It's one of the all-time best pairings of director and actor. Over the course of 22 years, Billy Wilder and Jack Lemmon made 7 films together, 2 of which are considered amongst the greatest films ever made. Together, they made some of the smartest and most memorable comedies ever committed to film, bringing out the best in each other in the process. Though each would have great success with other artists, the power of their work together cannot be denied.
The partnership between Billy Wilder and Jack Lemmon could not have gotten off to a better start. Some Like It Hot is, quite simply, one of the greatest comedies ever made and under Wilder's direction, Lemmon delivers a brilliant performance. With such classics as Double Indemnity, The Lost Weekend, Sunset Boulevard, Ace in the Hole, Stalag 17, Sabrina and Witness for the Prosecution (not to mention 3 Oscars) to his credit, Wilder had already firmly established himself as one of the most important directors of his generation before his first project with Lemmon, while Lemmon had already started to establish himself as an actor and earned a Best Supporting Actor Oscar. That said, his first project with the director certainly helped propel Lemmon into leading man status, while Lemmon's broad comedic instincts (Wilder once referred to Lemmon as a natural "ham" with fat that needed to be trimmed) helped push Wilder in a new direction. Some Like It Hot wasn't Wilder's first comedy, but it has a looser feeling and a more farcical approach than any of the films he'd made previously.
One classic followed immediately by another. In their first film, Wilder cast Lemmon as the comic relief sidekick to Tony Curtis' romantic lead. Here, Lemmon is the romantic lead in a story where everyone around him treats him like the comic relief sidekick. As the ambitious executive looking to climb up the corporate ladder, Lemmon strikes a fine balance between wiliness and desperation, and Wilder's directorial instincts towards "trimming" the fat serve Lemmon well here, reigning him in so that the gap between the film's comedic and dramatic elements is never too far apart. Lemmon received an Oscar nomination for his performance here, which is alternately funny and touching, while Wilder would take home a much deserved Oscar for Best Director. In all honesty, the two could have stopped with just these two films and their partnership would still be considered one of the greatest of all time because the sheer quality of these two projects is undeniable.
Irma la Douce not only reteamed Wilder and Lemmon, it also reteamed the pair with Shirley MacLaine, who turned in a heartbreaking performance in The Apartment which matched Lemmon's note for note. Though it was a considerable hit when it was released, Irma la Douce seems to have fallen somewhat out of favor since then, perhaps because on a superficial level the characters that Lemmon and MacLaine play here share some similarities with their characters in The Apartment. The two films, however, are ultimately as different as night and day and though this one doesn't contain the depths of The Apartment, it's a lively and entertaining film in which the parties try to put a new spin on some familiar things.
The Fortune Cookie is the point at which a great director/actor pairing meets one of the great actor/actor pairings in film. Capturing lightning in a bottle by pairing Lemmon with Walter Mathau, Wilder tells the cynical story of a sleazy lawyer who convinces his brother-in-law to fake a personal injury so that they can get a big payday. Lemmon seems to take a bit of a backseat here to Mathau as the sly and calculating lawyer, but really the Lemmon/Mathau screen pairing was always a give-and-take and Wilder gives them room enough to develop what would become one of the silver screen's most enduring pairings. It's to Wilder's credit, and speaks highly of the relationship between the director and actor after three films, that he trusted Lemmon's instincts in casting Mathau over bigger stars such as Frank Sinatra and Jackie Gleason, who were his first two choices.
After two decades of pretty much constant work, putting out a film every year or two, Wilder had slowed down a bit by this point. Four years passed between The Fortune Cookie and his next film (The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes) and then another two before he reteamed with Lemmon. Lemmon, meanwhile, had continued working at a steady pace and to continued success (including teaming up with Mathau again for The Odd Couple) when he signed on for this comedy about a conservative businessman who goes to Italy to claim his father's body and falls for the daughter of his father's mistress. Written by Wilder and his longtime collaborator I.A.L. Diamond, Lemmon's character was tailor made for him and his screen persona, but Wilder was ultimately disappointed with the film. To be sure, Avanti! doesn't have the same spark as Wilder and Lemmon's best films, but very few films do. This is a lesser Wilder/Lemmon effort, but it's not a bad film and is worthy of reconsideration, particularly for the ways that it departs from the pair's previous efforts.
Remakes are tricky things, remakes of classics even more so. The Front Page was made first as His Girl Friday, a screwball comedy with Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell. Wilder's version returns to the roots of the stage play as more of a buddy comedy with the two leads both men, and uses it as an opportunity to reunite with Lemmon and Mathau. Though this is a noticeably slower film than the breakneck His Girl Friday, in part because Wilder wouldn't let the actors overlap their dialogue, it's difficult to fault Wilder for wanting to keep the pace slow enough that the wit of the writing could be fully grasped and appreciated. Besides, with the flawless chemistry of Lemmon and Mathau propelling the story forward the film has enough energy to keep things running smoothly and make the endeavor worth it, even if it doesn't quite compare with His Girl Friday.
Buddy Buddy was Wilder's final film and he more or less disavowed it after the fact, which is understandable. Stars Lemmon and Mathau were also less than enthusiastic about the project, with the latter stating "This wasn't a Billy Wilder picture." There's a rushed feeling to the film and while Lemmon and Mathau's chemistry continues to crackle, the director's chemistry with the stars is somewhat lacking. After the fact Lemmon would admit to feeling less free to make suggestions while making this film, and that change in the atmosphere on set and level of communication between director and actor shows (it also reveals why, in hindsight, their previous films had worked so well). This is not the Wilder/Lemmon pairings of old and it makes for an inauspicious end to one of the greatest actor/director partnerships ever to grace the big screen, but nothing can diminish the greatness of the films that came before it. Buddy Buddy isn't up to par, but the legacy of the Wilder/Lemmon collaboration is more than secure.
Next Time: Wes Anderson & Bill Murray