Few actors had the decade that Jack Lemmon did in the 1960’s. Not every film was a classic but most very very good.
Here’s a look at each film ranked from worst to first.
Luv (1967) Based on a Broadway play, Lemmon produced this film for his own company. Bad decision as the film failed at the box office. A winner of several Tony Awards and directed by Mike Nichols on Broadway, the film is a mess and audiences stayed away. Lemmon’s character gets involved with his friend’s wife, they eventually marry, and then she wants to go back to her old husband. Funny stuff. Not.
The Notorious Landlady (1962) Another comedy that didn’t quite work, it had the right ingredients but something went wrong. The participants involved Blake Edwards, Larry Gelbart and Richard Quine, but they tried to pile on too much. Lemmon plays an American in London who falls for a woman suspected of killing her husband. The story has a lot of contortions, a big chase scene and a subplot involving stolen jewels. An interesting premise but no cigar.
Good Neighbor Sam (1964) Lemmon plays Sam Bissell a hard-working family man who tries to help his neighbor by posing as her husband so she can collect an inheritance. Mistaken identity, snooping relatives and the arrival of the woman’s ex-husband create calamity. This is watered-down Billy Wilder material, not terrible, but he’s done it so much better. Lemmon is the thing to watch here.
Under the Yum Yum Tree (1963) Lemmon plays Hogan, a playboy apartment complex owner who only rents to young women. His most current tenant/girlfriend is moving out, she has found a more adult boyfriend. Her niece moves into the vacant apartment with her boyfriend in a platonic relationship to see if they have what it takes for a long-term relationship. Hogan decides to break them up so he can scoop up the girlfriend. Lemmon plays lecherous well, he is smooth, conniving and a sympathetic character all in one. Lemmon has fun with this grown-up topic.
The Wackiest Ship in the Army (1960) Lemmon is Lt. Rip Crandall who is convinced to command a ship with sails on a mission from New Zealand to New Guinea. At first he refuses then is maneuvered into accepting the mission. He is supposed to turn the ship over to a replacement but convinces himself to keep command to drop a coastwatcher into Japanese held territory. The story is slight but Lemmon does a fine job with the mix of light comedy and drama, with Ricky Nelson in a co-starring role.
The Great Race (1965) Lemmon in a dual role, Professor Fate / Crown Prince Frederick Hoepnick, in a huge comedy production by Blake Edwards, who spares no expense in this film. The premise is an automobile race from New York to Paris. The main characters are Professor Fate, the Great Leslie (Tony Curtis) and Maggie DuBois (Natalie Wood). Lemmon is like the Roadrunner cartoon character, constantly trying to foil Leslie with stunts that always seem to backfire. Lemmon turns in a fine comic performance.
Irma la Douce (1963) Lemmon is Nestor Patou an honest Paris policeman who is fired for enforcing the law in the red light district, much to his police superior’s dissatisfaction. Down on his luck, Lemmon is taken in by one of the prostitutes, and he eventually becomes her pimp. Lemmon falls for her and in an effort to have her spend her time with just one client, invents “Lord X.” The charade backfires as she prefers Lord X to Nestor, so he disposes of the Lord X garments, but this is mistaken for a murder, which casts the light on Nestor, who is jailed. He escapes and figures out a way to bring Lord X back to life for just enough time to prove he wasn’t murdered, and reunites with Irma who is pregnant. They rush to get married before she delivers the baby. This was a huge hit for Lemmon, and Billy Wilder who wrote and directed the film.
How to Murder Your Wife (1965) Lemmon plays cartoonist Stanley Ford, a confirmed bachelor, with a life he loves. He acts out his cartoon strip of a secret agent, photographing the scene, making sure it would work in real life, before committing it to drawing. One morning he wakes up, after another wild evening and discovers he has accidentally married a girl who speaks only Italian. Unable to simply annul the marriage, he tries to deal with it. He’s torn between his attraction to her and how she changes his life, including his comic strip from secret agent o bumbling husband. Finally, he decides to “murder” the fictitious comic strip wife to get the secret agent back. He acts out and photographs the “plot” for the comic strip, but his real wife discovers it and believes he wants to get rid of her, so she packs up and disappears. The comic strip is published and he is accused of actually murdering his wife, goes to trial and is acquitted. Remember, this was the mid 1960’s, still a man’s world, so the jury sides with the man. Returning home, he discovers his wife has also returned, and he is actually happy about it. Lemmon excels in these parts, a mixture of confident hero/sad sack. The film is obviously very dated and quite sexist, but view it through the silly lens of the time.
The April Fools (1969) Howard Brubaker (Lemmon) is promoted into a great job, working for a swinger boss. Lemmon is an unhappy, henpecked husband, more unhappy than he realizes. He attends a party given by his boss, who instructs him to pick up a woman, which he does. The two leave the party and spend the evening together, encountering an older married couple who encourage them to follow their hearts, and discover they really have something in common. She decides to return to Paris, where she is from, and Brubaker decides to quit his new job, and leave his wife. It turns out the woman is actually the unhappy wife of his boss, who tries to convince her to return but he’s more interested in not losing her than keeping her. As she boards a plane for Paris, she doesn’t know if Brubaker is going to join her, but at the last minute he shows up. Again, you have to view this film through the lens of the time and suspend your belief as the film journeys through some silliness.
The Fortune Cookie (1966) The first pairing of Lemmon and Walter Matthau. The fourth film Lemmon made with Billy Wilder. Lemmon stars as hapless Harry Hinkle, a television camerman injured while working a Cleveland Browns football game. His brother-in-law lawyer, Matthau, convinces him to hold out for a big insurance payoff, even though Lemmon is not seriously injured. Enter Hinkle’s ex-wife, a gold-digger talked into being part of the scheme by Matthau in exchange for some insurance loot. Hinkle begins to fall for his ex-wife again, that’s his motivation for staying in the swindle, but he begins to figure out it is all an illusion and he doesn’t like it. Lemmon plays a character similar to Baxter from The Apartment, a sentimental romantic, who believes in dreams but he’s an honest guy.
Days of Wine and Roses (1962) Lemmon plays Joe Clay in a drama about alcoholism. Lemmon did not do many dramas until later in his career. Directed by Blake Edwards and co-starring Lee Remick, this is a power story of addiction and ruined lives. Lemmon’s character is a functioning alcoholic who turns his girlfriend then wife into an alcoholic as well. Their lives spiral downward until he is committed to a hospital to dry out. When he is released, he locates his wife whose life had hit bottom. With her, he starts drinking again, but eventually is able to shake alcohol to become a responsible father. He tries to reconnect with his wife who had become a full-fledged alcoholic and decides he must stay away from her because she won’t stop drinking. Lemmon was a fine dramatic actor and you feel his pain, deeply. A difficult film to watch but full of great performances.
The Apartment (1960) Lemmon began the decade with one of his best films, another Billy Wilder comedy/drama. Lemmon stars as C.C. Baxter, a low-level executive that loans out his apartment so many managers can entertain their mistresses. The personnel manager wants in on the action so he too can entertain. Baxter becomes attracted to one of the girls (Fran) the personnel manager has been involved with, although Baxter doesn’t know it at first. She attempts suicide and Baxter helps her recuperate, bringing them closer together. Baxter refuses to loan his apartment any longer, the personnel manager is thrown out by his wife, and thinks he can get back with Fran, but she comes to the realization that Baxter is the one who really cares for her. Nominated for 10 Academy Awards, it won five, including best picture, director and screenplay.
The Odd Couple (1968) Many actors have played Felix Ungar, including Art Carney who originated the part on Broadway, but Lemmon is the best of the lot. The story of the film is well known and the pairing of Lemmon and Matthau is simply masterful. The two had such great chemistry. Lemmon is a tour de force as Felix, a sad, neurotic, broken man. Cleaning and cooking is his way of dealing with his upside down life, and he does it with passion and flair. While driving Oscar crazy, Felix eventually regains enough self-respect and gumption to get his life together and move out. Watching Lemmon painfully show Felix’s quirks and respiratory oddities is worth the price of admission. Is this Lemmon’s finest role of the decade? You decide.
Lemmon won Academy Awards in both the 1950’s and 1970’s, but he mined his best work in the decade in between. He had a very sympathetic face and kind manner, so you believed him in light-hearted comedies, and forgave him as a villain. Mostly, he did smart, hip comedies, although at times the material proved a bit thin. Perhaps the material couldn’t support the weight of his talent. Lemmon could go from zero to manic in a second, he could really dial up the energy, and you always knew what his character was feeling, but you weren’t sure what he was going to do with it. Lemmon’s two creative partnerships were in full force during the 1960’s. Writer/director Billy Wilder had his biggest hit with Lemmon. The pairing of Lemmon and Matthau was an on-screen thing to behold. If you want to take a journey through the 1960’s, from the adult’s point of view, check out the films above.