You'd think it was Jack Lemmon who was on top of the presidential polls, the way he works a hotel atrium: shaking hands, calling out greetings, poking a little fun at an old pal's waistline. Dressed like Everyone's Dad in a khaki jacket just right for mowing the lawn, he proclaims with relish, "I could smell it with this one!"
"Glengarry Glen Ross," that is -- his newest film, which opened last Friday.
But then, perhaps no actor has a better nose for this movie's territory: the mean, mad, pinned-in-the-middle world of the American businessman. In "The Apartment" (1960), Lemmon was the comical corporate patsy; in "Save the Tiger" (1973), he bitterly torched the vanishing Dream, and won an Oscar for Best Actor. But in "Glengarry" -- David Mamet's adaptation of his Pulitzer Prize-winning play, also starring Al Pacino, Alan Arkin and Alec Baldwin -- Mr. Lemmon must burrow to even darker depths. All the way down to the clawing, snarling, survive-at-any-cost creature that hunkers beneath the suit and tie.
Later, Mr. Lemmon sits in an almost-bare hotel sitting room, a Pacific breeze snapping the curtains as it rushes in one corner window and out the other -- almost eerily removed from the dark, ever-rainy city of the film. The 67-year-old actor ponders his affinity for the ordinary Joe in extraordinary straits.
"I've often asked myself where it comes from, why I'm attracted to these [desperate] people . . .," he begins, shaking his head. He acknowledges that -- with a Harvard degree and 37 years of rarely interrupted success -- he hasn't known the darkness of soul experienced by "Glengarry's" real-estate shyster, Shelley Levene.
Nicknamed "The Machine" for his golden-tongued prowess at selling worthless swampland, the aging Levene is now "low man" on the sales chart. His daughter is hospitalized. So he's the most vulnerable salesman when a grinningly ruthless yuppie manager Baldwin) announces an in-house sales contest: Winner gets a Cadillac, runner-up gets a set of steak knives -- and everyone else gets fired.
"It's hard to answer [why I identify with Levene], because acting is so instinctual," says Mr. Lemmon. "It helps to have done a lot of living, observation. As a kid I used to ride subways and watch people. I couldn't get into producers' offices to save my life" -- a burst of laughter -- "but for a nickel I could ride all day and get some training.
"I'd watch their eyes, their movements," he continues, squinting sideways as if picturing himself among those jostled riders, "trying to figure out what their lives were like."
Perhaps that's where Mr. Lemmon gets his "certain quality of sincerity" that director Billy Wilder says he saw in "Mister Roberts" (the actor's 1955 performance, for which he won best supporting actor). That quality led the director to cast Mr. Lemmon as the hilariously hapless corporate cog in "The Apartment."
"I saw a brilliant young comedian who was always on the delicate line of drama," says Mr. Wilder, 86, who went on to direct Mr. Lemmon in "Some Like It Hot," speaking by phone from his home. "Jack always came on the set a half-hour early, to give me lots of ideas. And as soon as he saw my brow begin to crinkle, he'd say, 'Right! I don't like it, either!' -- so he was a director's dream, you see."
This image of agreeability jibes with some of Mr. Lemmon's finest comic roles. He's made a career of being put-upon -- especially by Walter Matthau, whether it was being forced to wear a preposterous neck brace for an insurance scam ("The Fortune Cookie," 1966), or cleaning up moldy sandwiches ("The Odd Couple," 1968).
"Jack was always such a brilliant schnook, and I was the wise guy," says Mr. Matthau, Mr. Lemmon's long-time friend and football-watching buddy, speaking from a Chicago film set. "Only God could explain our chemistry."
Kevin Spacey, who as "Glengarry's" icy manager keeps his foot calmly pressed on Levene's throat as he begs for the sales leads: "There were times in those scenes when I just wanted to break down and give Jack the leads. Everyone knows what I'm talking about -- he's just such a nice guy!"
Perhaps it comes from taking an imaginative walk in the Other Guy's shoes.
Says Lemmon, "I'd be riding home [from the Chicago and New York sets of 'Glengarry'], and I'd be thinking about tomorrow's shoot. I'm looking out the window and I'm thinking as Shelley. I see a guy pushing a cart and everything he owns is in it, and I'm thinking: 'In one month, that can be me.' "
Mr. Lemmon points across the room, his voice low and tense, as if man and cart were there.
pTC "And how am I going to live? How am I going to pay my daughter's hospital bill? Suddenly it's, how long will these shoes hold out? So I took all that back with me, into that office, and I had no difficulty whatsoever in understanding the desperation."
"We're in the crapper -- the country in general," the actor continues. "There's going to be far more identification with these characters than even when the play came out" in 1984.
With the rare luxury of three weeks in rehearsal before a single foot of film was shot, "You could have raised the curtain on us and we could have opened on Broadway -- that's how ready we were. . . . I still feel like I'm 22 and a foot off the ground.
"We knew it was a great play, very funny and suspenseful," adds Mr. Lemmon, "but would it make a great film? Well, we knew it had to be great or it was going straight in the toilet. Some people had their doubts.
"Just like with 'Some Like It Hot.' They said, 'It's a five-minute burlesque sketch -- it'll never fly!' But I could smell how good it was, like I smell it with this one."