Jack Lemmon was the two-time Oscar-winner who starred in dozens of films, working until his death in 2001 at the age of 76. But how many of those titles are classics? Let’s take a look back at 25 of his greatest movies, ranked worst to best.
Lemmon won his first Oscar as Best Supporting Actor for “Mister Roberts” (1955). A second Oscar for Best Actor followed for “Save the Tiger” (1973), making him the first person to pull off victories in both categories. He competed six more times for Best Actor throughout his career (“Some Like It Hot” in 1959, “The Apartment” in 1960, “Days of Wine and Roses” in 1962, “The China Syndrome” in 1979, “Tribute” in 1980, and “Missing” in 1982).
He is perhaps best known for his long collaboration with Walter Matthau, with whom he made 11 films (including his solo directorial outing “Kotch,” which earned Matthau a Best Actor Oscar nomination). In films such as “The Fortune Cookie” (1966), “The Odd Couple” (1968), and “Grumpy Old Men” (1993), Lemmon’s fastidiousness played beautifully off of Matthau’s scruffiness. (So close were the two, in fact, that Lemmon died almost exactly one year after Matthau did.)
On the small screen, Lemmon earned Emmys for “‘S Wonderful, ‘S Marvelous, ‘S Gershwin” (Best Variety Performer in 1972) and “Tuesdays with Morrie” (Best Movie/Mini Actor in 2000), contending four more times as Best Movie/Mini Actor (“The Entertainer” in 1976, “The Murder of Mary Phagan” in 1988, “12 Angry Men” in 1998, and “Inherit the Wind” in 1999).
Other tributes during his well-loved career included a Kennedy Center Honors, American Film Institute life achievement award and Cecil B. DeMille Award at the Golden Globes.
Tour our photo gallery above of Jack Lemmon’s 25 greatest films, including a few for which he should’ve earned Oscar nominations.
25. TRIBUTE (1980)
Directed by Bob Clark. Screenplay by Bernard Slade, based on his play. Starring Robby Benson, Lee Remick, Colleen Dewhurst, John Marly, Kim Cattrall.
You don’t hear too many people talking about “Tribute” these days, which is odd considering it brought Lemmon Best Actor nominations at the Oscars and Golden Globes. As directed by Bob Clark (“Porky’s,” “A Christmas Story”), this is little more than a filmed version of Bernard Slade’s play about a Broadway press agent (Lemmon) dying of cancer, and a rather clunky, melodramatic one at that. Yet the performances carry the day, including Robby Benson as Lemmon’s estranged son, Lee Remick as his ex-wife, and John Marley as his best friend.
24. DAD (1989)
Written and directed by Gary David Goldberg, based on the novel by William Wharton. Starring Ted Danson, Olympia Dukakis, Kathy Baker, Kevin Spacey, Ethan Hawke.
Lemmon donned heavy makeup to play a dying patriarch in this comedic drama from “Family Ties” creator Gary David Goldberg. He plays Jake Tremont, who relies on his wife (Olympia Dukakis) for everything. When she has a heart attack, his son (Ted Danson) returns home to care for him. Things take a tragic turn when Jake is diagnosed with cancer, and that’s also where to movie becomes more like a sitcom than real life. But Lemmon, who earned a Golden Globe nomination for the role, carries the day with his nuanced performance.
23. THE GREAT RACE (1965)
Directed by Blake Edwards. Screenplay by Arthur A. Ross, story by Blake Edwards and Ross. Starring Tony Curtis, Natalie Wood, Peter Falk, Keenan Wynn, Arthur O’Connell, Vivian Vance.
Lemmon has great fun playing the bad guy in this epic farce from Blake Edwards (featuring the longest pie fight in movie history). Set in the early 20th century, “The Great Race” centers on a 22,000 mile competition between the heroic Leslie Gallant III (Tony Curtis) and the villainous Professor Fate (Lemmon). Donned with a black top hat and twirling mustache, Lemmon chews the scenery with relish. Matching him is Peter Falk as his loyal sidekick. The role brought Lemmon a Golden Globe nomination as Best Comedy/Musical actor, yet the Academy wasn’t amused, despite rewarding the film with five nominations and a victory for sound effects.
22. BUDDY, BUDDY (1981)
Directed by Billy Wilder. Screenplay by Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond, based on the film ‘L’emmerdeur’ and the play ‘Le contrat’ by Francis Veber. Starring Walter Matthau, Paula Prentiss, Klaus Kinski, Dana Elcar, Miles Chapin, Ed Begley Jr., Michael Ensign.
When working with director Billy Wilder, Lemmon and Walter Matthau could often mine comedic gold. With “Buddy, Buddy,” which was the legendary filmmaker’s final outing behind the camera, the trio came up with something more closely resembling bronze. Yet this comedy about a Mafia hitman (Matthau) befriending a suicidal television censor (Lemmon) when they end up in the same hotel is likable enough thanks in large part to the chemistry between its two leads, who make just about anything worth seeing.
21. MY FELLOW AMERICANS (1996)
Directed by Peter Segal. Screenplay by E. Jack Kaplan, Richard Chapman, and Peter Tolan, story by Kaplan and Chapman. Starring James Garner, Dan Aykroyd, John Heard, Wilford Brimley, Everett McGill, Bradley Whitford, Lauren Bacall.
In these fractured political times, “My Fellow Americans” presents a stirring message of bipartisanship. Lemmon and James Garner star as two former U.S. Presidents — one a fiscally-conservative Republican, the other a socially-liberal Democrat — who team up to expose the corruption of the current Commander in Chief (Dan Aykroyd). As directed by Peter Segal, the film doesn’t exactly reinvent the wheel cinematically. But Lemmon and Garner make a winning combination (and honestly, we’d prefer either one of them in the White House over the current occupant).
20. OUT TO SEA (1997)
Directed by Martha Coolidge. Written by Robert Nelson Jacobs. Starring Walter Matthau, Dyan Cannon, Gloria DeHaven, Brent Spiner, Elaine Stritch, Estelle Harris, Hal Linden, Donald O’Connor, Edward Mulhare, Rue McClanahan.
There are few people we’d rather be adrift at sea with than Lemmon and Walter Matthau, and that’s the real saving grace of this genial-enough comedy about two old pals on a cruise filled with senior citizens. Matthau is a longtime grifter who convinces Lemmon that the tickets are free, failing to inform him that he’s signed them up as dance instructors, despite the fact neither one is a natural hoofer. “Singin’ in the Rain” star Donald O’Connor shows up to shuffle a few steps.
19. THE FRONT PAGE (1974)
Directed by Billy Wilder. Screenplay by Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond, based on the play by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur. Starring Walter Matthau, Susan Sarandon, Allen Garfield, David Wayne, Charles Durning, Austin Pendleton, Carol Burnett.
Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s classic play has been translated to the screen several times (most famously by Howard Hawks as “His Girl Friday”). This Billy Wilder-helmed version casts Lemmon and Walter Matthau as 1920’s era newspapermen, adding in some foul language that sets it apart from previous adaptations. Lemmon is a reporter who’s all set to retire and marry his sweetheart (Susan Sarandon), only to stumble upon the biggest scoop of his life when a convict (Austin Pendleton) escapes from death row. His ruthless editor (Matthau) keeps him on the case, hoping he won’t leave the paper. Both earned Golden Globe nominations for their performances.
18. THE OUT-OF-TOWNERS (1970)
Directed by Arthur Hiller. Written by Neil Simon. Starring Sandy Dennis, Sandy Baron, Anne Meara, Ann Prentiss, Paul Dooley.
As was the case with several actors, the works of Neil Simon provided fertile playgrounds for Lemmon to play in throughout his career. In “The Out-of-Towners,” he plays an Ohio businessman who accepts a big promotion in New York City. He travels to the Big Apple with his wife (Sandy Dennis), where things go horribly (and hilariously) wrong. Several big-name comedians — including Sandy Baron, Anne Meara, and Paul Dooley — show up for juicy supporting appearances. Both Lemmon and Dennis received Golden Globe nominations for the film.
17. THE PRISONER OF SECOND AVENUE (1975)
Directed by Melvin Frank. Screenplay by Neil Simon, based on his play. Starring Anne Bancroft, Gene Saks, Elizabeth Wilson, Florence Stanley, Maxine Stuart.
“The Prisoner of Second Avenue” was one of Neil Simon’s most successful Broadway hits, earning Tony nominations for Best Play, Best Director (Mike Nichols), and Best Supporting Actor (Vincent Gardenia). The film version wasn’t nearly as well received awards-wise as the stage show, but it still contains terrific performances by Lemmon as a newly-unemployed executive suffering a nervous breakdown and Anne Bancroft as his long-suffering wife. Bancroft earned a BAFTA nomination, though Lemmon was ignored.
16. HAMLET (1996)
Written for the screen and directed by Kenneth Branagh, based on the play by William Shakespeare. Starring Kenneth Branagh, Julie Christie, Billy Crystal, Gerard Depardieu, Charlton Heston, Derek Jacobi, Rufus Sewell, Robin William, Kate Winslet, Ian McElhinney.
Shakespeare’s classic play about a melancholy Bard has been translated to the screen countless times, but never as faithfully as this 70mm, four hour version with Kenneth Branagh pulling off triple-duty as writer, director, and star. Several celebs stop by to make cameo appearances, including Lemmon as Marcellus, a sentry at the palace of Elsinore who, along with Barnardo (Ian McElhinney), first witnesses the appearance of King Hamlet’s ghost. The film earned Oscar nominations for Branagh in Best Adapted Screenplay, as well as Best Art Direction, Best Costume Design, and Best Score.
15. AVANTI! (1972)
Directed by Billy Wilder. Screenplay by Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond, based on the play by Samuel A. Taylor. Starring Juliet Mills, Clive Revill, Edward Andrews.
Of the many films Lemmon made with Billy Wilder, “Avanti!” falls somewhere in the middle quality-wise: not nearly as pitch-perfect as “The Apartment,” but also not as forgettable as “Buddy, Buddy.” It casts him as a successful Baltimore businessman who travels to Italy to bury his father, only to fall in love with the dead man’s much-younger mistress (Juliet Mills). Clive Revill is a standout as a stuffy hotel manager. The film brought Lemmon a Golden Globe win as Best Comedy/Musical Actor, though the Academy ignored him. (They snubbed it across the board, in fact, despite Globe bids for Best Film, Mills and Revill in acting, and Wilder in writing and directing.)
14. JFK (1991)
Directed by Oliver Stone. Screenplay by Oliver Stone and Zachary Sklar, based on the books ‘On the Trail of the Assassins’ by Jim Garrison and ‘Crossfire: The Plot That Killed Kennedy’ by Jim Marrs. Starring Kevin Costner, Kevin Bacon, Tommy Lee Jones, Laurie Metcalf, Gary Oldman, Michael Rooker, Jay O. Sanders, Sissy Spacek, Edward Asner, Donald Sutherland, Joe Pesci, Walter Matthau, Vincent D’Onofrio, John Candy, Wayne Knight, Sally Kirkland.
Lemmon makes a small but memorable cameo in Oliver Stone’s paranoia-laced political thriller that examines the mystery surrounding the Kennedy assassination. In fact, several A-listers pop up to create noteworthy characters with only a few minutes of screen time (including Lemmon’s frequent costar Walter Matthau). At its center is Kevin Costner as New Orleans DA Jim Garrison (a feat of casting against type, given what a blowhard the real-life Garrison was), who sifts through tons of evidence and people to uncover a vast conspiracy. Lemmon plays Jack Martin, who kicks off Garrison’s investigation after getting pistol-whipped by the nefarious FBI employee Guy Bannister (Ed Asner). Despite the controversy surrounding its handling of the facts, the film won Oscars for cinematography and film editing.
13. GRUMPY OLD MEN (1993)
Directed by Donald Petrie. Written by Mark Steven Johnson. Starring Walter Matthau, Ann-Margret, Burgess Meredith, Kevin Pollack, Ossie Davis, Daryl Hannah.
Lemmon and Walter Matthau collaborated on 11 different films, some brilliant (“The Odd Couple”), some not so much (“The Odd Couple II”). “Grumpy Old Men” falls somewhere in-between, a genially agreeable comedy that would be totally forgettable were it not for these two legends. They play John (Lemmon) and Max (Matthau), neighbors whose lifelong feud intensifies when an attractive woman (Ann-Margret) moves in across the street. She ends up with Lemmon, but have no fear: a sequel (“Grumpier Old Men,” 1995) with Matthau romancing Sophia Loren soon followed.
12. SHORT CUTS (1993)
Directed by Robert Altman. Written by Altman and Frank Barhydt, based on the writings of Raymond Carver. Starring Andie MacDowell, Bruce Davidson, Julianne Moore, Matthew Modine, Anne Archer, Fred Ward, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Chris Penn, Lili Taylor, Robert Downey Jr., Madeleine Stowe, Tim Robbins, Lily Tomlin, Tom Waits, Frances McDormand, Peter Gallagher, Annie Ross, Lori Singer, Lyle Lovett, Buck Henry, Huey Lewis.
Based on the writings of Raymond Carver, this intimate epic from Robert Altman examines the lives of several Los Angeles residents whose fates intertwine in unexpected, hilarious, and sometimes tragic ways. Lemmon steals the show as Paul Finnigan, who reconnects with his estranged son (Bruce Davidson) when his grandson is hit by a car. While at the hospital, he recounts a story of infidelity with his wife’s sister that forced a wedge between him and his family. Though he deserved a Supporting Actor nomination, Lemmon was overlooked at the Oscars, as was everyone else in the expansive cast. (They did receive a special award at the Golden Globes for Best Ensemble.)
11. IRMA LA DOUCE (1963)
Directed by Billy Wilder. Screenplay by Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond, based on the musical by Marguerite Monnot and Alexandre Breffort. Starring Shirley MacLaine, Lou Jacobi, Bruce Yarnell, Grace Lee Whitney.
Following the success of “The Apartment,” Lemmon reunited with Shirley MacLaine and director Billy Wilder for this comedic adaptation of the famous French musical by Alexandre Breffort and Marguerite Monnot. Set in Paris, “Irma la Douce” centers on a sweet-natured cop (Lemmon) who falls in love with an alluring prostitute (MacLaine), hoping to claim her for himself. The film lovingly captures the romantic streets of Paris, while the stars and director prove yet again why they’re a winning combination. MacLaine earned an Oscar nomination and Golden Globe victory for the role, while Lemmon competed at the Globes.
10. THE FORTUNE COOKIE (1966)
Directed by Billy Wilder. Written by Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond. Starring Walter Matthau, Ron Rich, Judi West, Cliff Osmond, Lurene Tuttle.
“The Fortune Cookie” was the first of 11 films Lemmon made with Walter Matthau (including Lemmon’s solo directorial outing, “Kotch”), and it’s clear from the get-go why this odd couple belonged together: one’s fastidiousness contrasts beautifully with the other’s scruffiness. This biting social satire from Billy Wilder centers on an ambulance-chasing attorney (Matthau) who convinces his brother-in-law (Lemmon), a TV news cameraman, to exaggerate an on-the-job injury for insurance purposes. The film earned Matthau a Supporting Actor Oscar, plus nominations for Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond’s script, cinematography and art direction.
9. SAVE THE TIGER (1973)
Directed by John G. Avildsen. Written by Steve Shagan. Starring Jack Gilford, Laurie Heineman, Norman Burton, Patricia Smith, Thayer David.
“Save the Tiger” brought Jack Lemmon a Best Actor Oscar, and its his performance that makes this otherwise forgettable film worth seeing. Directed by John G. Avildsen (“Rocky”), it shows a day in the life of Harry Horner, a disillusioned businessman at odds with the world around him who must burn down his dress-making factory before it goes completely under. Steve Shagan’s script tries to touch on every contemporary issue of the day, at times bogging his story down with its own importance. But Lemmon, who cut his salary to help get the movie financed, is magnificent as a man longing for a simpler time. Supporting Actor contender Jack Gilford is also a standout as Harry’s longtime partner.
8. MISSING (1982)
Directed by Costa-Gavras. Screenplay by Costa-Gavras and Donald E. Stewart, based on the book by Thomas Hauser. Starring Sissy Spacek, Melanie Mayron, John Shea.
Lemmon earned his eighth and final Oscar nomination for Costa-Gavras’s controversial indictment of American foreign policy. “Missing” recounts the disappearance of American journalist Charles Horman (John Shea) during the Chilean coup d’état in 1973. His father (Lemmon) and wife (Sissy Spacek) become entangled in bureaucratic red tape trying to find him, eventually discovering the unsettling truth about his death. Lemmon won the Best Actor prize at Cannes, where the film also snagged the Palme d’Or. It reaped four Oscar nominations including Best Picture and Best Actress (Spacek), winning only for Best Original Screenplay (Costa-Gavras and Donald E. Stewart). Lemmon lost his bid to Ben Kingsley (“Gandhi”).
7. THE CHINA SYNDROME (1979)
Directed by James Bridges. Written by Mike Gray, T. S. Cook, James Bridges. Starring Jane Fonda, Michael Douglas, Scott Brady, James Hampton, Peter Donat, Wilford Brimley, Rita Jacovich.
“The China Syndrome” is one of the very best of the 1970s paranoia thrillers, taking on the very timely subject of nuclear pollution (the Three Mile Island meltdown occurred shortly after its release). Jane Fonda stars as an intrepid reporter who, along with her helpful cameraman (Michael Douglas), discovers safety regulation cover-ups at a nuclear power plant. Lemmon gives one of his very best performances as Jack Godell, a shift supervisor who notices striking irregularities around the plant. The role brought him Best Actor victories at BAFTA and the Cannes Film Festival, as well as an Oscar nomination (he lost to Dustin Hoffman for “Kramer vs. Kramer”).
6. MISTER ROBERTS (1955)
Directed by John Ford and Mervyn LeRoy. Screenplay by Frank S. Nugent and Joshua Logan, based on the novel by Thomas Heggen and the stage play by Heggen and Joshua Logan. Starring Henry Fonda, James Cagney, William Powell, Betsy Palmer, Ward Bond.
“Mister Roberts” brought Lemmon his first Oscar, although it wasn’t exactly a happy experience. Original director John Ford was fired midway through production following difficulties with Henry Fonda, later to be replaced by Mervyn LeRoy. (Stage director and screenwriter Joshua Logan helmed reshoots.) Despite the off-screen turmoil, the results speak for themselves. Fonda reprises his Tony Award-winning role as a Navy lieutenant desperate to join the action in WWII, yet can’t get his tyrannical captain (James Cagney) to sign his transfer papers. Lemmon won Best Supporting Actor as Ensign Frank Thurlowe Pulver, who’s desperate to avoid work. The film also earned a Best Picture nomination.
5. GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS (1992)
Directed by James Foley. Written by David Mamet, based on his play. Starring Al Pacino, Alec Baldwin, Ed Harris, Alan Arkin, Kevin Spacey, Jonathan Pryce.
“Glengarry Glen Ross” could easily be described as the movie that launched a thousand audition monologues. James Foley’s big screen adaptation of David Mamet’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play about foul-mouthed real estate salesmen is filled with so many great performances it’s nearly impossible to pick a favorite. But the best of the bunch is Lemmon as Shelley “The Machine” Levene, a once successful peddler who’s desperate to save his job. The actor creates a modern day Willie Loman who engenders our sympathies as he’s scraping for first-class leads. Despite receiving some career-best reviews, Lemmon was overlooked at the Oscars in favor of Al Pacino, who plays the office’s top “closer,” Ricky Roma.
4. THE ODD COUPLE (1968)
Directed by Gene Saks. Screenplay by Neil Simon, based on his play. Starring Walter Matthau, John Fiedler, Herb Edelman, Monica Evans, Carole Shelley.
Laurel had Hardy, Abbott had Costello, and Lemmon had Matthau. Much like Felix Ungar and Oscar Madison, the characters they play in Neil Simon’s “The Odd Couple,” these two are perfectly suited to bounce off each other: Lemmon tidy and neurotic, Matthau slobbish and mischievous. It’s a dynamic that served them well in multiple outings, none better than in this 1968 film about a pair of divorced men with opposing views on housekeeping and lifestyle sharing an apartment. Sure, Gene Saks’ screen version is little more than a recreation of Mike Nichols’ original Broadway mounting (in which Matthau starred opposite Art Carney), but we wouldn’t have it any other way. Multiple TV versions and a sequel followed, none matching the original. Both Lemmon and Matthau contended at the Golden Globes for these iconic roles, though not at the Oscars.
3. DAYS OF WINE AND ROSES (1962)
Directed by Blake Edwards. Screenplay by JP Miller, based on his teleplay. Starring Lee Remick, Charles Bickford, Jack Klugman, Alan Hewitt.
After making a name for himself as a comedic star, Lemmon took a stab at dramatic acting with this searing addiction drama. The film was a change of pace for director Blake Edwards as well, who would go on to great success with the “Pink Panther” series. “Days of Wine and Roses” centers on an alcoholic public relations executive (Lemmon) who marries his secretary (Lee Remick). Slowly but surely, he gets her hooked on booze as well. But when he decides to get sober, she dives deeper into drunken despair. Both Lemmon and Remick earned lead acting Oscar nominations, losing to Gregory Peck (“To Kill a Mockingbird”) and Anne Bancroft (“The Miracle Worker”) respectively.
2. SOME LIKE IT HOT (1959)
Directed by Billy Wilder. Screenplay by Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond, based on the story by Robert Thoeren and Michael Logan. Starring Marilyn Monroe, Tony Curtis, George Raft, Joe E. Brown, Pat O’Brien.
“Some Like It Hot” has a premise of almost Olympian silliness that’s executed with wit, sex, and style by Billy Wilder. Lemmon and Tony Curtis star as Chicago musicians who have to go on the run after witnessing a mob hit. Desperate to not draw attention to themselves, they decide to don dresses and join an all-women’s band, led by the alluring Marilyn Monroe. While Curtis tries to romance Monroe by also playing a Cary Grant lookalike, Lemmon finds himself being chased by a wealthy bachelor (Joe E. Brown), leading to one of the all-time greatest final lines (“Well, nobody’s perfect” says Brown when he finds out his beloved is actually a man). Lemmon won the Golden Globe and earned an Oscar nomination for Best Actor, losing to Charlton Heston (“Ben-Hur”).
1. THE APARTMENT (1960)
Directed by Billy Wilder. Written by Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond. Starring Shirley MacLaine, Fred MacMurray, Jack Kruschen, Ray Walston, Edie Adams.
There was always a loneliness underneath Lemmon’s genial everyman persona, so it’s not surprising that Billy Wilder’s melancholy romantic comedy contains perhaps his best performance. “The Apartment” centers on C.C. Baxter (Lemmon), who hopes to work his way up the corporate ladder by renting out his home to his employers for their extramarital affairs. He falls in love with the beautiful elevator girl Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine), who’s waiting for the boss (Fred MacMurray) to leave his wife for her. The film swept the Oscars, winning five prizes including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay (Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond). Lemmon and MacLaine won Golden Globes and BAFTAs, but lost at the Academy to Burt Lancaster (“Elmer Gantry”) and Elizabeth Taylor (“BUtterfield 8”).