The 20 Best Actors of All Time, Pt. 1

We rank the best 20 actors of all time.

apartment-419. Jack Lemmon (1925-2001)

Key Roles: Some Like it Hot, The Apartment, Save the Tiger, Glengarry Glen Ross

What does it mean that an actor considered America’s Everyman is the very picture of anxiety? Fear and comedy go hand in hand with Jack Lemmon, one of that handful of actors who seems to inhabit every role they play as the same person–and makes it work every time.

Lemmon was the 98-pound weakling who seemed defeated at every turn but got up again and again. Whether he’s running from the mob in drag in Some Like it Hot, lending out his room for assignations in The Apartment, worrying about his kidnapped son in Missing or trying to make one more sale in Glengarry Glen Ross, Lemmon is always the same desperate man, his rubbery face an expressive rictus of worry that can just as easily turn into joy before falling again into despair.

lemmonA moment from The Odd Couple is typical of his approach: explaining to his disheveled roommate Oscar (Walter Matthau) that he’s not holding a spoon but a ladle, the fastidious Felix is physically overcome by his indignation. It’s the tragic humor of a man undone by a loss of control — of his senses, of the world

An influence on such different actors as Kevin Spacey and Jim Carrey (and inspiring a recurring character on “The Simpsons”) Lemmon was lucky to work with some of the great directors in some of their greatest films, but he had a way of remaining dignified in work that may not have deserved it. He was the closest to a real human being in the wan sex comedy Good Neighbor Sam (1964). His Oscar for Save the Tiger (1973) came from a now terribly dated, maudlin drama, but even now Lemmon’s bedroom baseball metaphor feels like an iconic scene. In a reunion with Matthau in Billy Wilder’s last film, Buddy Buddy (1981), Lemmon held his ground in an absurd scenario that had his wife Paula Prentiss running away with sex doctor Klaus Kinski.

It was a persona so consistent that following his career could feel as if we were following a single character over the decades. A late-career triumph in Glengarry Glen Ross demonstrates Lemmon’s anxious magic, a character so real you think you know him. The actor’s signature neurotic rhythm was more than just good comic timing; the way he delivered a line, a joke became tragic melodrama. Shirley MacLaine’s final line in the Billy Wilder’s devastating The Apartment seemed particularly addressed to this everyman: just deal. He seemed to deal with every role as if the character was caught in some hopeless struggle that manifested in a strength that would bend, but would not break. – Pat Padua

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