The Five Best Jack Lemmon Performances

For today’s guest post, Rick Armstrong presents what he feels are Jack Lemmon‘s best performances. Will you agree with his choices, or do you feel that your favorite was left off this list? Either way, let us know what you think in the comments below!

1. The Apartment (1960) – This is an obvious choice, but I can’t think of a better Jack Lemmon performance than his turn as ambitious junior executive C.C. Baxter. It helps, of course, that Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond provide Lemmon with an extremely well-written character that allows the actor to showcase both his dramatic and comedic skills. His scenes opposite Shirley MacLaine are legendary, but his best acting in this Wilder gem may be his climatic confrontation opposite Fred MacMurray’s heartless Mr. Sheldrake.

2. Some Like It Hot (1959) – He may be third-billed, but Jack Lemmon generates more laughs than anyone else in another Wilder classic. He plays a struggling bass player who witnesses a gangland massacre and goes on the lam with pal Tony Curtis–only they’re disguised as members of an all-female band. As the blonde-wigged Daphne, Lemmon delivers many of the best one-liners and shines brightly in one of the funniest scenes: Daphne’s tango with her wealthy suitor Osgood Fielding III (Joe E. Brown).

3. The China Syndrome (1979) – In probably the best of his later-career performances, Jack Lemmon plays a shift supervisor at a nuclear plant who gradually realizes that the reactor is dangerously close to a meltdown. Lemmon brilliantly transforms his character from an unassuming, loyal employee to one willing to do anything to expose the truth and the danger of a large-scale disaster. The performance earned him the sixth of his eight Oscar nominations. His other nominations include both Some Like It Hot and The Apartment. He won a Best Actor Oscar for Save the Tiger (1974) and a Supporting Actor Oscar for Mister Roberts (1956).

4. Days of Wine and Roses (1962) – My wife doesn’t like to watch this Blake Edwards film–not because it’s not a fine picture, but because Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick are achingly good as a couple that ruin their lives through alcoholism. It’d be easy to overact in some of the more dramatic scenes–such as when Lemmon’s character is confined in a strait-jacket in a sanatorium. Instead, Lemmon somehow elicits sympathy for a man who has brought on his own demons and introduced them to his wife.

5. Avanti! (1972) – One of Wilder’s last films stars Jack Lemmon as an uptight American businessman who journeys to a small Italian town to retrieve the body of his father, who died in a car accident. To his surprise, Lemmon learns that his father was having an affair—secretly meeting his lover in the same hotel every August for the past ten years. Furthermore, Dad’s mistress died in the same accident and her daughter (Juliet Mills) shows up for the funeral. After a very leisurely opening, this quirky love story turns on the charm…helped immeasurably by the scenic setting, memorable music, and incredible chemistry between Lemmon and Mills. It’s the least known film on this list, but well worth seeking out.

Honorable Mentions: Mister Roberts; Cowboy; and The Odd Couple.

Rick29 is a film reference book author and a regular contributor at the Classic Film & TV Café , on Facebook and Twitter. He’s a big fan of MovieFanFare, too, of course!