When Life Gives You Lemmon

Whenever I’m not feeling well, I have this compulsion to watch old movies. I don’t know what it is. An expected level of comfort, of relatively uncomplicated plot? The idea that something might remind me of a happier time? I can’t diagnose it. But I know I felt pretty awful on Sunday, so I watched an old movie.

Said movie was The Apartment, Billy Wilder’s 1960 film. I don’t know why I chose that title specifically for my sick-day viewing, but I’d scrolled through it on Netflix so many times and always said, “oh, I’ll get around to it.” Sick days are made for watching the stuff you never otherwise get around to.

I absolutely loved every second of The Apartment, and it was pretty much all because of Jack Lemmon’s performance. It was a sight to behold.

When I think about why I love the movies I love, I gravitate toward a film’s overarching theme, or a certain funny scene, or a quirky character, or the way a movie channels history. I’m trying to get better at appreciating performances – recognizing when an actor is just going for it, and it is not the character I love but what the character is because of the performer.

Does that even make sense? Well, it’s all I could think of when watching Lemmon play C.C. Baxter. I loved his physical comedy, not just the way he moved about a space, but his facial expressions, too, and quick gestures. And I loved the way he played Baxter’s sweeter, softer side. That it never came on too strong, but was always a believable part of his whole character.

Actually, I loved that about Shirley MacLaine’s performance, too. Sometimes with older movies, it’s hard for me to buy the way characters turn on a dime to realize this person they despise or simply tolerate is actually the person they love. With Kubelik and Baxter, I totally believed it. I’d seen them weather enough together and apart to believe their story could happen.

Watching The Apartment made me realize how long I’ve now been cheated out of appreciating Jack Lemmon. I think I have a pretty solid knowledge of old Hollywood stars, but Lemmon actually falls outside the window of time inhabited by the ones I knew best, like Jimmy Stewart and Cary Grant. If Jack Lemmon came up in conversation before Sunday, I could say, “Oh, yeah, I know who he is,” but I couldn’t have pointed to his photo.

But now I can, and I can’t wait to become well-acquainted with his work. Actually, when I reading about him after the movie, I realized that day – February 8 – would have been his birthday. I’m choosing to view that as a sign from the movie universe that I need to watch more of his stuff. And I will, once I’m recovered from my obsession with The Apartment.

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