02/06/2013 09:35 am ET Updated Apr 07, 2013

For His Birthday, the Best of Oscar Winner Jack Lemmon

As we enter the lead-up time to the annual Oscar ceremony, I find myself looking back to past winners and nominees.

This year one name in particular came to mind, as I realized I had yet to pay tribute to this consummate screen actor, a two time Oscar winner and astonishing eight time nominee, who left us too soon nearly a dozen years ago.

Jack Lemmon, who would have turned 88 this Friday, had a habit of saying to himself before every take: "It's magic time." This may strike some as mildly eccentric, but then for the most part, magic is precisely what he went on to create.

Viewers responded viscerally to the sheer humanity of the man. He was a terrific comic actor from the start, but he would prove just as skilled at dramatic roles.

John Uhler Lemmon III was born in 1925 to affluent parents in Newton, Massachusetts, and attended both Andover and Harvard. Reportedly, performing was in his blood from the start: he was always drawn to theatrical productions, and he was also a natural on the piano. Little wonder he ended up President of Harvard's venerable drama society, the Hasty Pudding club.

After college and a stint in the Navy, he went to New York City, and studied acting under the famed Uta Hagen. He supported himself with piano gigs, and started getting small roles on- and off-Broadway, in radio and on live television.

He got his big break in 1954, co-starring opposite the gifted Judy Holliday in It Should Happen To You. Then, the very next year came the classic Mister Roberts.

Grouped with veteran stars Henry Fonda, James Cagney, and William Powell, Lemmon imbued the supporting role of Ensign Pulver with such humor and zest that he nabbed that year's Best Supporting Actor Oscar.

It was full speed ahead from that point, but Jack never rested on his laurels. He kept growing as an actor. Five years later, in Billy Wilder's The Apartment (perhaps my favorite Lemmon film), the actor first displayed his particular gift for playing vulnerable or neurotic characters. As the years progressed, his fearlessness in channeling personal pain and conflict into his roles paid off with a slew of indelible performances.

For those who want to re-experience this beloved actor's finest work, here's my own list of top Lemmon outings:

Mister Roberts (1955)- Adapted from Josh Logan's Broadway hit, this service drama tells of Lt. Doug Roberts (Henry Fonda), an officer on a WWII cargo ship, desperate to see action, who instead has to cope with irascible, by-the-book Captain Morton (James Cagney). Roberts is frustrated by life aboard the SS "Reluctant," but thankfully Ensign Pulver (Lemmon)-"in charge of laundry and morale"-is on board to provide him and the crew with some much-needed laughs and sympathy. Returning to the big screen after an eight-year absence, Fonda successfully recreated his indelible stage role under the superb direction of Mervyn LeRoy, who replaced John Ford when Ford and Fonda literally came to blows just weeks into shooting! Young Lemmon must have been humbled by the cast line-up for this film: Fonda, Cagney, and the legendary William Powell (in his final screen role as a philosophical ship doctor). Yet his manic energy was ideal for Pulver, and Lemmon held his own with Hollywood's best in a career-making role. Cagney is also aces as the world's touchiest skipper. All aboard for "Mister Roberts"!

Some Like It Hot (1959)- Out of work musicians Joe (Tony Curtis) and Jerry (Lemmon) snag a job performing in Illinois, only to witness the St. Valentine's Day Massacre after the gig. To escape the gangsters on their tail, the two disguise themselves as female musicians, and head to Florida with an all-girl orchestra. Both men fall for lead singer Sugar Kane (Marilyn Monroe), but their fake identities prevent them from acting on their desires- at least at first. Long before Tootsie and Mrs. Doubtfire, Billy Wilder gave us this comic, gender-bending masterpiece. Lemmon and Curtis make an ideal comic duo, Monroe sparkles as the object of their sisterly affections, and Joe E. Brown nearly steals the picture as a dotty millionaire besotted with Lemmon (in female form).

The Apartment (1960)- C.C. Baxter (Lemmon), a junior executive in an insurance company, climbs the corporate ladder by lending out his conveniently located apartment for the assignations of his superiors. Complications begin when the young man falls for elevator girl Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine), who is also the big boss's girlfriend. Here director Billy Wilder seamlessly blends comedy, romance and pathos in this touching tale of a lonely man forced to confront the corruption of his life just as he falls helplessly in love. With winning performances by all- and a priceless script by Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond- this film deservedly won Best Picture of 1960. Look for Fred MacMurray playing against type as Fran's married lover.

The Days Of Wine and Roses (1962)- After an initially awkward meeting at a boat party, publicist Joe Clay (Lemmon) and Kirsten Arnesen (Lee Remick) fall madly in love. The social and professional demands of the public-relations racket are nothing new to Joe, but gradually he converts Kirsten to his daily routine of swilling cocktails at most any hour. Over time, alcohol becomes integral to the young newlyweds' relationship, and threatens to destroy their life together. A downbeat love story pickled in bile and booze, this melodrama of addiction by the great Blake Edwards skirts the same terrain as "Lost Weekend" without ever getting preachy. Charles Bickford lends terrific support as Kirsten's widower father, as does Jack Klugman in a small role as Joe's AA sponsor. "Days" is a hard-hitting drama about love in the ruins, buoyed by Henry Mancini's melancholic jazz score.

The Odd Couple (1968)- When fussy, uptight Felix Unger (Lemmon) is thrown out of the house by his wife, he wanders the streets of New York in a depressive funk. Concerned about his best friend's mental state, the already divorced Oscar Madison (Walter Matthau) invites Felix to move in. Horrendously mismatched, Oscar and Felix are soon at each other's throats. Based on Neil Simon's award-winning Broadway play (in which Matthau also starred), "The Odd Couple" was the second and best pairing of real-life buddies Lemmon and Matthau, and spawned a long-running TV series. The inspired premise of a platonic, male love/hate relationship is best realized in this, the original film, with Lemmon's meticulous, melancholy Felix counter-balanced by Matthau's gruff Oscar, a carefree sportswriter who gives new meaning to the word "slovenly." In particular, don't miss the hilarious scenes with the duo's upstairs neighbors, the Pigeon sisters.

The China Syndrome (1979)- To the consternation of her bosses, ambitious TV reporter Kimberly Wells (Jane Fonda) wants to get away from doing cheesy lifestyle segments and latch on to a serious story. She inadvertently finds one when she and cameraman Richard Adams (Michael Douglas) go to cover a day in the life of a nearby power plant, and witness some frightening irregularities. Not surprisingly, the powers-that-be don't want their cover blown on these life-threatening issues, but senior plant official Jack Godell (Lemmon) won't accept a cover-up. This timely nail-biter is effective not only because director James Bridges gets all the fundamentals right, but because its explosive subject matter would soon hit home with a terrifying real-life incident at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in Pennsylvania. Lemmon's Godell is a shattering portrayal, for which the actor received an Oscar nod, and Fonda is appealing and believable as a journalist who wants to be more than a pretty face. Co-star Douglas also produced.

Missing (1983)- Tragic fact-based story of writer Charles Horman (John Shea) who disappears while covering political persecution in a South American country. His father Ed (Lemmon) travels there to locate him, or at least discover what happened to him. Charles's wife Beth (Sissy Spacek), who knows much more than Ed about real conditions and practices there, sets aside past issues with her father-in-law to push for the truth. Director Costa-Gavras's first American made film is a stunning political thriller, elevated not only by the ring of truth but a shattering Oscar-nominated performance by Lemmon. His Ed Horman is an imperfect father but a good American, who feels betrayed by the country he trusted, but also by his failure to make peace with a son he never fully accepted. Spacek makes the complex character of Beth her own, and we feel immense sympathy for this odd couple as they grope for answers they won't enjoy hearing.

Glengarry Glen Ross (1992)- As a "cold" real-estate market dampens prospects, motivation consultant Blake (Alec Baldwin) challenges the sales staff at Premiere Properties to a pointedly competitive contest: find buyers or lose your position. Shelley "The Machine" Levine (Lemmon), once a star huckster, can't seem to cut a break, and with a daughter in the hospital, becomes increasingly frantic. Meanwhile, egotistical Ricky Roma (Al Pacino) appears to be thriving amid the gloom, while beleaguered colleagues Dave Moss (Ed Harris) and George Aaronow (Alan Arkin) resort to a criminal scheme to get ahead. But who really wins and loses in this cutthroat set-up? Director James Foley's lacerating drama, adapted from David Mamet's Pulitzer Prize-winning play, is equal parts Arthur Miller and bald critique of Reaganomics-gone-bad. The terse dialogue, dreary office setting, and fist-gnawing sense of competition all push this stylish film into dramatic overdrive. Yet the heart and soul of "Glengarry" belongs to the tremendous ensemble cast: Arkin, Harris, Baldwin, and Pacino deliver stellar work, and Lemmon is brilliant as the achingly pathetic Levine. Edgy and dark, "Glengarry" endures as a potent film about white-collar desperation and the instinct for survival.

Jack Lemmon, thanks for the magic.


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