Apartment, The (1960): Billy Wilder’s Oscar-Winner, Starring Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine, and Fred MacMurray

the_apartment_posterIn the 1950s, no comedy had won the Best Picture Oscar, but two were cited by the Academy voters in the 1960s, though neither was a conventional genre picture.  Billy Wilder’s serio-comedy The Apartment, which for many is more of a drama with humor than  a comedy, and Tony Richardson’s adventure-comedy, Tom Jones, in 1963, which is a period (costume) feature.

Among other distinctions, The Apartment is one of the last black-and-white films to win the Best Picture. Spielberg’s Holocaust black-and-white drama, “Schindler’s List” won the Oscar in 1993, and the French film, “The Artist,” a spoof of silent films, got the top award in 2011.

 

 

The Apartment is not one of Wilder’s very best films (say “Double Indemnity” or “Sunset Boulevard”), but it has quite many merits.  The bitter-sweet yarn offers a biting commentary on the world of big business, the ethos of success and getting ahead, betrayal and adultery, all consistent themes in the director’s oeuvre.

After the huge success of the 1959 drag comedy Some Like It Hot, Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond wished to make another film with Jack Lemmon. Wilder had originally planned to cast Paul Douglas as Jeff Sheldrake, Lemmon’s boss. However, after Douglas died unexpectedly, Fred MacMurray was cast, reteaming with the director for the second and last time; the first, more impressive collaboration was in the 1944 noir classic, Double Indemnity.

The acting of Jack Lemmon, as C.C. Baxter, the ambitious, upwardly mobile IBM operator, and particularly Shirley MacLaine, as Fran Kubelik , the cute, insecure elevator woman, is superb. Both actors were nominated for the lead Oscars though neither won; the winners that year were Burt Lancaster for “Elmer Gantry” and Elizabeth Taylor for “Butterfield 8.”

Lacking a consistent tone (which some critics found problematic), this serio comedy vacillates between showing sympathy for its two protagonists and encouraging viewers to feel sorry for (and superior to) them, turning the film, especially in its last reel into a sappy melodrama, defined by pathos.

Wilder’s detractors complained that he perceived his two lead characters a tad too much as “little” people, crushed under social forces that are beyond their control.

When The Apartment opened theatrically, it received mixed reviews from critics, ranging from outright rejection to moderate praise.  Dwight MacDonald describing it as “a film without either style or taste,” to moderate praise. The film critic Hollis Alpert regarded The Apartment as a “dirty fairy tale, with a schnook for a hero, and a sad little elevator operator for a fairy princess.”

But 1960 was not a particularly strong year for movies, which may have accounted for Wilder’s major sweep of awards.  With The Apartment, Wilder became the first person to win three Oscar Awards, as producer, director and screenwriter, for the same film

“The Apartment” is also one of the few winners whose Oscar was not much of a help at the box-office, especially when contrasted with Wilder’s previous film, the drag comedy, Some Like It Hot.

That said, over the years, the film’s stature has grown, and while it’s not on Wilder’s pantheon of achievements, The Apartment is very enjoyable and well-acted by Lemmon and MacLaine, solidifying their stature and respected screen images.

Movie Impact: Recycling

The film inspired the 1968 Broadway musical Promises, Promises, with book by Neil Simon, music by Burt Bacharach, and lyrics by Hal David.

Narrative Structure (How the plot unfolds):

Calvin Clifford (C. C.) “Bud” Baxter (Lemmon) is a lonely office drudge at an insurance corporation in New York. To climb the corporate ladder, Bud offers four company managers, who call him “Buddy Boy,” his apartment for their extramarital liaisons; they are so noisy that his neighbors assume Bud is a womanizer.

The managers (Ray Walston, David Lewis, Willard Waterman, and David White) write glowing reports, and Bud hopes for a promotion from personnel director Jeff D. Sheldrake (MacMurray). Sheldrake, aware of the reasons for the enthusiastic reports, promotes him in return for exclusive privileges to borrow the apartment. Planning to use it that night, he offers Baxter two tickets to the hit Broadway musical The Music Man.

Bud invites Fran Kubelik (MacLaine), the quiet and unassuming elevator operator, to go to the musical with him, and they agree to meet at the theater after her drinks with a former fling. The man whom she meets is Sheldrake, who convinces her that he is about to divorce his wife for her. They go to Bud’s apartment, while Bud waits outside the theater.

At the company’s Christmas party, Sheldrake’s secretary Miss Olsen (Edie Adams), drunkenly reveals to Fran that Fran is just the latest in a string of female employees whom Sheldrake has seduced; she herself was one of them. At Bud’s apartment, Fran confronts Sheldrake, who maintains that he loves her but then leaves back to his suburban family.

Bud accidentally finds out about Sheldrake and Fran, and lets himself be picked up by a woman (Hope Holiday) at a bar. Back at his apartment, he is shocked to find Fran unconscious from an overdose of sleeping pills. He enlists the help of his neighbor, Dr. Dreyfuss (Jack Kruschen), to revive Fran without notifying the authorities.

Fran spends days recuperating at his apartment, while Bud tries distracting her from further suicidal by playing gin rummy. Fran’s brother-in-law Karl Matuschka (Johnny Seven) comes to the office looking for her. Resenting Bud for denying them access to his apartment, the executives direct the man there. Bud takes responsibility for Fran’s actions, and gets punched in the face, but he just says with a smile, “the punch didn’t hurt a bit”.

Sheldrake rewards Bud with further promotion and fires Miss Olsen for betraying him. However, Miss Olsen retaliates by telling his wife, who throws him out. Sheldrake moves into his athletic club, hoping to regain Fran’s attention.

When Sheldrake asks Bud for the key on New Year’s Eve, Bud refuses and quits the firm. Upon finding out, Fran deserts Sheldrake and runs to Bud’s apartment. At the door, she hears a noise that sounds like a gunshot; it’s Bud holding a bottle of overflowing champagne. Bud has been packing for a move to another city, but Fran insists on resuming their gin game. Bud declares his love for her—twice—and Fran gets to deliver what has become the film’s most famous final line, “Shut up and deal.”

Cast

C.C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon)

Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine)

J.D. Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray)

Mr. Dobisch (Ray Walston)

Mr. Kirkeby (David Lewis)

Dr. Dreyfuss (Jack Kruschen)

Sylvia (Joan Shawlee)

Miss Olsen (Edie Adams)

Margie MacDougal (Hope Holiday)

 

Running time: 125 Minutes