Judge Ryan Keefer is avoiding the easy joke here, and writes this as his hometown is about to be part of a snow and ice storm. Forget saving the tiger, someone needs to save him!
All he wanted was a second chance.
With any luck, I'm starting a tradition of revisiting acting performances that had previously gone ignored because of a bumper crop of acting talent. First, Art Carney's win for Harry and Tonto in 1974. Rewinding things back one year, compared to Marlon Brando in Last Tango in Paris, Jack Nicholson in The Last Detail and Robert Redford in The Sting, is Jack Lemmon's performance in Save the Tiger. Does it still hold up after all these years?
Facts of the Case
Harry Stoner (Jack Lemmon, The China Syndrome, Missing) is a downtrodden owner of a clothing factory, along with his partner Phil Greene (Jack Gilford, Cocoon, Catch-22). Harry does whatever he can to keep his clothing line going for another season of fashion. Through all of this, Harry tries to find the good in everyday life again. He is a veteran from World War II, and while he is conscious of what he's doing, he regrets that certain things have to be done. He wonders what happened to him, and his country's ideals in a larger scope. When he has a decision to make that may ultimately save his business, he's forced to decide for on his business or his dying conscience.
There are two things which stood out to me when I watched Save the Tiger. The first, perhaps somewhat unfairly, was that seeing Jack Lemmon in this role was, in concept, similar to his outstanding performance as Shelley Levene in Glengarry Glen Ross. Overlooking that, the film also would make an excellent sequel to American Beauty, provided that Kevin's Spacey's Lester Burnham character didn't, you know, get shot in the end.
Based on a story by Steve Shagan (Primal Fear, Gotti) and directed by John G. Avildsen (Joe, Rocky, The Karate Kid), the film is great to watch for Lemmon and Gilford's interaction that carries the film. Gilford's Greene is the moral center of a very bleak landscape. And Lemmon's Stoner is a man who is somewhat conflicted. He's got a wife, a nice home in Beverly Hills, but there are two things that seem to go through his mind. The first is almost early on, as Stoner recalls some early idols in baseball when he grew up. As a man who has become more than disenchanted with the rat race, and longing for a simpler time, anyone who has worked in the salt mines of a regular job can quickly identify with it. The other thing that one understands from Harry's words is that the country is going to hell in the proverbial handbasket. Young women offer themselves to him for sex for no particular reason, and the beaches that he fought on in the war have gone away, replaced by girls in bikinis, who have no care in the world. When a perennial customer has a heart attack (in the hotel room of a couple of prostitutes, arranged by Harry), Harry says that he's not a human being, he's a victim, of something much larger than a heart attack, and it's somewhat profound.
Overall, however, the film's pace seems to be very slow, without any real character realization until deep in the third act. It's almost as if Shagan spitballed a lot of things against the wall to see what stuck, but it's a possible metaphor for the opportunities that Americans have, but they seem to go the way that's the easiest and most familiar to them. Perhaps this is most capsulated by a scenario that involves Harry pondering burning down his warehouse for the insurance money. He gets some chances to reconsider his decision, but ultimately, it's a decision based on survival, and very little else.
This may seem to be a case of an actor who deserved to win an Oscar, but perhaps not for this film. Lemmon has been in other amazing films, and along with Gilford, the performances are excellent, but this film doesn't hit a lot of the same emotional cues that other Lemmon films have. The story is OK, but the performances aren't as overwhelming or as memorable.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
What is mildly disappointing is that there's a commentary by Avildsen and Shagan that isn't listed anywhere on the disc itself. After all, the film did win an Oscar. If there isn't at least a decent DVD treatment given to an Oscar-winning film, an accurate one would be appreciated. The nice thing about having the '70s films out on DVD is the opportunity to hear commentaries by the writers and directors of these forgotten gems and advertising this point a little bit more would help.
For performances, it's an excellent look at two actors, including one of the best. As an overall film however, it's not too cheery, and Lemmon has appeared in better films than this. Considering the crop of performances he was competing against, the Oscar is well deserved.
Lemmon and Gilford are not guilty; their work is beyond reproach in this film. Shagan's story is guilty of being just too darned depressing. Case dismissed.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by Director John Avildsen and Writer Steve Shagan
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