“I want that girl in a Cole Porter song. I want to see Lena Horne at the Cotton Club…hear Billie Holiday sing fine and mellow…walk in that kind of rain that never washes perfume away. I want to be in love with something. Anything. Just the idea. A dog…a cat…anything…just something.” – Jack Lemmon as Harry Stoner in Save the Tiger
The Film and Performance:
By the early 1970s America was suffering from an identity crisis. What had long stood as the American ideal had been shaken with a recent decade that challenged every convention that was once deemed normative. America entered the 1970s unsure of what its future would be. There had been tremendous success in social change during the 1960s, but the country was also faltering in other aspects. The anti-war sentiment over the Vietnam War ignited a disdain not only towards veterans, but evoked anti-American sentiments. Anything that was deemed part of “the establishment” was treated with utter contempt. It was by no surprise that by the conclusion of the 1960s, there was a clear gap between the younger and older generations. These issues were amplified in the 1970s with the American economy entering a recession by 1973, effecting millions and causing unemployment to run up over 6%. Many saw this as evidence of big business and the establishment inflicting further harm on the average citizen, inciting more contempt towards these facilities and persons. The widely held belief was that such persons were devoid of integrity and only saw the world in the form of profit. To a degree, this was true. However, this generalization did not apply towards everyone, causing some to be isolated from society as a result. In other words, attaining the American Dream had become a liability.
Save the Tiger’s Harry Stoner (Jack Lemmon) is one such person. He is an individual who has managed to succeed in his life despite a complicated past. He has made his name as an executive of an apparel company, lives in a beautiful mansion, and has enough money to live comfortably. The issue is his company is on the verge of financial collapse and it has become increasingly obvious that he will have to abandon his morality and his integrity in order to survive. The film chronicles a day-and-a-half of Harry Stoner’s life as he desperately cuts corners to keep his company afloat. However, the moral conflict Harry endures is only one aspect of the film. Save the Tiger is a movie about the extinction of the older generation. Harry Stoner is a relic of the past, whose sacrifices are not even acknowledged by the younger generations. As a result, Harry exists in a country he no longer comprehends. All he can fight for is survival, but he doesn’t even know what purpose he is trying to survive for.
Save the Tiger hinged on Jack Lemmon’s acting and he provided this film, arguably, the best performance of his career. Harry Stoner easily could have been a character one could antagonize, but due to Lemmon’s careful interpretation of the character, Harry Stoner unfolds as a desperate person one actually pities. This is because Harry Stoner is a ghost in the country he once understood. His generation has been long forgotten, but he is trying to maintain a hint of relevance in this country that is rapidly changing around him. He dreams of his past when he once thought he could have been a baseball player and when times were easier. He immerses himself in smooth jazz music in a time when music was once a genuine reflection of a musician’s soul. He repeatedly goes back to these comforts of his past because that is all he truly understands. These elements of the past are like a sanctuary for Harry, to which he feels safe when he consumes himself with them. In that regard, Harry Stoner is a sad person to view. He is a rare species that is on the verge of extinction. With his life imploding all around him, this extinction is likely to come soon.
The true tragedy of the character is the lack of appreciation for his generation who fought in World War II and sacrificed much of their innocence for future generations who have proven to be ungrateful. This ungrateful generation is passive about the past and ignorant to their history. In one scene Harry Stoner has with a hitchhiker he picks up later in the film, he is met with the incredulous response, “We never were at war with Italy.” In moments like this Harry is faced with the reality that the country he once fought for has veered away from respecting its own foundation. The younger generation’s passivity diminishes those friends Harry lost during the war and minimizes the sacrifices he made for his country. While the younger generation has already forgotten the past, Harry is trapped in it. He is continually met with haunting recollections of the war and the enduring guilt he feels for having survived the war. He has bottled up his depression for having lost friends in the war and doesn’t want to accept that the ideal they fought for is gone in today’s society. Even something as simple as visiting the beach is a mental anguish for Harry, who sees the beach as a reminder of the war he once fought in overseas. In a simple yet profound scene, Harry stares into the beach alone and in silence. Externally the scene is pleasant, but we are given access to his thoughts, to which the viewer realizes that the beach imagery evokes in Harry’s head the sounds of war and death. He is haunted by his past to the point that he is almost paralyzed by it.
In many regards, Harry is still at war, but it is now with himself. Harry has long sacrificed his integrity in order to keep his company alive and he is now at a moral crossroad of whether to hire an arsonist to burn down one of his factories in order for him to collect the insurance, which would guarantee his company surviving another season. The foil to Harry’s desperation is Jack Gilford as Phil Greene, Harry’s business partner who functions as the film’s moral compass. Throughout the entire film, Phil is the sole character with moral integrity who also is a rare species on the verge of symbolic extinction in that he represents a generation who once made a living honestly. Phil is adamant that by not following the rules and having no conscience, it reinforces society’s disdain for business and men like Harry. Like Harry, Phil is backed into a corner and does not know what to do to combat the world around him. Therefore through Phil, Save the Tiger additionally tells the story of how honesty no longer is conducive in the working world, where cutting corners is more practical than legitimacy.
The most poignant element of the film is that Harry no longer knows what he is even fighting for. When asked directly what he wants, Harry solemnly responds, “another season,” much to the astonishment of the individual who cannot comprehend someone living only to survive. This establishes Harry not as someone who is determined to line his pockets, but as someone who wants to maintain something in his life that reinforces that all the innocence he lost in the past was worth something. He has nobody to connect with personally. His only social connections are with those who aid him in cutting corners. All he has is the knowledge that he lost so much to be where he is. In hindsight, this essentially suggests the dissolution of the American Dream. Harry’s romanticizing of the past is a clear indication of his regrets and wishing he could do over his life. He is outdated, psychologically ostracized, and isolated from living in contemporary society. He merely exists with no real prospects outside of survival. This is the representation of America in Save the Tiger: devoid of morality and hope.
Save the Tiger wasn’t a commercial success with mainstream moviegoers, but was highly regarded by critics and general audiences. The film nearly wasn’t made and took three years to get its financing. Jack Lemmon, who was determined to have the film made, opted out of his usual salary and worked for scale (minimum wage established by the Actors Union). The result was Save the Tiger winning Jack Lemmon an Oscar for Lead Actor, making him the first male actor to ever achieve winning an Oscar in both the Lead and Supporting Actor categories (his first Oscar win was for Mister Roberts). Jack Gilford was nominated for Best Supporting Actor and writer Steve Shagan was nominated in the Original Screenplay category. Both ultimately did not win. To see Jack Lemmon’s impassioned Oscar acceptance speech at the 1974 Oscars, click HERE.