THE TRANSATLANTIC MAGAZINE
Twist of Lemmon
"Growing up, the one question I was asked more than any other was, what was it like to be Jack Lemmon's son?"
These are the words Chris Lemmon speaks just before be becomes Jack Lemmon in this warm hearted one-man show. And, boy, does he become him. The physical resemblance is totally uncanny and Lemmon Jr. adds to it by taking on and amplifying all his father's familiar fussiness and nervous twitches.
The film historian David Thomson, never a fan, said of Lemmon that he was an "abject and ingratiating parody of himself". This was unkind but it hid a kernel of truth in that too often the layers of mannerism got in the way of Lemmon's performances, (particularly if the script was weak), despite him being a hugely skilled and meticulous actor.
Told almost entirely in the voice of his father, this is an endearing and often touching ramble though Lemmon's life, encompassing his comfortable Boston beginnings, his study of 'War Services Sciences' at Harvard which, he quips, was very useful in his later dealings with agents. We hear how he capitalised on the demand for actors in the early days of live TV drama in New York and soon got cast in Mister Roberts which won him his first Oscar and set him on his way. The impact of worldwide stardom is touched on as well as divorce from Cynthia (Chris's mother), his struggle with alcoholism, mirroring his hit with Days of Wine and Roses and dwelling on the pain of the separations from his son. This is shaky ground, bordering on self-justification, as he talks about the 'voices' which encouraged him to give up custody of his son but he never makes clear exactly who these 'voices' were or what were the contrary arguments. It is clear their relationship was a very loving one however.
But this isn't a family drama, rather it's an entertaining soufflé, so soon we move on to happier things, such as father and son's shared love of golf, at the famous Pebble Beach resort. Running time is 2 hours 15 minutes, whereas 90 minutes straight without an interval would have served it better. The golf anecdotes are repeated and outstay their welcome.
Confessional stage shows by the offspring of legends can often repel (e.g. Lorna Luft) but this manages to tread that very fine line between enlightenment and embarrassment. It is well crafted and efficiently staged by Hugh Wooldridge, with cleverly chosen stills and video clips which beautifully illustrate the span of a great acting career. We hear about the glories and tortures of working with Marilyn and an extended section devoted to Walther Matthau who was as a brother to Lemmon.
Chris, a talented pianist, also delivers some great standards associated with his father and two numbers he penned himself to break up the narrative. If you love Lemmon you'll come away charmed. If you don't know much about him you won't get particularly fresh insights, nevertheless it is a warm bask in the glow of a great talent.