Bruce Davison on working with Jack Lemmon during the filming of Short Cuts:
Raymond Carver is still considered today as being one of the greatest short story writers of all time. With the pinnacle of his short stories being written in the 1970s into the 1980s when Americans were experiencing tremendous malaise, Carver placed his literary focus on blue-collar Americans, the individuals who were often ignored or forgotten about. Furthermore, Carver’s style of writing was blunt, precise, and rarely deviated into detail. Carver’s writing veered on being superficial and surface, yet it was within the content of his writing where he excelled. Raymond Carver was a master of illuminating the small fractures within society that most tended to not notice. His attention to these flaws, as common as they were, were then embellished to create commentary upon society. Carver represented society as child-like, petulant, even vindictive. This was a complete deviation from the usual literary representation of society being flawed, yet maintaining their morality. His short stories emphasized that his characters weren’t necessary bad people, but they willfully chose to make bad decisions. Carver excelled at pointing out that no person was devoid of inherent flaws, thereby suggesting that humanity was deeply fractured despite its attempts to convey itself otherwise.
Robert Altman’s Short Cuts took nine of Raymond Carver’s short stories and one poem and adapted them into this three-hour feature length film. What is particularly profound about this falls in that the film had no choice but to both elaborate upon such short works of fiction, but also give them contemporary relevancy. The actual content of the stories couldn’t feel dated, which was the true challenge for adapting this film. Therefore, the decision to place all the storylines within a contemporary Los Angeles setting gave the opportunity to have all nine short stories co-exist in a single location without ever stepping on each other. Altman then made another impactful decision: Having the events of the entire film occur in the span of five days. Carver’s stories were short and precise, which placed a sense of urgency with the storytelling. By having the film occur in the span of five days, that urgent tone the short stories possessed was still kept intact. In fact, the film’s title, Short Cuts, very much indicates this creative decision. Even in the construction of this film, the majority of scenes are short and blunt, sometimes lasting no longer than one minute. This style of direction undoubtedly links to Raymond Carver’s own desire to avoid extreme detail and instead focus on the content being relayed within the text.
Of course, Robert Altman interjected his own style of storytelling, which was revolutionary during this time of filmmaking. Altman commonly focused upon interaction and how exchanges between individuals were often impactful. Therefore, despite Short Cuts featuring nine separate short stories, each of them are spliced together in that plotlines merge and unrelated characters speak to each other briefly, as a stranger would to another in a store, hospital, or bakery. In that regard, all the characters are linked together to some capacity, whether they are family relations, friends, or are merely drinking at the same bar. This is one of Short Cuts‘ genuine strengths, by conveying how closely related we all are despite how different we are. This very motif is very much in the style of Altman’s 1975 film, Nashville, which featured a litany of characters and followed them and their interactions with each other in the span of five days. To say Robert Altman was fascinated with human interaction would be an understatement since the majority of his films were entirely focused upon this theme, which caused his films to be tremendously dialogue-driven with the majority of action within the film coming through the dialogue. The entirety of Short Cuts is dialogue, with minimal action, which adheres to Altman’s true desire with filmmaking, which was to mirror real-life and to provide audiences with a representation of themselves. With Short Cuts, this real-life representation was more of an critical expose on the human race.
The film features 22 different characters, most of them being compiled into groups of friends or as married couples. While this amount of characters may seem overbearing, Short Cuts is rather remarkable in how the film displays all the characters at the same time without any of them ever being at the expense of another. What particularly aids this film from it being overbearing was each of the vignettes triggering differing responses from the audience, to which none of the stories ever felt like they were the same, thereby avoiding repetition in the narrative. Short Cuts relied on extreme storytelling, which is precisely why each of the storylines heavily veer away from each other despite the characters all being closely knitted together. By fusing together instances of hilarity with moments of profound sadness, it caused the audience to remain active with the plot and feel emotionally linked to the characters and situations. For that, along with the perfect adaptation of Raymond Carver’s work, Short Cuts is perhaps one of the greatest films ever made.
Jack Lemmon’s performance is brief within Short Cuts, yet stunningly impactful. Within the film’s 180 minute time-span, Lemmon is in the film for no more than thirty minutes, yet his presence remains long after his character has exited the film.
Lemmon’s storyline is based off the Raymond Carver short story, “Sacks,” which focuses on a unnamed narrator meeting his estranged father for a drink at a bar. Their conversation is limited until the narrator’s father begins to detail the reasoning behind an affair he had that caused their family to break up when the narrator was a child. Despite the narrator emphasizing that such instances should stay in the past, his father keeps pushing the story forward, almost in a means to redeem himself in the eyes of his son. This brief, fifteen-page short story was all Jack Lemmon had to work with going into Short Cuts, yet he was able to offer an element of freshness to the story’s content. What further added this plot device was Robert Altman’s decision to merge Lemmon’s storyline with the characters of his son (Bruce Davison) and his wife (Andie MacDowell), who both are representations of Raymond Carver’s short story, “A Small, Good Thing,” which focuses on a couple enduring the possibility that their child could die after a hit-and-run. This also gave Jack Lemmon a grandfatherly element to his performance as well.
What Lemmon especially centered on in his performance was the extreme awkwardness with the character, who introduces himself suddenly into the plot and forcefully integrates himself into the lives of his son and his wife. However, Lemmon was strategic in playing off the role in a somewhat ambiguous manner, to which the audience never fully understands the motives of the character. The character undoubtedly enters the film with the purpose of rectifying the past, yet Lemmon is sure to keep the performance somewhat distanced from the very characters he is trying to connect with. This formulates the question of ‘why’ with the viewer, why has he chosen now to rectify the past? This is especially apparent with Jack Lemmon deliberately conveying passivity towards his character’s grandson being in the hospital, failing to even remember what his grandson’s name is.
The strength of Jack Lemmon’s performance comes in a six-minute monologue (Click HERE to watch it), which was undoubtedly deliberate on both Jack Lemmon and Robert Altman’s part. In the scene when Jack Lemmon confesses his former infidelity to his son, it is recited in a manner that suggests the character has been practicing this speech to his son for years, yet the brilliance of this scene is the context of the where-and-now this conversation is being done: In the hospital cafeteria while this grandson is in a coma. By framing the narrative in a somewhat inappropriate manner, Jack Lemmon’s performance illuminates two aspects: The character is expressing profound guilt from the past, but is emotionally detached from the present. By trying to solve the issues of the past, he is ignoring an opportunity to be relevant in the present.
In fact, it is when he is needed most by others when his character exits the film. He simply puts on his hat and silently and slowly walks down the empty hallway, to which the audience realizes the connection he so desperately wanted will never happen, yet such a result is his own doing. The true achievement of Lemmon’s performance is, in fact, this character exit. He effectively eliminates the possibility of the viewer feeling a vile sentiment towards the character because he exits the film in one of the film’s most memorable and heartbreaking scenes. Lemmon’s performance in this moment proves the character to be a defeatist. He is unable to connect with the present because he is too scared to actually make a connection with the present, which is the ultimate tragedy inherent of the character. It is in this non-dialogue moment that deserves Jack Lemmon a large portion of praise. Like Ingrid Bergman in Murder on the Orient Express, Jack Lemmon proved that so much could be conveyed in a small role. His performance is astounding.