it be film (MISSING), television (THE MURDER OF MARY PHAGAN), or theater (Long Day’s Journey Into Night).
Jack Lemmon once described his profession as doing no more than “living dreams.” For four decades he has been doing just that. And we have all been the grateful recipients of his intelligence, wit and insight into those dreams that make up our lives.
For that gift, and for his great artistry, the Trustees of the American Film Institute voted the sixteenth Life Achievement Award to Jack Lemmon.