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  • Belle Brett

Odd Couples: The Many Faces of Jack Lemmon's Film Relationships

On this Valentine’s Day, not long before the Oscar ceremony, I was thinking about films that portray complex relationships of various kinds, not just romantic love. The prolific and talented late actor, Jack Lemmon (1925-2000), who hailed from the Boston area, sprung to mind. Although he made films over a 50-year period, in the decade between 1959 and 1968, he created some of his most memorable and critically-acclaimed roles, including five of my favorites that explore themes (albeit in different ways) found in my recently published novel, "Gina in the Floating World."

  1. Some Like It Hot (Billy Wilder, Director, 1959). Learning in disguise. Arguably one of the best movie comedies of all time, Lemmon as Jerry plays a musician who witnesses the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, and with his buddy Joe (Walter Matthau), flees Chicago to escape the gangsters. To make money, they join an all-girl band heading to Florida and disguise themselves as Daphne and Josephine. While Joe falls for one of the ukulele-playing band members, played by Marilyn Monroe, Jerry, as Daphne, allows himself to be wooed by a millionaire, who, when he finds out that Jerry is a man, says, “Well, nobody’s perfect.” Both Joe’s sweet dalliance with the millionaire, as he experiences life in Daphne’s shoes, and his loyal, but sometimes strained friendship with Jerry, as they jump in and out disguise, are a reminder, in all its humor, of how we learn from the roles we play.

  2. The Apartment (Billy Wilder, Director, 1960). The price of ambition. Just a year later, Lemmon starred in this tale of seemingly unrequited love. In an attempt to move up the corporate ladder, C.C. Baxter (Lemmon) lends his Manhattan apartment out to executives in his company so that they can carry on illicit affairs. This arrangement becomes more complicated when the married Sheldrake, the personnel director, who has some power over Baxter’s promotion, adds himself to the list to have a tryst with the elevator operator Fran (Shirley MacLaine) whom Baxter himself fancies. We feel Baxter’s pain as he develops deeper feelings for the object of his affection while helping her out as a result of things going badly wrong with Sheldrake. Will he get a backbone and win the heart of the woman he loves? And if so, at what price?

  3. The Days of Wine and Roses (Blake Edwards, Director, 1962). The curse of alcohol. Joe Clay (Lemmon) is a public relations man whose job involves a lot of drinking. When he meets Kirsten Lee Remick), who doesn’t drink, he lures her into his past-time through her love of chocolate (mixed with Brandy). They marry and start a family, but drinking starts to rule their lives. They try to break free from its grip, continually relapsing. This is a dark film that highlights the bad choices and consequences of addiction. Both leads won Oscars for their roles.

  4. Irma LaDouce (Billy Wilder, Director, 1963). The green-eyed monster. By-the-book Policeman Nester Patou (Lemmon) loses his job after conducting a raid in the Red Light District that included capturing his boss. Solacing himself with drink in a local bar, he converses with Irma, a hooker (Shirley MacLaine), beats up her pimp, and ends up as her pimp himself. But as he falls in love with her, he can’t stand sharing her with other people, so he creates a fictional persona for himself that allows him to keep her for himself. Even that strategy isn’t enough to keep his jealousy at bay.

  5. The Odd Couple (Neil Simon, Director, 1968). The ups and downs of friendship. This film is the prototype for the many buddy movies that follow it as well as a hit television series. After Felix’s (Lemmon) marriage falls apart, the outgoing and slobby Oscar (Walter Matthau) offers his home to his introverted, fastidious, and suicidal poker buddy. Felix happily takes over running the household in his way but can’t seem to get his ex out of his mind. Oscar’s attempts to encourage the pair to have a little fun with his female upstairs neighbors doesn’t go the way he planned, and his frustration with Felix, his habits, and his uptightness reaches boiling point. In the end, the film suggests that we as different as we may be from each other, good friends have an influence on each other. And of course, this film has one of my favorite lines from a movie: “I got brown sandwiches and green sandwiches. It's either very new cheese or very old meat.” (Oscar Madison)

Do you have a favorite Jack Lemmon movie? If so, which one, and what makes it your favorite?

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