best film:  JFK (1991) is actually Jack Lemmon’s best film. This is no extra or cameo role either – Lemmon plays Jack Martin – and although Walter Matthau is also in JFK – they do not share any scenes together. Instead, Lemmon has some strong scenes with both lead Kevin Costner (as Jim Garrison) and Edward Asner (as Guy Bannister). The Apartment (1960) would be the runner-up in this category with Robert Altman’s Short Cuts (1993) placing third (3rd). It is certainly interesting that over Lemmon’s long and storied career – two (2) of his best three (3) films came late in his career – the 1990s – and in sprawling sort of dramatic saga ensemble films.


best performance: The Apartment. Jack Lemmon has plenty to choose from here – his second (2nd) best performance and tenth (10th) best are fairly close together in quality – but it his work in Billy Wilder’s 1960 film that he should be remembered for. His Oscar wins are for Mister Roberts (1955) and Save the Tiger (1973) and he is exemplary in both. In Save the Tiger, his Harry Stoner character wakes up in a cold sweat, and then it all just goes downhill from there. He is affluent, but unbelievably stressed. He is losing his mind really – talking to himself muttering baseball players names he remembers from his youth. Save the Tiger has some black comedic moments (which Lemmon slays of course) and a stammering speech in the film.  Lemmon probably should be remembered for The Apartment – but in reality, Some Like It Hot (1959) and The Odd Couple (1968) are probably at the front of public consciousness – there is just something about the pure laughability of those two films (the iconic final shot and line reading in Some Like It Hot does not hurt either) on top of Some Like It Hot being paired with Marilyn Monroe. For The Odd Couple – it both spawned a television show (where Lemmon doppelgänger Tony Randall takes on the Felix Unger role) and, it is the most popular of the Lemmon/Matthau pairings – rare to see a comedy like this as the third (3rd) most popular box office film of the year.


from The Apartment – director Billy Wilder was coming off Some Like It Hot (1959, so was Jack Lemmon) and Shirley MacLaine off of Some Came Running (1958) so these are creative peak periods abound here. Wilder had been around for decades at this point, but for MacLaine and Lemmon, they were still sort of considered comedians first – and The Apartment gave them a chance to show their dramatic chops (as well as keeping a bit of their toe in the water as far as making audiences laugh – a real accomplishment when looking at the synopsis of this film).  Lemmon plays C.C. Baxter who works at desk 861 on the 19th floor This is Wilder’s second (2nd) time calling upon Jack Lemmon to lead the way in one of his films – they would wind up working a total of seven (7) times together – six (6) landing in the archives.  The tonal transitions are brilliant – Lemmon’s Baxter sharply turns from jovial to gutted. Few actors could play weakness as well as Lemmon. He has a cold half the film it seems – he is sniveling, whining – it is a testament to both the screenplay and Lemmon that the audience still roots for C.C. Baxter.



stylistic innovations/traits:  The Massachusetts-born Jack Lemmon broke though into film in the mid 1950s. His debut in It Should Happen to You is opposite comedienne Judy Holliday when she was the much bigger star of course. Lemmon also had the fortune of being directed by George Cukor who told him to tone down the showier antics (that played better on television – where Lemmon started) as everything was sort of magnified on the big screen. Lemmon could do comedy (Mister Roberts, Some Like It Hot, The Great Race, The Odd Couple) and drama (Days of Wine and Roses, The China Syndrome, Missing, Glengarry Glen Ross) and films in between (definitley The Apartment, and Avanti). Lemmon was in one western early in his career – Cowboy (1958) – and although it takes some time adjusting to seeing Lemmon in a cowboy hat and riding a horse – it is a tribute to Lemmon’s skill as an actor that he is not just dusted off the screen by Glenn Ford (Ford for sure looks comfortable in a western – this is just one year after 3:10 to Yuma for Ford and director Delmer Daves). Lemmon racked up a whopping eight (8) Oscar nominations spread over four (4) decades: 1950s to 1980s – amassing twenty (20) total archiveable films over his career. Lemmon excelled at portraying neurosis and weakness  – he is pistol whipped by Ed Asner’s character in JFK and surely plays a character physically and emotionally pushed around over much of his career – like his sniveling salesman Shelley Levene in Glengarry Glen Ross. Lemmon has two collaborators that are part of his story. One is undeniably Billy Wilder – they made six (6) archiveable films together. Second, Lemmon is remembered as part of the comic duo pairing with Walter Matthau. They made ten (10) total films together with the first five (5) landing in the archives – the first five (5) – the second five (5), all after JFK, are not in the archives.


Lemmon’s work in the early 1990s – particularly JFK and Glengarry Glen Ross (pictured here) –  really help add depth to his sterling resume.


directors worked with: Billy Wilder (6), Blake Edwards (3), George Cukor (1), John Ford (1), Oliver Stone (1), Robert Altman (1)


Lemmon is probably best remembered for Some Like It Hot (1959) – pictured here – and The Odd Couple (1968).  There is just something about the pure laughability of those two films. For Some Like It Hot (a massive box office hit in 1959) – the iconic final shot and line reading (on top if it being paired with Marilyn Monroe) probably have something to do with it.


top five performances:

  1. The Apartment
  2. Some Like It Hot
  3. The China Syndrome
  4. Missing
  5. Save the Tiger


archiveable films

1954- It Should Happen to You
1955- Mister Roberts
1958- Cowboy
1959- Some Like It Hot
1960- The Apartment
1962- The Days of Wine and Roses
1965- The Great Race
1966- The Fortune Cookie
1968- The Odd Couple
1972- Avanti
1973- Save the Tiger
1974- The Front Page
1979- The China Syndrome
1981- Buddy Buddy
1982- Missing
1986- That’s Life!
1991- JFK
1992- Glengarry Glen Ross
1993- Short Cuts
1996- Hamlet