Jack Lemmon and Steve Carell

No. Steve Carell isn’t a better actor than the late, great Jack Lemmon, but he might be a contender. Their talent is similar enough for me to make the connection; if I had the inside ear of Mr. Carell, I would advise him to step up and follow Jack’s path and fight for more dramatic roles, because once an actor is associated to their Golden Age counterpart, it amps up the brightness of their star power. Consider George Clooney and Cary Grant. Tom Hanks and Jimmie Stewart. Brad Pitt and Robert Redford. Meryl Streep and Katherine Hepburn. Michelle Pfeiffer and Lauren Bacall, Naomi Watts and Grace Kelly–pairings I associate when I watch either one.

Steve Carell has deviated from comedic roles and branched out to flex his dramatic muscles. Carell’s got a gift for comedic timing playing dorky, clueless, good-hearted men. Frequently he is the butt of the joke or the rag-doll of the Gods. I’ve been laughing at his voice, his expressions, and his situations for almost twenty years. He had a cult following for seven years as Michael Scott, the principal character in the television series, The Office. In films, he grew away from the sophomoric comedy and turned to dark comedy. Little Miss Sunshine (2006) was an indie-great. Then he surprised many with his dramatic portrayal of creepy John DuPont in Foxcatcher (2014). Carell was convincing in the A-list ensemble cast of the comedy-drama, The Big Short (2015). When I watched him in Woody Allen‘s Café Society (2016), I was impressed with Carell’s role as the uncle whose mistress broke the heart of the protagonist, Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg). In 2017, according to Indiewire, LAST FLAG FLYING a Richard Linklater film, is a “spiritual successor” to The Last Detail (1973). That should be good. Another intriguing role Steve Carell will play in 2017 is the comedy/drama, Battle of the Sexes as Bobby Riggs and Emma Stone as Billy Jean King. In fact, it seems as though a new genre is blossoming. What was once labeled a dark comedy is now a “comedy/drama”. Please, what’s the difference? It’s the perfect stage for Steve Carell who is the new King.

There are not many actors today who can pull off comedy and drama. Jack Lemmon was an expert at both. I can hardly think of another actor who had his breadth of talent. Nominated 8 times and winning 2 Oscars (Best Actor: Save the Tiger (1974); Best Supporting Actor: Mister Roberts (1956), Jack Lemmon was highly esteemed by everyone in the business. He was a nice guy. A ham who wasn’t afraid to show humility and a sharp mind.

When I consider Jack Lemmon’s career, his younger roles, his goofy antics and energetic bursts, it is a type of stoogy-sidekick, the butt-of-the-joke character that Carell has played numerous times. It’s when Lemmon expanded his repertoire and included dramatic roles like the drinking-buddy tragedy, Days of Wine and Roses (1962) or the frustrated Bud Baxter in The Apartment(1960), it tempered the wacky expectation from viewers. Over time, he became ambidextrous, balancing comedy with drama with precision. Some of my favorite roles Jack played were as older men. Characters where time had passed them by. Desperate workers and discarded human beings who had lost their purpose in society. The older Jack Lemmon conveyed multiple emotions in a single performance. He was never wooden.

Steve Carell is in his early 50s; Jack Lemmon passed at 76 and worked to his final days. If Steve Carell chooses scripts that allow him to stretch his acting potential, I doubt he’d catch up to Jack’s 8 Oscar nominations and 2 wins, but who cares, right? Jack has a legacy, and Steve is bankable. Let’s see if Carell has the longevity that bypassed several of his contemporaries.

63 Comments on “Jack Lemmon and Steve Carell

  1. I loved the older Jack Lemmon in more serious roles. Marvellous in ‘Glengarry Glen Ross’, and just brilliant in ‘JFK’ too. And let’s not forget ‘Missing’.
    I was surprised to see Steve on the same page, to be honest, and had to look up films that I might have seen him in. ‘Little Miss Sunshine’. Pretty good, but not because of him. ‘The 40-Year Old Virgin’. Humourous perhaps, but not for me. That’s about it, I never bothered with any of his other roles, so can’t say much more.

    One of the most interesting career comparisons I have ever seen, undoubtedly.
    Best wishes, Pete.

      • Not at all. I just don’t know enough about Farrell, I’m sure. You are far too erudite to ever be ‘off your rocker’, Cindy.

        • You mention Farrell which is an easy association to make–Will Farrell and Steve Carell have been in a few films together. Steve plays the dufus next to Colin Farrell. I can’t say I enjoy them–maybe back in high school, but I confess I’m too old to appreciate that type of humor anymore. However, the dark comedy, yes! I love the cynical humor of Steve Carell now.

          • Freudian slip? Mixed up Farrell and Carell. Probably because I don’t like either of them. Colin Farrell is OK sometimes, but I get confused by all those similar names! Brain-ache. Phew!

    • I like Steve Carell’s more serious roles and have come to respect him. He was unrecognizable in Foxcatcher. Solid in his last 3 roles. Loved The Big Short.
      As for Lemmon, INeed to revist, JFK. Missing? The Ron Howard film? Western with Cate Blanchett? Jack Lemmon was in that?

  2. Cindy, I am a huge fan of both Actors and this is great analysis. Carell has made the crossover to more dramatic roles as you say – what he needs next is a GREAT script – showcasing his comedic chops – so he can have both on his resume – Lemmon’s great “Odd Couple” was balanced by movies like “Save The Tiger” – and movies like “The Apartment” had a tough center to keep any comedy from being too over-reaching….speaking of “The Last Detail”, here is my writeup on that masterpiece:


    • Hi John, yes, a great script, I’ll bet is what he’s opening for, too! I am really looking forward to the Linklater production. Carell has the ability to blend both drama and comedy. I enjoy watching him more than his contemporaries. I can’t say I’m a Will Ferrell fan. Were you a fan of “The Office”?

  3. Like Pete I’ve only seen Carell in 40 yr old virgin, and then only for 5 minutes because I couldn’t bear it any longer, so don’t know him much at all. Jack Lemon though was in many movies I watched in earlier times, especially liked him with Monroe and Curtis in “some like it hot” and he also had a lovely relationship with Walther Matthau, Grumpy Old Men, I saw the first but not the sequels. I like your comparisons 🙂

      • Yes I find there are many comedy movies from USA that at best puzzle me and at worst make me cringe and switch off, Ben Stiller for example, I can’t watch him at all, and I thought that Carell fellow was similar when I saw him. On the other hand some of the pixar animation movies are gloriously made and funny as anything, (Ice Age,Finding Nemo etc etc,)so I think that’s when the funny stuff works across the pond here.

        • My greatest ‘American mystery’ is Adam Sandler. I can’t even stand to look at him, let alone laugh. There are some actors who genuinely fail to ‘translate’ across the Atlantic. In both directions, of course.

          • Adam Sandler is popular to hate. I enjoyed a couple from the beginning of his career–50 First Dates, The Wedding Singer, but I have long since not watched him. Comedians are funny in the beginning, but wear thin if they are too outrageous.

        • Steve Carell is popular voicing the ‘Despicable Me’ franchise. It’s an interesting observation about comedy from the UK and the US. British humor is an acquired taste. Our comedy is crass and crude, for sure. Well, so was Benny Hill. Hmm.

    • Welcome back, Fraggle–do you have a name?? 😉
      Jack and Walter were tight friends for decades and they made a lot of films cashing in on their chemistry. The first Grumpy Old Men is good. I didn’t care for the rest.

  4. I wouldn’t have thought about it but I found myself nodding along the whole way though. His performance in Foxcatcher blew me away.

    • Hi, Alex! Great! I’m not nuts. We shall see what the next five-10 years quality of scripts fall on Steve Carell’s desk. I’m hoping for deep, complex characterizations. He’s growing on me, his talent, rather than getting pegged or I find myself “outgrowing” his style of comedy.

  5. Ohhh I always stop to watch a Jack Lemmon movie, for sure!!!! It’s a funny thing about Steve , it’s only recently I actually started to even like the guy. And now that you have shed more light ..yes I totally agree with you, I guess I never gave it much though b4 this. I think I was on the same page as Pete . Till now:) thanks Cindy.

  6. Loved this post, love Jack Lemmon. Next to Tom Hanks and James Stewart; I don’t think there’s anyone more watchable.

    • I am glad we agree! I think he was amazing. He never brought a film down, only elevated it. A case in point–his narration for The Legend of Bagger Vance was perfect. I love that movie.

  7. I haven’t seen enough of Jack Lemmon’s work apart from a couple of films, but I could see the comparison. I LOVE Steve Carrell and both are definitely very talented and affable.

  8. Hi, Cindy:

    With the amount of time I spent researching and writing about Mr. Lemmon for gust post and “Flixchatter”. Steve Carell may be a contender to others. Specifically younger audiences. But not with me.

    Yes, Mr. Carell has comedic chops. But when he can pull off or equal Mr. Lemmon’s performance in “Days of Wine And Roses”, “The Apartment”, “Save The Tiger”, “Missing” or “Glengarry Glen Ross” dramatic performance. Have him give a call.

    About the only performance of Mr. Lemmon’s career was in ‘The China Syndrome’. Not that his role was bad. The entire film was!

    • Welcome back, Kevin. Oh, yes, Jack is wonderful. The only serious film that Carell has done that was really impressive was ‘Foxcatcher’. It showed he could expand. He’s also a nice guy and likeable on and off the screen, like Jack. I loved the last third of ‘The China Syndrome’. Truly dramatic and intense with great acting all around. Up to that, I dunno, I honestly have a hard time remembering much suggesting it dragged.So happy you visited today to comment.

  9. I’m not too familiar with Jack Lemmon films, but Some Like it Hot was one classic masterpiece. Just for this film, I think your pairing is right on the spot. I would love to see Carell in that kind of role and dressed as a woman. Hillarious! And Little Miss Sunshine is one of my favorite films. Brilliant. Great post, Cindy!

    • Thanks for commenting, Moody. Oh, good, I’m glad we agree. I invite you to watch some Jack Lemmon. He’s really a masterful actor. If you haven’t seen ‘The Apartment’ I bet $10 you’d like it.

  10. Jack Lemmon is right up there with Gene Hackman for me. There are actor’s actors and then there is Jack Lemmon. I’m yet to see all of Missing but I have seen a scene with him on a staircase late in the film. It’s great acting. If you’ve seen it, you know what I’m talking about. Lemmon didn’t really take off until middle age and Carrell the same. I agree it would be good to see him in more dramatic roles. He was impressive playing against type in Foxcatcher but it was The Big Short where I thought I saw a new type of leading man role for him.

  11. Pingback: L13FC: Play into Film – Cindy Bruchman

  12. I’ve loved Jack Lemmon all of my life, even in his funny roles, I thought he was so sexy. With that said.. it’s taken me a long time to even like Steve Carell. . I’ve softened some but.. I can’t campare them at all.

    • Hi Kim. When I wrote the article, I was toying around with Carell’s career at that point. I saw something tender in his serious roles reminiscent of Lemmon. But, as my first sentences says, I would not put Carell on the same shelf as Lemmon. He had potential for me. 😉
      Appreciate the read and comment.

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