Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine in the 1960 classic, "The Apartment".
Few movies can be at once savage and sweet; fewer still while straddling more than one genre. Billy Wilder’s The Apartment (1960) manages all of the above. Dubbed a comedy at its debut, this
study in after-office-hours hanky-panky bears an undertow of
melancholyand with the deceptively light touch of co-writer-director
Audiences weaned on Jim Carrey slapstick or the
gnarly fare of the Farrelly brothers are simply not accustomed to this
level of style and sophistication. There is rich and ironic humor
throughout, but this is a movie that invites you to think perhaps even
more than to laugh.
For his efforts, director Wilder shared an
Oscar with his co-writer I.A.L. Diamond for Best Writing, Story and
Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen (in the old Hollywood
nomenclature) along with Best Director and the coveted award for Best
Picture. This is a rare hat trick. Only 13 films since 1929, the Awards’
first year, have won three or more of the famous Big Five
nominationsBest Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, and
Mr. Diamond also wrote Some Like It Hot, the previous year’s hit, which was also directed by Wilder. He was at the top of his game with The Apartment, which became the inspiration for the Neil Simon/Burt Bacharach hit musical Promises, Promises (1968).
“Bud” Baxter (the peerless Jack Lemmon) is a medium-low clerk in the
nondescript Consolidated Life Insurance Company who, as his opening
voiceover discloses, “has a problem with his apartment.” He has agreed
to allow his modest Upper West Side flat to be used as an after-hours
trysting spot by four managers at Consolidated. His opening lines frame
the tale against the dry numbers that are the lifeblood of the actuarial
set: “Our home office has 31,259 employees, which is more than the
entire population of uhh... Natchez, Mississippi. I work on the 19th
floor. Ordinary Policy Department, Premium Accounting Division, Section
W, desk number 861.”
We see hundreds of nameless, fedora-wearing
functionaries striding briskly alongside harried secretaries to a bank
of jammed foyer elevators. Another corporate workday begins. The movie’s
title suggests alienation and atomization: apart-ment, the state of
being apart. The skyscraper itself is a sort of New York City in
microcosm. Each floor features long rows of cramped desks behind which
scores of nondescript staffers punch away on their calculators and
staplers. The rich black and white photography by Joseph LaShelle (which
earned him an Oscar nomination) conveys a bureaucratized, nameless
The Apartment is arguably the last great film
from the era of black and white cinematography. Color film techniques
had been around since the early part of the 20th century but
only slowly began to dominate the industry, partly in order to
out-dazzle television viewers who had begun to stay away from theater
houses in droves after the Second World War. The only black and whites
to win Best Picture Academy Awards since The Apartment have been Schindler’s List (1993) and The Artist (2011), both of which were visual homages to bygone eras.
LaShelle’s work on The Apartment
provides a visual study of the moral themes (black and white vs. shades
of grey) explored by the story itself. From the dinghy, washed out
surroundings of the movie’s eponymous New York flat to the bright
accents of the Christmas party scenes, this is a beautiful movie to
Bud is backslapped and patronized as “Buddy Boy” by his
philandering superiors, and seems as small and shabby as the apartment
he loans out for his bosses affairs. We like him, feel sorry for him,
and by the third act we’re really rooting for him.
Jack Lemmon’s performance snagged him a Best Actor Oscar nomination. He had already won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Mister Roberts (1955) and would go on to win the Best Actor for Save the Tiger (1973). One actor who never forgot that Lemmon was overlooked in The Apartment
was Kevin Spacey, who dedicated his Best Actor win to the man who’s
performance 40 years before had inspired his own portrayal of Lester in American Beauty (1999).
Lemmon was a favorite player of Wilder, who cast him in seven of his films. The je ne sais quois
that made the him a national treasure and a mentor for three
generations of actors is on full display in this winsome performance.
(Embarrassing brush with fame alert: I stood a few feet from Mr. Lemmon
at a cocktail party at the Shrine Auditorium before the Academy Awards
ceremony in 1997, but was too awestruck to walk up and thank him for his
As a character, C.C. Baxter is part Willy Loman, part
Caspar Milquetoast, with a dash of Walter Mitty. He is by turns earnest,
resentful, loyal, drunk, and funnyabove all, he’s the owner of a
spectacular dollop of naiveté.
Unlucky in love, Bud lives the life
romantic only vicariously. And his upward mobility at Consolidated Life
proceeds apace with his willingness to loan out his digs for
extramarital liaisons. Bud’s an arms dealer who connects the arms of
married men to those of their mistresses. The cost of his career
advancement is the sullying of his own bed sheetsa price Bud seems
willing to pay.
His dulled conscience gets the jolt of a lifetime
when he learns that the girl he’s sweet on, pixy elevator girl Fran
Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine) happens to be the object of lust of the
company personnel director Jeff Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray, playing
against his Nice Guy type). What kills Bud softly is that Fran agrees to
play apartment ring-a-ding-ding with the smarmy Sheldrake.
enough, Budthe picture of male passivitywaits until the jolt wears
off. He must fall into a deeper hole
before finding his inner hero.
The character of Fran is also, in
her own way, naïve, but instead of fleeing the risks attached to true
intimacy, she removes her boundary filter altogether. “I just have this
talent for falling in love with the wrong guy,” she ruefully admits, “in
the wrong place at the wrong time.”
Fran and Bud are the yin and
yang of neediness. She can’t say no to bad a relationship and he can’t
say yes to a good one. You can tell that Bud wants to be the “mensch”
his neighbor Dr. Dreyfus tells him he should be. And Fran is sick and
tired of being sick and tired; indeed, she tries to commit suicide by
downing a bottle of Bud’s sleeping pills. But neither can seem to get to
where they need to be. What do you do? Throttle these people or hug
The Apartment was released the same year the
Federal Drug Administration approved Enovid, the first contraceptive
pill. And the sexualization of the workplace depicted in the movie
anticipated the more noxious wake of the sexual revolution in the decade
to come. Contemporary guesses at how things were in the 1960s (like
cable TV’s Mad Men or the short-lived Pan-Am on ABC) don’t quite capture the sly sophistication of The Apartment, a true original.
movie doesn’t endorse its underlying theme of infidelity so much as
mine it for comedy potential (the close ties between comedy and pain are
well known). Put in Christian terms, the presence of sin forces both
Bud and Fran to choose who they want to be. The problem, though, with
lovelorn Budand with love-burned Franis they have compromised
themselves out of the game.
Fran Kubelik’s moral conversion, as it
were, comes when the Sheldrake hands her a Christmas gift in the form
of a one hundred dollar billa big spender amount back then. As he
dangles it in her face like a satisfied john, Mr. Wilder holds a close
shot on Ms. MacLaine so we can drink in her contempt for the man who
will never leave his wife. We know Fran well enough, too, to know she
won’t leave him, either.
One of the charms of The Apartment
is its setting in time. We first meet the lonely Bud Baxter in the
weeks leading up to Christmas, and so Christmas carols are an integral
part of the musical setting. Director Wilder milks the maudlin out of
the kind of “holiday carols” you’d find in a seedy tavern filled with
lonely barflies: tinselly tunes bespeaking a Christmas without the
Christ part. The cognitive dissonance is effective.
Waiting for love is the definition of Advent. But love is not quite requited on December 25th
for Bud Baxter. He must wait some more. Moments after midnight on New
Year’s Eve, when his beloved Miss Kubelik (he never once calls her Fran
in the movie) wakes up to who really loves her and arrives at the
apartment moments before Bud moves out. Her rapturous run to that
apartment sets up one of cinema’s classic exchanges when Bud looks at
her and says, “Miss Kubelik, I absolutely adore you.” To which she
replies: “Shut up and deal.”
In the midst of a corrupt business
environment where sex competes with career advancement and true romance
is for suckers, Christmas comes late for Bud Baxter, but not too late.
And that’s about it, Cinephile-wise.