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Save the Tiger

Save the Tiger(1973)

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Among its many distinctions, John G. Avildsen's Save the Tiger (1973) was probably the first major American film to drop the word "cholesterol" into its dire diagnosis of a galloping national malaise. Jack Lemmon stars as Harry Stoner, a World War II veteran who heads an imperiled Los Angeles fashion house during the turbulent Vietnam era. With revenues down and business increasingly cutthroat, Stoner's dark night of the soul comes with the realization that the only way Capri Casuals can survive another season is to burn down one of his dress mills to collect the insurance. Meanwhile, Harry's marriage is inert, his beloved daughter is sequestered in a Swiss boarding school to keep her out of "the zoo" of the Los Angeles school system, the spring line is being shown to the buyers whose favor he must curry through the charms of a high priced hooker (Dark Shadows alumna Lara Parker). For the next 24 hours, Harry will scramble from red-faced arguments with his conscience-stricken business partner (Jack Gilford, who received an Oscar® nomination for his work) to clandestine meetings with a reptilian arsonist (Thayer David) to an assignation with a hippie pickup (Laurie Heineman), whom chance drops into the passenger seat of his land yacht. It's vintage 70s cinema, boiling with pre-Star Wars (1977) recriminations and self-loathing mixed with aching nostalgia for a time in the nation's history when history meant something. Without Save the Tiger we probably still would have experienced Network (1976) but quite possibly not Glengarry Glen Ross (1992), in which Lemmon also starred.

Writer Steve Shagan was, like his protagonist, the son of a Brooklyn pharmacist who grew up between world wars. A Broadway usher and film cutter in New York, Shagan was moonlighting as a stagehand on the live CBS-TV series Danger when staff writer Rod Serling urged him to peddle his writer's wares in Hollywood. In Los Angeles, Shagan sold his first scenario to Have Gun - Will Travel at CBS but due to labor laws was denied the privilege of penning the teleplay. Through word of mouth, the newcomer's writing ability won him work as a publicist for Joseph E. Levine and John Wayne's Batjac, among other L.A.-based production companies. Shagan also wrote books (among them, the source novels for Robert Aldrich's Hustle [1975] and John Avildsen's The Formula [1980]) and served as a producer on a number of low budget Tarzan films (Tarzan and the Valley of Gold [1966], Tarzan's Jungle Rebellion [1967]) starring former pro footballer and Warners contract player Mike Henry, as well as on the subsequent NBC series starring Ron Ely. Save the Tiger was Shagan's first feature screenplay and the writer was recognized by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Scientists with an Oscar® nomination for "Best Screenplay."

The son of a tool manufacturer who worked as an advertising copywriter before entering films as the director of a few softcore sex romps (Guess What We Learned in School Today? [1971], Cry Uncle [1971]), John G. Avildsen made his mark in Hollywood with such downbeat character studies as Joe (1970), The Stoolie (1972) and Save the Tiger. Avildsen would enjoy popular success as the director of the sports-themed Rocky (1976) and The Karate Kid (1984). At the end of the decade, Shagan and Avildsen reteamed for the political crime thriller The Formula, a production plagued by sufficient calamity for Avildsen to lobby unsuccessfully to have his name removed from the finished product.

While Save the Tiger netted star Jack Lemmon his second Academy Award® (he had been thrice nominated since his "Best Supporting Actor" win for Mr. Roberts, 1955), the film is little remembered now, pushed to the back of the list of the actor's great performances, behind the more widely lauded Some Like It Hot (1959), The Apartment (1960), The Odd Couple (1968), The China Syndrome (1979) and Missing (1982). Lemmon had championed the project against the better judgment of Paramount, who wanted nothing to do with what was considered a message picture and a downer at that.

After two years of lobbying, Lemmon, John Avildsen and Steve Shagan (who also signed on as a producer) were given a parsimonious one million dollar budget. To stretch the funds, Lemmon volunteered to work for union scale, at $165 per week plus a percentage of the profits. Avildsen shot Save the Tiger in sequence, wheeling a Cinemobile (a revolutionary mobile filming unit invented by Fouad Said, a former I Spy cameraman, which enabled filmmakers to keep location costs to a minimum) around Los Angeles.

Before the finished film was in the can, Jack Lemmon was being touted as an Oscar® contender, alongside Jack Nicholson (for The Last Detail), Marlon Brando (for Last Tango in Paris), Robert Redford (for The Sting) and Al Pacino (for Serpico). When Jack Lemmon walked to the dais of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion on April 4, 1974, to accept his statuette, he became the first performer in Academy history to win for both "Best Supporting Actor" and "Best Actor."

Producer: Martin Ransohoff and Steve Shagan
Director: John G. Avildsen
Screenplay: Steve Shagan
Cinematography: Jim Crabe
Art Direction: Jack Collis
Music: Marvin Hamlisch
Film Editing: David Bretherton
Cast: Jack Lemmon (Harry Stoner), Jack Gilford (Phil Greene), Laurie Heineman (Myra), Norman Burton (Fred Mirrell), Patricia Smith (Janet Stoner).
C-100m. Letterboxed.

by Richard Harland Smith

Lemmon: A Biography by Don Widener
Steve Shagan radio interview by Don Swaim, 1983
John G. Avildsen biography by Ben McCann, Contemporary North American Film Directors: A Wallflower Critical Guide
The Film Encyclopedia by Ephraim Katz

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