Wednesday, February 5, 2014


For me, The Apartment is one of those films that conjured up an overgrown reaction, forcing me to weed out my snap judgments toward the film in order to be left with a more deeply rooted conclusion. At first, The Apartment felt like one of those celebrated Best Picture winners that I just couldn’t party down with. I couldn’t. I wouldn’t. Tonally, it felt like a misfire; like some incongruent, slightly trashy fairytale that wields a lot of effort into gussying itself up as this sweet rom-com. I found this distracting because I feel like the film endeavored to make me laugh at a situation that ultimately wasn’t funny. Sure, there are a few moments here and there that are amusing enough old sport. But those amusements aside, The Apartment felt mainly like a stocking stuffed with dark, corrupt and even tragic elements that left me looking around to wonder if I was the only one in the room who didn’t think this film is really all that tender and comedic.

Given the fact that my reaction to The Apartment was seemingly the one boo among the sea of applause this film has garnered over the decades, I decided to put my thoughts in a holding tank and circle back to it during visiting hours. Not that I’m afraid to go against the grain of popular opinion old sport. It’s not that at all. Instead, my reservation was more about taking a cautious course of action in order to avoid being dismissive of something that perhaps merited a little more analysis. Eventually, I found that my initial reaction didn’t hold up after some more time and consideration, leaving me to appreciate this film and some of the deeper themes that it explored. 

Directed by the wildly adept Billy Wilder, The Apartment became his eighth and final nomination in the category of Best Director, which he eventually went on to win, marking his second Oscar touchdown for directing achievement along with The Lost Weekend, a full 15 years earlier. The marquee tenants of The Apartment also include a young Jack Lemmon, an even younger Shirley MacLaine and Fred MacMurray, playing so against type that I’m sure it made Mickey Mouse almost hurl a Cadillac. The film hauled in an astonishing 10 Academy Award nominations, eventually renting out victories in the categories of Best Art Direction, Best Editing, Best Original Screenplay, Best Director and Best Picture for 1961. It was the last black-and-white film to win the Academy’s top prize, until Schindler’s List owned the big night 32 years later. Also of note, Kevin Spacey has said in interviews that he based his character in American Beauty on Lemmon’s performance in The Apartment. In his acceptance speech for Best Actor in American Beauty, Spacey dedicated his win to Lemmon, saying he was “the man who inspired my performance. A man who has been my friend and my mentor and, since my father died, a little bit like my father…. Wherever you are, thank you, thank you, thank you.” 

The Apartment centers on C.C. Baxter, a lonely, but eager worker bee in a giant New York insurance hive with aspirations to buzz to the top the corporate ladder. In order to hasten the ascension process, Baxter enters into a deal, of sorts, with a cadre of scumbag company managers, lending them the use of his Upper West Side apartment for their night-owl infidelities in exchange for their recommendations of Baxter to the top brass for a promotion. Eventually, the glowing reviews end up in the hands of Jeff Sheldrake, director of personnel, who calls Baxter into his office to confront him with the knowledge that he knows the cause of ignition driving his colleagues’ enthusiasm. Instead of frowning upon such office corruption, Sheldrake wants in on the action, agreeing to promote Baxter for the exclusive rights to use his apartment for his own extra marital ring-a-ding-ding.

In the midst of tiptoeing through his corporate climbing scheme, Baxter manages to siphon off enough time to make lighthearted attempts at winning the attention of Fran Kubelik, a slightly sassy elevator operator working in his same building. She finally agrees to a date with Baxter to go and see The Music Man on Broadway, first telling him that she has to meet a former flame for a quick drink. The old flame turns out to be none other than Baxter’s new boss, Jeff Sheldrake, who manipulates Fran into believing that he practically has the divorce papers all drawn up and ready for Mrs. Sheldrake to sign. For weeks, Fran sort of dodges Baxter, buying into Sheldrake’s ever-growing promises, until his secretary drunkenly spews out the truth to Fran that Sheldrake is just dangling the pledge of divorce in front of her, with the intent to eventually pull back once he is through with her. Angry and upset with herself for being so foolish, Fran confronts Sheldrake at Baxter’s apartment, before he leaves for the evening to be with his family on Christmas Eve. Alone and despaired, Fran makes an attempt on her life by choking down an overdose of jagged little sleeping pills.

Later that same evening, Baxter is shocked to discover Fran lights out on his bed, sending him frantically to enlist the help of a physician living next door. Eventually Fran recovers, recounting to Baxter the whole muddled yarn of her turbulent and foolish affair with Sheldrake. Ashamed and disgusted with his boss for manipulating someone he cares so deeply about, Baxter impulsively quits his job. Upon hearing this news, Fran tenders her resignation from her relationship with Sheldrake, arriving at Baxter’s apartment in time to stop him from moving out. 

One aspect of my reaction to The Apartment that has remained constant is the terrific performances of its three leads. Jack Lemmon is aces when it comes to playing the “every man” type of guy that audiences instinctively find themselves rooting for. The Apartment is perhaps the best example of Lemmon’s career that illustrates his ability to bring an effortless and controlled goofy sensibility to a role. But a big part of Lemmon’s true talent went beyond just being silly for the sake of drumming up some yuks. He had this uncanny ability to nimbly walk the line of being funny without being laughed at. As a result, he produced a genuine sweetness and likability that elicited sympathy for his characters. With him, it felt like there was always something more meaningful and more complex in the composition to the roles he inhabited. 

The Apartment created the perfect scenario for Lemmon in allowing his particular set of strengths to shine through. As C.C. Baxter, Lemmon brought the perfect blend of tenderness and naiveté to the part of playing a guy who essentially gets in way over his head in pursuit of a promotion. More often than not, Baxter is continually mishandling his affairs, landing him in situations of being stood up out in the rain or with multiple superiors at work breathing down his neck. It’s a delight to watch Lemmon trudge home through the rain with a slumped posture or try and push back against his superiors before caving in to their demands. He navigates these scenes in such amusingly adorkable fashion that you can’t help but simultaneously crack a smile and feel bad for the guy as he continually fumbles the ball. 

Apart from Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine also delivers the goods as Fran Kubelik, a romantically confused elevator operator continually finding the realities of her own love life shuffling up and down. As a result of her bad judgments regarding her affair with a married man, Fran has fallen toward the cusp of not believing in love anymore. Despite Fran’s congealing jadedness toward romance, MacLaine manages to prevent her from coming off as some bitter shrew stuffed with clichés, instead creating a sympathetic and charming gal who just needs to do a little growing up. Given Fran’s recent acquaintances with some of life’s harsh realities, MacLaine plays a slightly brassy, more serious counterpart to Lemmon’s goofiness, generating a sweet and innocent chemistry that hasn’t lost any of its appeal all these years later. For anyone who is a Shirley MacLaine fan, it’s worth watching The Apartment to see her play a softer, pixie-cute character before her career took a turn into her apparent specialty of playing harder-edged, more cynical women (Ousier, I’m looking in your direction). 

But for my money, Fred MacMurray is The Apartment’s most memorable tenant. I grew up watching him in all of those old Disney films like The Shaggy Dog, The Absent-Minded Professor and The Happiest Millionaire. (Hell, I still enjoy watching those movies even now that I’m into my thirties.) Maybe it’s because he always played such likable characters, but for me, Fred MacMurray is one of the most affable actors of all time. I think his talents as an actor are heavily underrated. He was so adept at steering his characters away from becoming caricatures of cantankerous old father types. Instead, he managed to bring humor, insecurities, strengths, weaknesses and other dimensions to characters that might otherwise have become wobbly creations in the hands of lesser talent. I grant you that MacMurray rarely strayed from playing a certain type of character, which makes his performance in The Apartment so salient.

To anyone who has seen Double Indemnity, the fact that MacMurray could pull off a darker, more deviant role like Jeff Sheldrake shouldn’t come as a surprise. And yet old sport, I’m here to tell you that it still retained a certain shock to see MacMurray so effortlessly slip into the skin of this manipulative and adulterous scumbag. All of that likability from his tenure with Disney seemingly goes up in smoke after his first scene with Shirley MacLaine where he is obviously stringing her along with a rat pack of lies about leaving his wife and kids for her. But the real kicker is when he threatens to fire Jack Lemmon after he initially refuses to loan him the use of his apartment for any further rendezvous. MacMurray is so calm and pointed in his unreasonable abuse of power during the scene, leaving you absolutely no choice but to feel riled up. It really is just a great, modern villain of the most despicable sort because at the end of the day his villainy is so miniscule and nuanced in the grand scheme of things that in reality he’ll probably go on stepping all over the little people until he retires. I think the main reason MacMurray is so effective in this light, at generating such disdain and hatred, is that he has built an entire career on playing the good guy. As a result, it feels like some sort of a betrayal of trust to see him turn completely around and reveal that he’s not that innocent.
As I mentioned in the opening paragraphs, my initial negative reaction stemmed from the strange tonal dissonance created by the film. On the one hand, the relationship between Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine positions the film to be firmly planted on rom-com soil. But I didn’t buy this definition of the film at all. It felt like a salesperson trying to sell me an item that is obviously something else entirely different from the sale pitch. In this context, it seemed like Billy Wilder was trying to sell me a bill of rom-com goods when in fact it was more in step with a sad-toned, murky dramedy with suicide, corruption, deceit and adultery; elements that don’t necessarily scream romantic comedy. But in reconsidering the events of the story, I came to realize that the mixed message presentation was exactly spot-on in how this story should be delivered. Essentially, the film evolves from being a light-hearted comedy with some dark stains on it. As the film progresses, those stains spread to overtake the light-hearted elements of the narrative to create a situation of confusion. But by the time the final credits roll, moral clarity has bleached away most of the blots, leaving a sense of lucidity as to the direction of the film and its characters.

What does that all mean, exactly? Taken from Baxter’s perspective, this tonal evolution is best explained by tracing his own personal growth as an individual which illustrates how certain experiences can reshuffle an individual’s list of priorities. In the beginning, Baxter is so focused on getting that promotion that he is completely oblivious to the fact that he has become an accessory to some pretty bad behavior that has ramifications in the real world, particularly on his own character. It isn’t until Fran’s attempted suicide is laid at his feet does he realize the despicable nature of the crowd he now has a membership in. At this point, the darkness has edged out the light and he has a difficult time seeing his way forward. Now that he has the job he plotted and schemed for, he is disappointed to discover that it wasn’t worth the price of selling out, leaving him in a confusing state of mind. Ultimately, his self-sacrifice for Fran’s sake is what ushers in his regained sense of sure footing in moving forward. 

Ultimately, this final redemption is what made the film redeeming for me. Admittedly, my strongest reaction against The Apartment is that it felt like it was making light of adultery, which I straight up don’t like. But in unpacking the story a little more, I came to the conclusion that the film is touching upon deeper themes of blind ambition and office greed, illustrating what happens when an individual allows them to seep deeply into their consciousness. One effect is that one’s moral compass begins to spin in every direction, which, when that happens, turns anyone into a master of justification. I think this is why the film initially treats adultery like it ain’t no thang but a chicken wang because Baxter has fastened on the moral blinders in pursuit of his promotion. Fortunately, for his sake, Baxter is able to pull himself back from the brink before his integrity is swallowed up for good by the corporate monster.

Favorite Line: 

Jeff Sheldrake:
Ya know, you see a girl a couple of times a week, just for laughs, and right away they think you're gonna divorce your wife. Now I ask you, is that fair?
C.C. Baxter:  No, sir, it's very unfair... Especially to your wife.

No comments:

Post a Comment