The concept of the greatest actor of all time is a complex one. Choosing the greatest actress of all time is very easy – not many will stray from Katharine Hepburn or Bette Davis. But the greatest actor of all time is a whole different process. One needs to consider the traits that made so many actors so great, and which one of them could be considered the trait that made that actor the greatest of all time. Could it be the detached masculinity of Humphrey Bogart? The intense madness of Marlon Brandon? Perhaps it was the quiet dignity of Laurence Olivier, or maybe even the mystifying charisma of Peter O’Toole. These are all brilliant actors, but the one actor who I think stands heads and shoulders above all of them, in everything he did throughout his career, was Jack Lemmon, an unconventional but not in any way strange choice.
Lemmon had perhaps the best career out of any actor. His career stretched right from the first Golden Age of Hollywood, right through until the second Golden Age. Similar to Marlon Brando, Lemmon was around for so many significant events in film history – the Blacklist, the progressive fifties, the psychedelic sixties, the paranoid seventies, the campy eighties and then right into the brilliant nineties. In each of these decades he gave amazing performances that ranged from hilariously funny to breathtakingly sad. He was an actor with incredible range and versatility, and was the quintessential “Nice Guy” actor.
Lemmon was a very unconventional leading man – he was very often cynical or awkward, played hopeless romantics or conflicted idealists, and didn’t have the rugged movie star looks his contemporaries had. What Lemmon did have, however, was everyman charm. Lemmon didn’t project the image of being a Hollywood elitist – he had the charm of a Regular Joe, who went home to the suburbs after a long day at work and had a barbecue on the weekends. He felt like that favorite uncle who would shower us with gifts, but also be there when we needed help. He had a strange sort of relatable charisma that was absolutely endearing and made him just that much more likable.
Of course, Lemmon, while an amazing individual actor, did his best work with one other man. Walter Matthau, a man equal in talent and brilliance, brought out the best in Lemmon, and Lemmon brought out the best in Matthau. Together, they were one of the greatest screen duos to ever work in cinema, and their nearly one-dozen collaborations range from iconic (The Odd Couple) to well…entertaining (Out to Sea). I won’t go into detail of why they were the greatest to ever live (that’s another piece for another day), but the fondest memories I have of Lemmon are with his regular collaborator Matthau.
Now without any further ado, here are the five essential Jack Lemmon performances. Choosing only five is a gargantuan task, so rather take these as an introduction to his career if you haven’t seen them already, and if you have, I am sure you will agree at how dastardly amazing they are and how wonderfully talented Lemmon was as an actor/
- Some Like It Hot. Not only is Some Like It Hot the greatest comedy film ever made, Lemmon gives quite possibly the greatest comedic performance of all time. As Jerry/Daphne, Lemmon steals the show. Tony Curtis and Marilyn Monroe were the stars of the film, but they were unflinchingly overshadowed by Lemmon, who gives a masterclass performance. It remains the funniest and most moving performance I’ve ever seen, and no one, not even Peter Sellers or Robin Williams, have come close to achieving what Lemmon did with this performance.
- The Apartment. I do think Some Like It Hot is Lemmon’s best performance in terms of versatility and longevity, but The Apartment is probably his best acting role of his career. He manages to balance comedy and drama equally as well, and along with Some Like It Hot, it is another reason why Lemmon is brilliant.
- Glengarry Glen Ross. Lemmon didn’t ever fall into the trap of aging and then being forced into supporting roles. He was a leading man until he died, and even if he did constantly play second fiddle to a lot of stars, he always stood out as a unique actor. in Glengarry Glen Ross, Lemmon plays Sandy, the despondent and desperate real estate agent at the end of the line. He is the heart and soul of a unique film, and he brings heart and humor to the performance in an otherwise very cold film. This could be considered Lemmon’s last great leading performance, and what a way to go out! He followed this film up with a great supporting performance in Robert Altman’s Short Cuts, where he gives a monologue that will surely produce goosebumps on anyone who watches it.
- The Fortune Cookie. A smaller but nonetheless impressive film, and one of the most underrated of the Matthau/Lemmon collaborations. While The Fortune Cookie was undoubtedly the Walter Matthau showcase, Lemmon was a reliable foil, playing the conflicted man who has to choose between money and love, which he discovers are both the root of all evil. Lemmon mostly sits around in this film, which allows him to show off his acerbic wit and sharp humor. It is such a great film and an underrated comedic performance. I chose this one over The Odd Couple, for no other reason than I wanted to draw attention to The Fortune Cookie. Both are remarkable tenets of comedy that definitely should be sought out.
- Days of Wine and Roses. The only purely dramatic performance on this list, and while I do prefer Lemmon in his comedies, it would be a sin to leave out his jaw-dropping work in Days of Wine and Roses, a testament to the problems of addiction. Lemmon is just a revelation in this role, and while it has its audience, it hasn’t received the acclaim it should. It is a difficult and heartbreaking, but undeniably rewarding film.
In conclusion, it is clear that I am a very big fan of Jack Lemmon. He had a splendid career, and one that is absolutely timeless. He has a universal kind of nice-guy appeal and a everyman charisma that made him both a great actor and a cinematic friend. His performances were always sincere and real, and he was the quintessential class act. He is missed, as is his buddy Walter, but their careers speak for their brilliance.