Turner Movie Classics devotes most of its on-going Jack Lemmon tribute on tomorrw and Thursday (14-15 January) to his work with his mentor, Billy Wilder - specifically to the team's first four films together.
"The Apartment," airing Wednesday, 14 January at 8 pm., est., is a film that I wrote about at length when I introduced this site in August of 2006. It's the film that change my life - or, at least, the way I look at movies.
It is the first film that I read, the first film where I noticed more than just plot and dialogue and acting - the first film in which I confronted, blissfully so, the concept of "filmmaking," its power and what it means.
It is also the first film during which I really watched Jack Lemmon. Of course, I had enjoyed him in previous roles - most notably Richard Quine's "Operaton Mad Ball" (1957) and Wilder's "Some Like It Hot" (1959) but, here, he made me stop and watch.
"When I first saw it, Billy Wilder’s 'The Apartment' created a longing so ardent that I thought my chest and head would implode...
"I remember little else about that summer - or that year, for that matter - except that I loved "The Apartment" and that I related to its star, Jack Lemmon, in the most complete, complicated way possible. A point of reference and a role model, at last! ... With such dubious assets as his slight build, sagging shoulders, slouching posture and wide-open face filled with basset-hound anxiety, Lemmon filled me with wonder for someone who seemed so much like me - or so I liked to think."
“The Apartment” has stayed with me ever since that first childhood viewing. It’s familiar and comforting, like an old easy chair that’s been lugged to each new place in which I’ve lived – to remind me of where I’ve been and from where I’ve come. It is like a ribbon, a thread, that has run through my life and I can always go back to it. And, like me, throughout the years, it has evolved and changed. It hasn’t remained the same and, for some reason, I find that ... reassuring. Now, shut up and deal.
As much as I love "The Apartment," I'm the first to admit that it is not exactly perfect. The two major scenes between Shirley MacLaine and Fred MacMuarry - their initial encounter in the Chinese restaurant and the sequence before MacLaine's character attempts suicide - are fairly deadly. Pure soap opera. Plus they are seemingly, glaringly, out of sync with the rest of the movie. The actors aren't to blame. But the writing is. It's difficult to believe that Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond wrote those sequences.
Moving on, Wilder's biggest hit - and Jack's most emblematic perforance - follows with "Some Like It Hot," the 1959 comedy classic showing Wednesday, 14 January at 10:15 p.m., est. It seems redundant to say anything about. You've all seen it. You all know it. Say no more.
No matter what measure one might use, Billy Wilder's film version of "Irma La Douce," airing Thursday, 15 January at 12:30 a.m., est., looms as a major embarrassment - a leering piece of "tired businessman's entertainment" that's sexed-up and yet decidedly unsexy.
Full disclosure: I loved this film as a kid and, I guess, it helps to be 12 to truly appreciate it.
What's odd is that the material - nonsense about a man pretending to be his prostitute-girlfriend's most valuable client - had potential, and worked very well as a saucy international stage musical with music by Marguerite Monnot (famed for "The Poor People of Paris") and original book and lyrics by Alexandre Breffort.
The musical originated at the Theatre Gramont in Paris, opening November 12th, 1956. The London production, with the book and lyrics translated by Julian More, David Heneker and Monty Norman, opened July 17th, 1958 and ran for a whopping 1512 performances. Later, it was optioned for New York by David Merrick and the original Broadway production opened September 29th, 1960 at New York's Plymouth Theatre and ran for 527 performances. Sir Peter Brook ("Marat/Sade") directed both the London and New York productions of the musical.
Wilder somehow managed to take what was a light soufflé on stage and turn it into an obvious, leaden and, at 147 minutes, elephantine mess - 147 minutes and that's without all the songs.
The famed director took Monnot's clever, likable melodies and promptly deleted them from his script, relegating them to the background as incidental music (scored by André Previn). Even reduced, Monnot's contribution remains the only worthwhile thing about the film. That and designer Alexandre Trauner's sprawling soundstage recreation of Paris' Les Halles district - a "Disneyland for adults," Wilder quipped.
The play's rousing showstopper, "Dis-Donc, Dis-Donc," was retained - well, sort of - as a dance number for the film's eventual Irma, Shirley MacLaine, a moment in the film which seems to lead up an intermission break that never comes.
Wilder had always intended Jack Lemmon to play a guy desperate to keep his girlfriend as pure as possible, so much so that he dons a disguise and hires her to pleasure him. When Lemmon signed on, Wilder was in negotiations with Elizabeth Taylor to play Irma. Bachelor Lemmon to the New York Times at the time: "Lucky girl!"
Meanwhile, Wilder was trying to ward off Marilyn Monroe who, reportedly, desperately wanted the role. Taylor got caught up in a little number called
"Cleopatra" and Monroe eventually segued into George Cukor's "Something's Got to Give." MacLaine, who of course worked with both Wilder and Lemmon on "The Apartment" and who was perfect for the role, ultimately played Irma.
An aside: one has to wonder if Wilder may have entertained thoughts of making a musical given MacLaine's song-and-dance background and the fact that Lemmon had starred in a few film musicals. And also because one of Wilder's supporting players here is the late Bruce Yarnell who played the role of Hippolyte and who was a rising young star in the musical theater at the time (B'ways's "The Happiest Girl in the World" with Janice Rule). Yarnell was once under consideration by Richard Lester to play Captain Miles Gloriosus in the film of "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum," the role eventually played by Leon Greene.
"Irma" was shot largely on a soundstage in Hollywood, but by the time the crew got to France for some location work, Monroe had died from an overdose and Lemmon had married Felicia Farr (with both Wilder and director Richard Quine serving as his best men in Paris).
On the basis of the wild success of this film and the two that followed it - "Under the Yum Yum Tree" and "Good Neighbor Sam," both directed by David Swift - Lemmon was the Number One box office star of 1964. Lemmon would disavow "Yum Yum" which makes sense (it's pretty low) and "Sam" which doesn't (it's an engaging comedy).
He would have done well to also distance himself from the adolescent smirk of "Irma La Douce" but I guess he had too much regard for Wilder.
The intertwined careers of Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau are celebrated by Turner Classics with"The Fortune Cookie," being screened Thursday, 15 January AT 3 a.m., EST. Billy Wilder's sardonic, gray-colored farce was sort of a blind date for the boys - their first film together and the start of their unexpected teaming.
Matthau has the showier role as the shady, game-playing lawyer, Whiplash Willie Gingrich; Lemmon - playing Willie's easily manipulated brother-in-law, Harry Hinkle, a convenient accident victim - pretty much handed the film over to him. Lemmon may be immobolized in a wheelchair but his quiet performance, free of the usual Lemmon fussiness, is a revelation - an education in relaxed, minimal screen acting.
The talented Judi West and Ron Rich shine in supporting roles - she as Lemmon's disreputable wife and he as the athlete who allegedly crippled him - and they're so good that one has to wonder exactly what happened to them. West, who had made a name for herself in the Marilyn Monroe role in the Broadway production of Arthur Miller's "After the Fall," went on to marry actor John Rubenstein, but did little film work thereafter. Rich, to the best of my knowledge, made only one other film, 1968's "Chubasco."
What a waste.
The evening ends on a mild note with "Kotch," the only film directed by Lemmon, airing Thursday, 15 January at 5:15 a.m., est. The movie is notable largely for Matthau's none-too-convincing (yet Oscar-nomianted) performance as a senior citizen and for its curious, particulary negative portrayal of women (played here by Felicia Farr, Jack's wife, and Deborah Winters, the daughter of editor Ralph Winters and an especially unpleasant young actress at the time). The less said about it, the better.
Note in Passing: Jack was once slated to direct the film version of John Ford Noonan's off-Broadway hit, "A Coupla White Chicks Sitting Around Talking," from a script by the late, great Wendy Wasserstein and starring Susan Sarandon and Jill Clayburgh but, alas, it never happened.
Trivia: There's a memorable reference to "The Music Man" in the film, but originally the stage show that Lemmon invites MacLaine to see was "The Sound of Music." Which makes sense, given that Wilder was one of that show's investors. Jack told me that Wilder changed his script after he finally saw "The Sound of Music." He didn't like it. And opted for "The Music Man" instead. (Never mind that "The Sound of Music" was a brand new hit at the time, while "The Music Man" was nearing the end of its run.)
(Artwork: Jack, out in the cold in "The Apartment"; Jack, Shirley and Fred in a cute publicity shot for "The Apartment," The actors and some director lunching between scenes of "The Apartment," and Jack and Shirl in the film's final scene; Jack and Marilyn - in color, no less! - in "Some Like a Hot"; poster art for "Irma La Douce," and Jack and Walter in a publicity shot for "The Fortune Cookie." All four are Billy Wilder films, of course. Also, a display ad for "Kotch." And, finally, Jack stood up at "The Music Man")