Thursday, January 28, 2010

Jack Lemmon: Save the Tiger

"The government has a word for survival. It's called fraud."

- Jack Lemmon as Harry Stoner, Save the Tiger (1973)

Harry Stoner wakes up drenched in sweat, terrified. He takes a shower and puts on an immaculately tailored silk suit. He listens to an old Benny Goodman recording, much to his wife's annoyance, and launches into a weirdly passionate soliloquy on the glorious baseball pitchers of his youth. You don't need to be a baseball fan to understand what's going on in this scene; Harry Stoner is lamenting his loss of innocence, a loss so palpable that it seems to weigh him down physically throughout this hellish day of his.

Save the Tiger (1973) is exactly the type of movie that Hollywood doesn't make anymore: earnest, sympathetic, and sincere in its exploration of the American experience. Leading an affluent lifestyle, well beyond his means, Harry Stoner has reached a breaking point. To keep his business afloat and "survive" another year, he consults an arsonist on the possibility of an insurance fraud payout. Stoner's justifications for this course of action, directed at his business partner, are prolonged, heated, and disturbingly understandable. (In some ways, Save the Tiger can be seen as an updated and more subversive take on the 1956 film The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit.)

Jack Lemmon's performance as morally fraught businessman Harry Stoner is without question one of the strongest in his filmography. Lemmon was an American every-man, an actor with whom audiences identified. And that intensely felt empathy is a major part of this film's success. We witness this character's compromises and transgressions, but we also see him as devastatingly vulnerable. It's difficult to remain unswayed by his justifications, even as we're repelled by his actions. It seems wonderfully appropriate that Jack Lemmon would give another outstanding take-no-prisoners performance as a broken businessman in David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross (1992).

Jack Lemmon's 1973 Best Actor Oscar was hard-won. He was up against some real heavyweights: Marlon Brando (Last Tango in Paris), Jack Nicholson (The Last Detail), Al Pacino (Serpico), Robert Redford (The Sting). It's unfortunate that while Lemmon did win the Oscar that year, Save the Tiger is probably the least remembered of these five films.

Find it in the catalog!