AFTER 'MACARONI,' AN APPETITE FOR VENICE

Boredom, for Jack Lemmon, would seem to be a blank page in the diary; a day without plans and challenges. Like Lewis Carroll's White Rabbit, he is always on the move, rushing along with that familiar head-down gait, his appetite for life apparently undiminished by age.

For him, last year was a crowded one, a year of living vigorously. He made two movies--"Macaroni" in Naples, Italy; "Crisis" in Los Angeles. He went to Japan for the 40th anniversary of the dropping of the A-bomb. He went to Cuba for the Latin American Film Festival. He visited his friend Walter Matthau, filming "Pirates" in Tunisia. And he went looking to find an apartment in Venice, Italy's dream city, which he loves.

Life, he seems to have decided, does not wait on tables; you have to serve yourself. And so he does.

"It was a terrific year," he said the other day, sitting back in his Beverly Hills office, the walls of which are decorated with plaques and citations, pictures and mementoes of his 30-year career. "A very busy year."

One of its highlights, for him, was his re-teaming with producer-director Blake Edwards, the man with whom he had one of his earliest successes: "Days of Wine and Roses." Their new project, "Crisis," stars him with Julie Andrews and pits him alongside his own son Chris, 31.

"If this film works," said Lemmon, "and I think it bloody well might because I've just seen it, then it'll be an important film for all of us. It will give hope to a lot of people who've been unable to get projects going because of today's costs. For this film of ours cost just $2 million--which Blake put up himself. And it looks terrific, I promise you."

"Crisis," an independent production with no release date yet set, is about a family of five, all of whom are going through some sort of trauma during a long weekend at their home in Malibu. It is a drama played for comedy.

The wife, played by Andrews, is awaiting the results of tests to see if she has cancer; the husband, Lemmon, finds he just cannot face the thought of turning 60. The children (Chris Lemmon, Jennifer Edwards, Emma Walton) all have problems of their own.

"We filmed it at Blake's Malibu beach house and on location," said Lemmon. "And we all took deferred salaries. And it proves that if everyone's prepared to take a gamble you can make it a good film for $2 million. It's not that big a gamble, anyway; on a budget like that there's no way you can lose. It also means you can afford to spend quite a lot of money promoting it.

"And you know what's interesting? There wasn't one second on that set when anyone felt any pressure. Blake took all the time he needed. He reshot four or five different scenes. Even if he'd had more money it wouldn't have made any difference."

Lemmon's actress wife, Felicia Farr, who works rarely these days, has a part in the movie.

"Halfway through the story there's a scene with a Gypsy fortuneteller. Blake asked me if Felicia would like to play it, so I put it to her. She said yes--as long as she could write the dialogue, which she did.

"It's really funny because she doesn't read a crystal ball--she reads toes and ears. And in the scene she winds up seducing me."

Lemmon, a self-critical actor, is very high on "Crisis." He thinks it will give encouragement to other movie makers. He feels confident that it is funnier than "Macaroni"--the movie he made in Italy with Marcello Mastroianni.

"Mind you," he said, "I knew going in that 'Macaroni' was a high-risk film, the kind you do because you want to, not because you think it will be a huge success. 'Mass Appeal' was the same. As far as our domestic box office is concerned, if you have religion as a background (as in "Mass Appeal") you're in trouble. And if you make a European film about two middle-aged wartime comrades' renewing a friendship, you've got an uphill battle. I'm not saying I was disappointed with 'Macaroni': I wasn't. But I was disappointed that it didn't do better domestically. (According to Paramount, the distributor, the movie which so far opened in just 10 U.S. cities, did "fair" business.) However I'm told it's busting records all over Europe."

Lemmon formed a close friendship with Mastroianni during the making of that movie and, during a break from filming, journeyed to Venice, a city he has always loved.

"Felicia and I had such a great time that we decided we'd like to get a place there. Now I've got some people looking for us. We'll probably rent at first, to see how we like it. But I love that place so damn much I can't wait to have an apartment there."

Now Lemmon is getting geared up for the play "Long Day's Journey Into Night"--his first crack at the Eugene O'Neill classic. It will go into rehearsal in February, play Washington for a month and then move to New York in April.

"I've never even seen a production of the play," he said, "but I've wanted to do it for years. And I'm excited not just because of the challenge but because I admire the director so much (Jonathan Miller). There's a man you can't spend more than two minutes with without getting excited. His enthusiasm is wildly contagious."

The play, which sometimes runs as long as 4 1/2 hours, will now be cut to under three. And it will be played in contemporary style.

"And it will be done with humor," said Lemmon. "If anyone's going to get humor out of O'Neill it's Jonathan. So we could be an enormous hit or we could be stoned by the critics and die-hards, those who always approach O'Neill with a mixture of awe and reverence. As for cutting it down, well, O'Neill's one sin was always overwriting."

Lemmon made two stipulations when asked to do the play. It had to be performed in a small theater--"no more than 1,300 seats"--and he would not do matinees.

"In plays I've done in the past (like 'Tribute') I've always had the feeling that if you do a matinee one of your performances that day must suffer. Either you're holding back in the afternoon because of the evening's performance or you're too tired in the evening to give your best. So this time I've said no."

Jack Lemmon, the travel agents' delight, the actor who always makes it look so easy, the man for whom nobody ever seems to have a bad word, sat back and looked around his crowded office.

"I've just finished one terrific year," he said. "Now I'm looking forward to another. . . ."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
57°