Calling a dramatic theater production a “well-made play” carries derogatory implications, not just because the “well-made play” was a popular genre in the 19th century, but because the term implies a certain mixture of predictability, superficiality, and tidiness—nothing earns so much critical enmity as work designed to please everyone. Tribute, based upon Bernard Slade’s stage production of the same name, is very much a “well-made play” in the pejorative sense. Predictable, superficial, tidy? Guilty on all three counts. It’s hardly a coincidence that Slade found great success in the world of TV sitcoms, developing the ridiculous ’60s series The Flying Nun, in addition to writing such plays as Same Time, Next Year, which became the 1978 film of the same name starring Alan Alda and Ellen Burstyn. Slade’s signature move as a writer is heading partway down the road toward some emotional place that’s potentially hurtful or meaningful, then tacking sideways with an evasive joke or a simplistic homily.
Nowhere is this more evident than during Tribute, which plays onscreen as a 121-minute prelude to a cop-out. If the movie didn’t immediately reveal itself as an exercise in jokey sentimentality, it would be a highly frustrating experience. So why is Tribute watchable? The answer is Jack Lemmon, who received a Tony nomination for the stage version and an Oscar nomination for the screen version. He’s wonderful in Tribute, and the match between his character and his screen persona is nearly perfect. Lemmon was uniquely gifted at wriggling out of uncomfortable emotional places by making silly expressions and telling motor-mouthed jokes, so watching him play a man who avoids emotion through humor is satisfying on myriad levels.
Set in New York, the movie tells the story of Scottie Templeton (Lemmon), a onetime screenwriter now working as a press agent. Beloved by everyone he knows because he’s always quick with a joke and always capable of transforming life into a lighthearted adventure, Scottie has grown estranged from his college-aged son, Jud (Robby Benson), even though Scottie remains friendly with Jud’s mother. She’s Scottie’s ex-wife, Maggie (Lee Remick). Shortly before Maggie delivers Jud to New York for an extended visit, Scottie learns he has a terminal blood disease. Scottie endeavors to fix his relationship with Jud while he still has time, though of course he hopes to shield Jud from the truth lest Jud indulge Scottie out of pity. The complication, of course, is that Scottie doesn’t know the first thing about building real emotional bonds, so his idea of connecting with Jud is arranging for Jud to “meet” pretty young Sally (Kim Cattrall), a recent acquaintance of Scottie’s. The story’s title relates to a grand gesture that one of the characters makes in the final act.
Directed with pace and polish by Bob Clark, Tribute benefits from fine supporting performances. Cattrall is endearing and Remick is elegant, while Colleen Dewhurst (as Scottie’s doctor) and John Marley (as Scottie’s business partner) add gravitas. Benson does what he can with an underdeveloped role, since his purpose is largely to reflect Lemmon’s light. Ah, but how bright that light is, with Lemmon swerving effortlessly from levity to pathos while stopping at various anguished and confused places in between. He’s reason enough to watch Tribute.