One of the many great attributes Jack Lemmon had was the ability to play conniving, unsatisfied characters with emotion. It is hard to appeal to an audience when you have it all under control, but Save the Tiger toys with its leading man and his emotional fragility. He has the house, the car, the comfortable job in a challenging but rewarding industry. Yet Harry Stoner (Lemmon) is feeling the burden of professional and personal life encroaching on one another. He struggles to “leave his problems at the door”, so to speak, and soon the spiral into a dissatisfied life and inability to balance the two gets the better of him as frustrations spark and flutters with passion fly.
Trust in Lemmon to make Save the Tiger as good as it is. Truly exceptional, and an Oscar-winning performance for the leading man are signs of the exceptional quality within. It is very much a one-man show. Everyone else falls off to the wayside. They do not lack importance; they are just not taken seriously enough by director John G. Avildsen to affect an audience. The disparage here is strong, though, as it may not take precedence for the audience, but it does for Stoner. His problems at work are a barrage of issues and problems. He cannot turn to his home life, for there is no longer anything there for him. Far into his middle age, it is clear Stoner is still struggling with the adaptation of a youthful life to one of responsibility and work.
It is a transition I fear myself, and Save the Tiger is rather literal in its title. Stoner here is the tiger, and it is clear he needs saving. I and my generation have not fought a world war as Stoner’s had, and therein lies the disconnect between myself and this tiger. Stoner is not only tormented by the past afflictions of his youth and how it was stolen from him through tragedy, but the lack of knowledge the generation after him show to his sacrifice. He spends time with free-minded individuals who know little of the conflict and even less about him. Not even he knows who he is anymore. Stoner is straddled by his past life, so much so that he cannot fashion a future. Ironic for a man working in the garment industry.
Perhaps working is the wrong word for what Stoner does. He is a survivor, tripping through day-to-day life with fraud, trauma and misery hounding him. It is the natural, stammering strength of Lemmon that presents this so succinctly. He is at a loss of what to do, panicked at even the slightest of trouble, and even when he has found freedom and temporary peace, he is always on edge. He knows his troubles are not coming to a close, nor will they ever until he shuffles off the mortal coil. Once he has made his final trip around the sun, that is when the tiger will be saved. More pressing than ever, though, Save the Tiger is an imaginative and brutal showing of how many live, have lived and will live, because the stress to succeed becomes too much to bear.