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Sad Men: Jack Lemmon and Days of Wine and Roses

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The late, great Jack Lemmon's birthday is February 8th which led me back to one of his finest performances -- Days of Wine and Roses. Watch it for the first time or watch it again. Rest in Peace, Jack Lemmon.

In Blake Edwards' Days of Wine and Roses you can easily see -- even if you didn't know the movie was about alcoholism -- that Lee Remick is going to fall, hard and bad, for liquor. Beginning the movie as a teetotaler, a woman who's only vice is the love of chocolate; we see her weakness arrive when her date (played by Jack Lemmon) insists she imbibe. Knowing that she'll enjoy it, he orders her a fancy chocolate cocktail and watches her delicately down the concoction with an almost vampiric joy, as if knowing another potential boozer is a sixth sense. It's a sad moment watching poor Remick throw that drink back, her innocent enjoyment and eventual giddiness made all the more tragic by how unaware she is. In the midst of an almost predatory drinker and harboring the right kind of troubled past or brain chemicals or addictive personality, we know this woman will not be able to innocently drink again.

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First directed in 1958 for the classic television anthology Playhouse 90, Days of Wine and Roses was originally filmed by John Frankenheimer in a searing TV play that starred Cliff Robertson and Piper Laurie. The grittier vision with the arguably darker, more complicated, experimental director at the helm (watch Seconds, The Manchurian Candidate, All Fall Down, The French Connection 2 -- this man understood human pain) the original has been considered, by many, superior to the 1962 big screen adaptation and Laurie the better actress. Since I revere Frankenheimer, I can understand the preference. And yet I think Edwards' version (who also understood human suffering and horror -- watch the opening of Experiment in Terror) is just as interesting. Chiefly for how "normal" Lemmon and Remick are. 

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It often feels perverse watching Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick squirm -- especially Lemmon. All through his career, from The Apartment to Save the Tiger to Glengarry Glen Ross, the high-strung, twinkly-eyed actor was always craving more out of life. But that something more, even when given a happy ending (like The Apartment, which isn't so happy) he will seemingly never satisfy. He'll never quench that thirst. With humor (Some Like It Hot) and devastation (Glengarry Glen Ross), he's desperately hanging by a thread, perpetually frustrated. He may win The Apartment's Fran Kubelik in the end but will he keep her? Or will she become Remick's Kirsten Arnesen Clay?

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The actors are indeed different in the alternate versions (both written by J.P. Miller) but all bring something specific and true to their performances. That Lemmon and Remick appear the passive, nice, normal, All-American couple, fluffy on the outside or even, obnoxiously "regular," their fall into the abyss is, at times, shocking, and then familiar and then, truly depressing. These are the people who get married, have kids and move to the suburbs, not a flop house next to the closest watering hole. For these two, there's no romance in either scenario.

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Lemmon begins the movie as a drunk (though he doesn't know it) and much like his legendary character in The Apartment, engages in unseemly activities to move up the sleazy corporate ladder. A gregarious PR executive with less charm than he thinks he has, he goes so far as to supply hookers for his bosses just to keep a job that will prove to be unrewarding. Remick is the pretty, Encyclopedia-reading secretary (whom he mistakes as one of the girls at a party -- an awkward, harsh scene) and in a moment of fate for two future sots sharing an addiction they don't even know they have yet, they fall in love, marry, have a child and become desperate drunkards. He loses his job, she can't take care of their neglected child, he tries to dry out, she hits near rock bottom, sleeping with strangers for liquor. And by film's end, we don't know what their future holds.

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As acted by a twitchy, sometimes smarmy Lemmon and a wide-eyed, dippy, sweet, eventually bitter Remick, both actors become sympathetic with characters who go from lovable to potentially unlikable to absolutely shattering. You feel for them. When Lemmon digs up and destroys his father-in-law's greenhouse (a wonderfully stoic Charles Bickford) on a selfish, hysterical search for one bottle of booze, his desperation is so embarrassingly human and so pitiful that you're not only shielding your eyes from his destructive digging but for his abasement. And when a strung-out Remick comes home later in the movie to Lemmon fresh from AA, no one needs to further discuss what she's been doing all night, how much she's lowered herself. But then, maybe she had a good time, or so she thinks. The picture isn't judging her. 

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Though the Alcoholics Anonymous sequences have been considered heavy handed and maybe a bit irritating, this seems to be the point. It will help Lemmon, but... what a drag. What a drag spending the rest of your life lectured; living whatever de-mystified new life AA expert Jack Klugman is leading. How awful to sit around a bunch of grim one-day-at-a-timers, underscoring how so very not special you are. You are average. And yet, perhaps not-so-average. What kind of people will Lemmon discover at those meetings? Don Birnam? It won't be Don Draper. More like Freddy Rumsen. Even AA-understanding viewers of Mad Men are disturbed by the schlubby normalcy of Freddy. What a buzz kill, taking all the sparkle and swank out of those perfectly clinking cocktails. 

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Lemmon and Remick are sexier than Freddy, but those drinks stop looking so tasty. Who knows what will become of this couple. Unlike the attractive, though suitably addled (those horror movie DTs) Ray Milland as that clever writer -- that "don't be ridic" Don Birnam dipsomaniac of the great Lost Weekend, or Susan Hayward's deliciously melodramatic Lillian Roth and all her "crying tomorrow," Lemmon and Remick's most interesting characteristic is, sadly, that they are alcoholics. They can't indulge the brilliant mental gymnastics of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf's George and Martha, whose addiction and spitefulness are, in a highly dysfunctional way, disarmingly romantic and strangely heroic. Lee and Jack -- they're like a lot of people -- just regular old drunks. No wonder they drink.


Read more Kim Morgan at Sunset Gun.