Television: Portrait of the artist as an old man

Last night was Jack Lemmon night on BBC2. Why?
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The Independent Culture
Scene by Scene with Jack Lemmon


It now seems established practice on BBC2, outside World Cups and the Wimbledon season, to devote most of the Saturday schedules to films, with double or even treble bills of one actor or director. Coming in the midst of yesterday's Jack Lemmon treble (Some Like it Hot, The Odd Couple, Glengarry Glen Ross), Mark Cousins's interview ought to have been a celebration. It turned into something different from that.

Of course, these casual conversations are full of artificiality. "I've never met him," Cousins said in his brief intro, but within minutes he was calling him "Jack". Long before that, the videotape has been prepared, the choice of extracts from the films determined, by considerations of copyright and availability as well as by pertinence; still photographs can be added later, so that when Lemmon tells a story about the birth of his son, what the viewer sees is a picture of the actor holding the infant in his arms.

A brief glimpse of the cameras and crew at the start and finish of the programme reminded us that this chat was taking place not in a cosy living room, but in some restaurant lounge amid a confusion of lights and trailing wires. No doubt, even the dog's walk-on appearance was calculated.

What you cannot calculate, even in the cutting room, is the sum of the parts. At 73, Lemmon is no longer a young man, so it is hardly surprising that many of those with whom he worked in the industry have died. But so many former colleagues here turned out to have "since passed on" or to be "sadly, no longer with us", that before long, Lemmon had given up the pretence of grief (the watery eye was the result of an infection, anyway) and he was almost starting to enjoy it. "He died last week," Cousins said, at the mention of Charlie Lang, the photographer on Some Like It Hot. "There's another one gone!" said Lemmon, and they both had a good chuckle over old Charlie (who was, after all, 93), with the complicity of a couple of naughty boys.

All the same, it did create the impression that the actor was a bit of a relic, well past his prime, which was not helped by the heavy emphasis on the early years, with only three of the 10 featured films having been made since 1967. Not only did this suggest that he has done little worth noticing in the past 30 years, but it also meant that the face we saw on the video was consistently much younger than the one on the sofa.

In reality, one notable aspect of Lemmon's career has been the regular flow of work since his first screen appearance in George Cukor's It Should Happen to You, back in 1954. There were some bad parts in bad movies - one was grateful not to be reminded of Dad - but this was a very patchy account of a career that has included directing, producing and acting on television and in the theatre, as well as knowing how to look anxious on screen, as a foil to Walter Matthau (or others who have also, now, sadly, left us).

That is another thing about Lemmon's acting: even though he seems to have made some effort to escape from stereotyping, he takes his personality with him from part to part. He has a limited repertoire of gestures: that "who, me?" mouthed silently as he points to his chest; or the patting of the stomach at moments of high anxiety - which, as Cousins rather cruelly emphasised, spans the entire Lemmon oeuvre, from It Should Happen to You to Glengarry Glen Ross ("stomach again," the interviewer could be heard to mutter, as the last clip was running - though we were unlikely, by then, to miss it). Recurrent problems with sinuses or adenoids are another Lemmon trademark and the source of some great comic moments.

As you might expect from his screen persona, he came across as an agreeable and decent man, with kind words for everyone: Rita Hayworth was "a lovely lady", so was Marilyn Monroe ("I liked her ... I knew she had problems, but it was none of my business"); even the notorious Harry Cohn was just "a tough guy". Lemmon has no great intellectual pretensions: his acting is that of someone who learned early what he could do, and has kept right on doing it; which may explain why he gives such consistent, if not deep pleasure.

When he was making Some Like It Hot, he told us, Billy Wilder hired a French female impersonator to teach him and Tony Curtis how to behave like women. The tutor soon despaired of Lemmon, who would not play by the rules and was "more interested in being funny than in being correct". Funny he was. But one suspects that a greater actor might have seen the comic opportunities that lie in accuracy.