Oscar: Apartment (1960)–Billy Wilder’s Second Best Picture Oscar

the_apartment_posterTwo comedies were cited by the Oscar 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 than comedy, and Tony Richardson’s adventure-comedy, “Tom Jones,”  in 1963, which, again, for some is a period (costume) feature.

Among other distinctions, “The Apartment” is one of the last black-and-white films to win Best Picture; Spielberg’s Holocaust black-and-white epic drama, “Schindler’s List” won the Best Picture Oscar in 1993.

“The Apartment” is not one of Wilder’s very best films, but it does have several 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, which are consistent themes in the director’s oeuvre.

The acting of Jack Lemmon, as the ambitious, upwardly mobile insurance company operator, and particularly Shirley MacLaine, as the elevator woman, was superb. Both actors were nominated for the lead Oscars though neither won; the winners were Burt Lancaster for “Elmer Gantry” and Liz Taylor for “Butterfield 8.”

the_apartment_5Deliberately lacking a consistent tone (which some critics found problematic), this serio, bittersweet comedy vacillates between sympathy for its protagonists and pity for them. Wilder’s detractors complained that he perceived his lead characters as “little” people, crushed under social forces beyond their control.  Others noted that Wilder’s usual cynicism is countered by too much pathos and sentimentality.

Critical and Commercial Response

the_apartment_4Upon release, “The Apartment” received mixed to positive reviews.  Dwight MacDonald described The Apartment as “a film without either style or taste.”   The film critic Hollis Alpert regarded “The Apartment” in Saturday Review as a “dirty fairy tale, with a schnook for a hero, and a sad little elevator operator for a fairy princess.”  There was also moderate praise from  Bosley Crowther, film critic of the N.Y. Times, who described it as “gleeful, tender, and even sentimental film.”

But 1960 was not a particularly strong year for movies, which may have accounted for Wilder’s win. “The Apartment” is also one of the few winners whose Oscar was not much help at the box-office.  The movie’s commercial appeal was moderate.

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.

Detailed Plot

jack lemmon & shirley maclaine - the apartment 1960Jack Lemmon plays Calvin Clifford (C. C.) “Bud” Baxter, a lonely office employee at a New York insurance company. To climb the corporate ladder, Bud allows various company managers–they call him “Buddy Boy”–to borrow his apartment for their extramarital affairs.  The men are so noisy that his neighbors assume Bud is a aldies man, a modern Don Juan.

Several execs write positive reports about Baxter, leading him to believe that the personnel director, Jeff Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray) will promote him rather quickly. Indeed, the knowing Sheldrake decides to promote him in exchange of borrowing the apartment. As compensation for such short notice—Sheldrake wants to use it that night—he gives Baxter two tickets to the Broadway show, The Music Man.

Baxter flirts with Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine), an elevator operator, and they agree to meet at the theater after her drinks with a date. That man is Sheldrake who promises to marry her when he divorces his wife.  They go to Baxter’s apartment, while Baxter waits for Fran outside the theater.

At the company’s Christmas party, Sheldrake’s secretary Miss Olsen (Edie Adams), drunkenly tells Fran that she has been seduced with promise of divorce. Fran confronts Sheldrake, but he declares his love for her.

the_apartment_2Baxter, who accidentally finds out about the affair, is disappointed; as compensation, he picks up a woman at a bar. When they arrive at his apartment, he finds Fran in his bed, unconscious from overdose of sleeping pills. He calls his neighbor, Dr. Dreyfuss (Jack Kruschen), and they revive Fran. He pretends that he and Fran are lovers who had fought. Fran recovers at Baxter’s apartment, while he tries to distract her from further suicidal thoughts.

Fran’s brother-in-law, who is looking for her, gets info from an executive who had seen Fran in the bedroom when he came to borrow it. Baxter again takes responsibility for Fran’s actions and gets punched.

the_apartment_1Sheldrake rewards Baxter with promotion, and fires Miss Olsen for telling Fran, but Miss Olsen retaliates by telling his wife, who throws him out.  Sheldrake moves into his athletic club, hoping to lure Fran with his new single status. When he requests to use the flat on New Year’s Eve, Baxter refuses and quits the firm.

Sheldrake tells Fran about Baxter’s quitting, and she finally realizes that Baxter is her true love. Running to Baxter’s apartment, she hears a gunshot–Baxter, holding a bottle of champagne, opens the door. She suggests to resume their gin rummy game, and when declares love, Fran just says, “Shut up and deal.”

End Note:

In my view, Billy Wilder’s best films are Double Indemnity (1944), Sunset Boulevard (1950), and Some Like It Hot (1959).

 

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)

Running time: 125 Minutes