Essays · Movies

The Enduring Appeal of Billy Wilder and Jack Lemmon’s Decades-Spanning Collaboration

Their professional partnership constituted seven exceptional films and one of Hollywood’s most dazzling, symbiotic actor/director relationships.
Billy Wilder And Jack Lemmon Collaborations
By  · Published on June 10th, 2018

The streets of cinema are cluttered with fruitful and classic actor/director partnerships. Comprised of one muse and one artist mutually inspiring each other to produce engrossing films, these fascinating duos allow us to trace their relationship and growth as artists, reminding us of the joyful outcomes of effective collaborations along the way.

Filmmaker Billy Wilder and actor Jack Lemmon — whose third collaboration, Irma la Douce celebrates its 55th anniversary this week — are among one of the most creative and iconic actor-director alliances, alongside Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese, Toshiro Mifune and Akira Kurosawa, and Max von Sydow and Ingmar Bergman. Throughout their decades-spanning collaboration, Wilder and Lemmon produced seven memorable films together and made a stunning contribution to film.

Before meeting Lemmon, Wilder was already known as one of Hollywood’s great dependables with a remarkable, diverse list of credits: Double Indemnity, The Lost Weekend, Sabrina, Ace in the Hole, and Sunset Boulevard. With an astute thoughtfulness, cynical tone, and inclination toward dark comedy serving as some of the few commonalities between his films, Wilder did not limit himself down to a specific genre, and his versatility was admired by critics and movie-goers alike.

Before his first collaboration with Wilder, Lemmon was mainly known as a clean-cut comedic supporting player, despite proving his talent in an Oscar-winning performance as Ensign Frank Thurlowe Pulver in John Ford’s comedy-war film Mister Roberts. By the mid-1950s, Wilder and Lemmon both showcased their unique skills to moviegoers, but many of their talents were still left unrealized, namely Wilder’s capability to make an outright comedy, and Lemmon’s capability to become leading man material.

Some Like it Hot (1959)

Wilder and Lemmon’s sensibilities and reputations radically changed with their first collaboration, the near-universally adored comedy Some Like it Hot, co-starring Marilyn Monroe and Tony Curtis. Notably, the casting of Lemmon as Jerry/Daphne was a twist of fate. Wilder initially expressed interest in Frank Sinatra, who turned down the role. With a newfound desire to cast an up-and-coming actor, Wilder turned to Lemmon, who’d impressed the director in his performance as a lovelorn World War II soldier in Richard Quine’s Operation Mad Ball.

One night, Wilder approached Lemmon at a restaurant and explained the basic ridiculous premise of Some Like it Hot: two musicians dress in drag and join an all-female jazz band to escape gangsters, with shenanigans and puzzling romantic entanglements ensuing thereafter. Wilder asked Lemmon if he was interested. Lemmon instantly agreed to take on the role.

Lemmon’s capacity to blindly trust Wilder’s vision, despite only being provided with a two-minute pitch, set a precedent for the years to come. While their subsequent films never quite rivaled the absurdity or comedic delight of Some Like it Hot, Wilder’s films often entailed a mesh of moods, balancing outright comedy with earnest romanticism and complex subject matter like loneliness, the contradictions of capitalism, and gender dynamics. In other words, his demanding films often required willful risk-taking and versatility from his actors. Lemmon’s faith in Wilder — and himself — paid off time and time again, but most noticeably in Some Like it Hot.

Widely regarded as one of the best comedies ever made, Some Like it Hot also features one of Lemmon’s finest performances. He interprets Wilder’s words and character progression with masterful ease: when Jerry begins his female disguise, he complains about the discomfort of heels and his dress. By the end of the film, he is utterly immersed in his feminine persona, from his genuine gushing about his engagement to millionaire Osgood Fielding III (Joe E. Brown) to his crestfallen gaze after Sugar Kane (Monroe) declares her envy for Daphne’s flat-chestedness.

The film also remains a testament to Wilder’s competence as a moviemaker. Not only did he deftly balance the film’s themes and tones, but he also creatively shot the comedy as if it was an ordinary drama. The situations Lemmon and Curtis’ characters encounter are farcical, but their characters and arcs are presented with the utmost seriousness — which, of course, drew all the more attention to the film’s infectious outrageousness.

The film achieved enormous critical and commercial success, and it also was an auspicious debut for one of the film’s greatest collaborations. The outcomes of this first collaboration impacted both Wilder and Lemmon’s career trajectories, with Wilder making an indelible turn to comedies and satires, and Lemmon becoming one of Hollywood’s most likable, beloved leads.

The Apartment (1960)

Some Like it Hot is often regarded as Wilder/Lemmon’s most remembered effort, but many Wilder fans, including our very own Rob Hunter, consider The Apartment the duo’s finest achievement. A bittersweet comedy about infidelity, loneliness, and unrequited love, Lemmon stars as C.C. Baxter, a low-level office man correctly defined by Roger Ebert as a “definitive lonely guy.” During cold and treacherous December nights, Baxter rents out his apartment for company executives to use for their illicit extramarital affairs in exchange for raises and promotions. In his spare time, Baxter dreams of an office of his own and one of the charming elevator girls, Miss Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine).

With an equally poignant and lighthearted tone, The Apartment starkly departs from the farcical quality of Some Like it Hot and remains a crucial touchstone of Wilder and Lemmon’s careers. The film’s underlying melancholy still resonates today, mostly due to Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond’s tightly constructed script. Baxter and Miss Kubelik share a genuine bond, but they’re too preoccupied compromising their values to receive attention from one of the company’s top executives – played by the excellent Fred MacMurray – to directly act on their feelings.

Wilder portrays the human condition with a compelling vulnerability. We can’t condone Baxter and Kubelik’s depraved actions, but we all understand how the distressing responsibilities of work can rupture someone’s value systems. Jack Lemmon himself sums up Wilders’s interest with the imperfections of his characters: “Another thing I loved about The Apartment…was the fact that there were so many faults with the characters. Billy was never afraid. As a matter of fact, he would seemingly go out of his way to manifest the faults within characters because we all are faulted.”

The Apartment was also an illuminating transition in Lemmon’s career. In his employment of the tragically relatable everyman persona, he proved his versatility to millions of moviegoers and earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor.

Irma la Douce (1963)

Noted for an arduous two-and-a-half-hour runtime and occasional dullness, Wilder and Lemmon’s third collaboration, Irma la Douce, fails to reach the soaring highs of Some Like it Hot and The Apartment. Regardless of its faults, the film was the fifth highest-grossing film of 1963, reaffirming the star power of Wilder and his two lead actors, Lemmon and MacLaine, who reunite as love interests.

Lemmon plays Nester, an eccentric, uptight Parisian cop that falls in love with an endearing prostitute with a heart of gold, Irma la Douce (Maclaine). After Nester gets fired from his job, he meticulously tries to get Irma out of her profession by becoming her pimp and later adopting a British alter ego, “Lord X” — a conflation of British malapropisms, complete with bucked teeth, an eyepatch, a mustache, and an exaggerated pompous accent —  to occupy all her time.

Unlike most Wilder films, Irma la Douce suffers from its convoluted premise, and its sluggish, haphazard pace prompts vapid characterizations: while Lemmon showcases moments of great visual comedy, his character is often left adrift with fizzling comedic material. Though the film mainly stands as an anachronism today, it still offers stunning production values and a nominal amount of boundless fun.

The Fortune Cookie (1966)

The Lemmon-Wilder partnership — and The Fortune Cookie — is also noteworthy for producing another famous duo: Lemmon and Walter Matthau, who appeared in 11 films together throughout their careers. When TV cameraman Harry Hinkle (Lemmon) becomes accidentally injured at a football game, his shyster attorney and brother-in-law, Willie (Matthau) convinces him to feign paralysis to maximize insurance fallout.

The majority of the film’s acerbic and relentlessly funny lines go to Matthau, but Lemmon shines in a more subdued and vulnerable role as a lovelorn, passive knucklehead without ever overplaying the character’s worthiness of audience sympathy. Confined to a wheelchair for most of the film, Lemmon still provides a genius physicality — the three and a half minute single shot of him dancing in his wheelchair to “You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To” is especially wonderful.

As the bleaker cousin to The Apartment, The Fortune Cookie mostly features amoral, self-serving narcissists futilely trying to outmaneuver each other, resulting in an embittered film that nearly slips into harrowing surrealism. The Fortune Cookie is the final great film made between Lemmon and Wilder, one emblematic of both of their strengths: Wilder’s ability to render the struggles of sustaining basic decency in an unfair world, and Lemmon’s expertise in counteracting Wilder’s cynicism with an endearing, debonair humor and deeply human sensibility.

Avanti! (1972)

One of the more overlooked Wilder/Lemmon collaborations, Avanti! stars Lemmon as Walter, an uptight, slightly befuddled businessman who travels to the Italian island of Ischia to claim his father’s body. Much to his dismay, Lemmon discovers that his old man had a mistress for several years, and the two died together in a car accident. The mistress’s daughter, Pamela (Juliet Mills), also has arrived on the island to claim her parent’s body, and she and Walter eventually fall in love.

While not groundbreaking by any means, Avanti! paints a charming love story with two memorable leads at its center. Lemmon again inhabits his signature je ne sais quoi — even when he unjustifiably lashes out at Pamela, we still root for him, as his blatant flaws become more forgiving when we see him at his most decent and sincere.

This is most memorable during an understated yet moving scene wherein Lemmon expresses his gratitude for Pamela, who splits a bundle of bright yellow flowers into equal halves and positions them on top of her mother’s and Walter’s father’s bodies. With two likable leads and beautiful production design, Avanti! is one of the looser, more insouciant Wilder/Lemmon efforts, and one deserving of more attention.

The Front Page (1974)

One of the weakest Wilder/Lemmon collaborations, The Front Page is one of several adaptations of Ben Hecht and Charlie MacArthur’s Broadway play of the same name, including Howard Hawks’s ultra-classic His Girl Friday. The film reunites Matthau and Lemmon. Matthau plays egomaniac editor Walter Burns, who attempts to keep his best reporter, Hildy Johnson (Lemmon), from retiring and encourages him to cover the story of an escaped death row convict hiding in their office.

While Matthau and Lemmon are both engaging, The Front Page ultimately fails to be the film it could have been: hysterical, satirical, smart. Instead, it resorts to a disingenuous cynicism and an over-dependence on foul language and vulgarity for cheap laughs.

Buddy Buddy (1981)

Buddy Buddy is the final Wilder/Lemmon effort, as well as Wilder’s last film as director. The film is not exactly an ideal swan song for such a sublime duo: it’s somewhat bland, dated, and lacks Wilder’s technical sleekness and precision (the rear projection is entertainingly atrocious).

The film centers on a hitman, Trabucco (Matthau) who checks into a hotel during a Mafia testimony case, while his unhappy neighbor next door (Lemmon) attempts suicide. The film was hardly a passion project for Wilder. Normally he developed his own films, but with Buddy Buddy, he was pressured by MGM to direct his favorite actors, Matthau and Lemmon, who had already signed up for the project.

Firmly a beloved figure of Old Hollywood, Wilder was nearly eighty while filming Buddy Buddy, and his out-of-touch attempts at integrating “edgy” jokes about drugs and sex only proved his age. Years later, Wilder lamented his dissatisfaction with the film: “If I met all my old pictures in a crowd, personified, there are some that would make me happy and proud, and I would embrace them … but Buddy Buddy I’d try to ignore.”

There are few things as disheartening as a filmmaker acknowledging the badness of their own films, especially when said film is also their final directed effort. However, films like Buddy Buddy in no way negate Wilder and Lemmon’s legacy — at this point in their careers, Wilder (alongside Lemmon) had already made an insurmountable contribution to Hollywood. If anything, Buddy Buddy is a testament to Wilder and Lemmon’s sheer enthusiasm for working with each other, even at the hands of a less refined script.

There are some popular director/actor partnerships (Werner Herzog and Klaus Kinski) who are renowned for their tumultuous offscreen hostility. Wilder and Lemmon are not one of these duos. Up until the end of their lives, they remained great friends and never failed to express their shared personal and professional admiration for each other.

“I promised myself, ‘I’m not going to let him do all those marvelous tricks.’ But I’m helpless.  Jack’s talent seduces me, and I’m too weakened to resist,” insisted Wilder in a 1963 article for Life magazine. Here, Wilder not only encapsulates the warmth of his and Lemmon’s relationship, but he also reflects the skills of both parties: Lemmon’s infectious and high-spirited prowess, and Wilder’s confidence to trust Lemmon’s broad comedic antics and use his open-faced charm to neutralize his scripts’ overarching bleakness.

Wilder and Lemmon’s seven collaborations were mere raindrops in a thunderstorm when considering their exhaustive filmography. They participated in dozens of films without each other, although the sum of their collaborations constitutes one of the most dynamic, gripping relationships in cinema. Let us all aspire to speak of our creative partners as Lemmon spoke about Wilder: “To be with and work with Billy Wilder is sheer bliss.  He is the most extraordinary man I have ever known.”

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