Thursday, April 1, 2010
Save the Tiger (1973)
After letting it languish on my Netflix queue for several years, I finally got around to watching 1973’s Save the Tiger, the film for which Jack Lemmon won his Best Actor Academy Award. The film follows two days in the life of Harry Stoner, an L.A. clothing company owner who’s knee deep in a midlife/financial crisis. It’s the kind of gripping, personal film that I wish got made more often, and beyond being as shining an example of the old “character over story” adage as you’re going to get, it’s proof of a few things:
1) That the early 1970s were the last truly great period of American cinema. It was a time when the country was getting over a war, directors had insane amounts of freedom, and movies like this seemed to be the norm. So many of my favorite films, from Five Easy Pieces to The Long Goodbye to The Conversation, came out between ’70 and ’74, and Save the Tiger might as well be slotted right into that list. This a movie that’s as inextricably tied to its particular milieu as Easy Rider, and it tackles a subject matter and a kind of character that movies of the time just weren’t addressing. Lemmon’s character is a WWII vet, well into his forties and stuck between the old guard (represented by his business partner Phil, who’s played to perfection by the great Jack Gilford) and a counterculture that’s still in full swing. He can’t seem to find satisfaction in either one, and he’s been reduced to musing about the good old days of his youth, when he played in a band and big league pitchers still used a wind up—a preoccupation that’s played to perfection in the movie’s final scene.
All of this is expressed in a style that’s almost literary (the film’s adapted by Steve Shagan from his novel) at the same time that it’s got some clever stylistic touches, like the dead soldiers from Harry’s past who materialize in the crowd when he gives a speech at one of his fashion shows. It’s hard to pinpoint, but movies from the seventies seemed to briefly exist in a happy medium where they were able to tackle edgy content and present imperfect characters, but still do it in a classical style that allowed actors of Lemmon’s caliber to really light up the screen. I’m not sure when that died out, but the last great example I can think of is Network, from 1976.
2) That Jack Lemmon was one of the greatest screen actors of that or any era. It’s a shame that a whole generation—my generation, as it were—remembers this guy best from the Grumpy Old Men movies, because he truly was one of the most singular screen presences of all time. Who else could claim as varied and universally excellent a resume as Some Like it Hot, The Apartment, Days of Wine and Roses, The Player, The China Syndrome and Glengarry F-ing Glen Ross? He won the Oscar for Save the Tiger, and thankfully it might be one of the few cases where an actor actually won an award for his greatest role, and not for some phoned in performance a few years before he died. Lemmon is simply pitch perfect here, and even though he’s spouting off heaps of dialogue in every scene, he never once strikes a false note. He was always the kind of actor who could chew up scenery and completely mesmerize an audience when he wanted to, but he also knew when to dial it back. This is exemplified perfectly in a late scene where Harry talks to one of his craftsmen, a holocaust survivor played William Hansen, who tells him of how he’s content in his life as long as he has his wife and a job he’s good at. It’s maybe the best scene in the movie, and even though Hansen’s stealing it right out from under him, Lemmon’s smart enough to just sit back and let it happen. Few great actors would’ve been willing to do that, but Lemmon clearly believed in this story, enough that he was even willing to waive his fee and work for scale.
3) That John G. Avildsen is one of the most unique and unsung filmmakers of his generation. Sure, he made the Karate Kid movies and Rocky, but he has never been hailed as a legitimately great director. This a shame, especially when you consider that with Save the Tiger and Joe, he made two of the defining films of the early ‘70s. At the time, the culture was so divided that it was hard to make something truly subtle—you were either on the side of Midnight Cowboy or The Green Berets—but Avildsen explored a strata of American society that just wasn’t being talked about. He hasn’t done much later in his career (his last film was a Van Damme action flick), but in the early ‘70s he was bookending these hippie zeitgeist death-of-the-American-dream character studies with Troma films. Troma films! Now that’s what I call range.