“The most important thing in life is to learn how to give out love and to let it come in.” – Jack Lemmon as Morrie Schwartz in Tuesdays with Morrie
The Film and Performance:
It is rather remarkable that the final performance of Jack Lemmon’s career before he passed away in June 27, 2001, was one about death and the lessons learned from one’s life. Based off the Mitch Alcom novel of the same title, Tuesdays with Morrie is more than a film about an individual who is recounting the most profound elements of his life. What the film grounds itself on is how profound the simple things in life are and how one ought to appreciate them while they are available. To appreciate them is to immerse oneself in love. Jack Lemmon, in his final role, beautifully conveys this message throughout the film’s narrative.
Tuesdays with Morrie centers around Mitch Albom (Hank Azaria), who is a workaholic. He is a sports commentator and journalist, who barely finds time to enjoy his own life. The lives of others sportsman are given preference to his own wants, even his love life. This changes when he learns that his old college philosophy teacher, Morrie Schwartz (Jack Lemmon), has been diagnosed with Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, better known as “Lou Gehrig’s disease” or “ALS.” Feeling guilty, he visits Morrie, who he hasn’t seen in 16 years. Once reunited, Morrie immediately contradicts Mitch’s expectations of how his visit with Morrie would be. Rather than the impression of being depressing or helpless, Morrie openly discusses not only his attitudes towards the disease, but towards life. This evolves into a stunning teacher-student reunion of Mitch visiting Morrie every Tuesday to further his understanding of Morrie’s philosophy about life and applying to his own life.
While the film’s plot is simple in its narrative structure, its overall message is where the impact of the film lies. Tuesdays with Morrie asks the question to its viewers: why are people afraid to show their feelings? There is much truth to this question, especially in today’s society where many repress their feelings because they believe that emotions would hinder other’s perceptions of them. This is especially true when it comes to illness and death, which is when people are increasingly careful out of fear of offending someone. To Morrie in this film, that is denying oneself the ability to feel love. People are fearful, scared, or even angry because it is love they are feeling within themselves. To feel is to love and to repress that is to deny that there is love within yourself. Tuesdays with Morrie portrays Morrie as being open about his ailment, publicly crying, and not being afraid to exhibit instances of helplessness. This is not because Morrie is wallowing in a puddle of self-pity, but a continuation of who he has always been. He has always been one to be open about his feelings and his current predicament doesn’t change that. As he says to Mitch at one point in the film, “Dying is just one thing to be sad about. Living unhappily, that’s another matter.” It’s important to live life to its fullest, but one has to be willing to experience and feel life in order to begin that process.
According to Jack Lemmon’s Morrie, love extends beyond what is between two partners, but is rather the basis of all of life. He often quotes the poet W.H. Auden, saying “We must love one another or die,” to reiterate his belief on life. This is particularly profound within this movie because not only is it essential to not be afraid to reveal one’s feelings, but it is equally profound to show appreciation to all those around oneself. In support of this, Morrie says at one point in the film, “When we’re infants, we need others to survive. When we’re dying, we need others to survive. But here’s the secret. In between, we need others even more.” In that regard, Morrie lives this ideology exactly as he preaches it by showing incredible gratitude for all those around him, especially Mitch, who he treats like a son.
A large portion of credit to the success of Tuesdays with Morrie must go to Jack Lemmon for an extraordinary final performance. Jack Lemmon, in the latter years of his life, applied much self-reflection towards his own life. He was particularly known for his openness about his alcoholism issues, which he divulged in a 1988 interview on Inside the Actor’s Studio. This series of self-reflections undoubtedly was on Lemmon’s mind while filming Tuesdays with Morrie, especially since he was privately battling metastatic cancer for the past two years and probably was aware that his own time was running out. While the film was about Morrie Schwartz, one cannot sense there is much subtlety in the performance due to Lemmon’s own perspectives about life. Lemmon, known for being one of the nicest, most sweetest of actors of Hollywood, was someone who was beloved because he always showed love and appreciation for all those around him. Like Morrie, Lemmon recognized that giving back to the community, even at a minimal level, made a lifetime worth living. For example, Kevin Spacey, who starred with Lemmon in Long Day’s Journey into Night, The Murder of Mary Phagan, and Dad, has been quoted as saying that Jack Lemmon took him on as a mentor and encouraged his acting aspirations. Spacey has furthered said that without the positive encouragement of Jack Lemmon, he never would have succeeded as an actor. Therefore, one could argue that while Tuesdays with Morrie is a television movie, it is also Jack Lemmon conveying a powerful life lesson that he held dear to his own life and wished to share to all those who loved him.
Tuesdays with Morrie concluded Jack Lemmon’s lengthy and versatile career strong. For his poignant and touching performance as Morrie Schwartz, Jack Lemmon was nominated for a Golden Globe for his performance, but ironically lost to himself for Inherit the Wind, another television film he had starred in earlier in 1999. However, Jack Lemmon did win the Emmy in the Outstanding Lead Actor in a Miniseries or Movie category during the 52nd Primetime Emmy Awards in September 10, 2000 (Click HERE to see his acceptance speech). The award was deserved for Jack Lemmon and it was the last time the film or television community ever had a chance to award this extraordinary actor. With a career that catapulted in 1955 with his Oscar-winning performance in Mister Roberts, to an amazing mixture of comedic and dramatic roles that spanned decades, Jack Lemmon concluded his career in 2000 with a beautiful performance about love and the need to love others. With that, Jack Lemmon passed away in 2001 respected, loved, and adored by millions of fans and peers.