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I said I had no family. I didn’t say I had an empty apartment.

The Apartment
(1960)

(SPOILERS) Billy Wilder’s romcom delivered the genre that rare Best Picture Oscar winner. Albeit, The Apartment amounts to a rather grim (now) PG-rated scenario, one rife with adultery, attempted suicide, prostitution of the soul and subjective thereof of the body. And yet, it’s also, finally, rather sweet, so salving the darker passages and evidencing the director’s expertly judged balancing act. Time Out’s Tom Milne suggested the ending was a cop out (“boy forgives girl and all’s well”). But really, what other ending did the audience or central characters deserve?

Dobisch: Listen, Baxter. We made you, we can break you.

That soft centre to a rather crunchy bauble – a movie set over the Holiday period and culminating on New Year’s Eve – is absolutely the key to its success (Milne again: “its jaundiced vison leavened by a tender sympathy for the fragility of human motives”). The Apartment is irresistible, despite Lemmon’s occasional tendencies towards shameless mugging (admittedly, this is more a case of being reminded where his worst proclivities will later surface, albeit most often when tackling straight dramatic parts).

Margie: Some lover you are. Some sexpot.

It’s essential that Lemmon makes Bud Baxter likeable in spite of his willingness to sell any scruples or betray any backbone in order to climb the corporate ladder (Lemmon: “a nice guy but gullible, easily intimidated, and fast to excuse his behaviour. In the end, he changes because he faces up to having rationalised his morals. He realises he’s been a dumb kid, he’s been had”). We’re under no illusion that Wilder sees Bud’s job – working in an open-plan office on the nineteenth floor of an insurance corporation – as white-collar factory farming, soulless and dehumanising. Or that it breeds contempt in those that reach its top, their empathy thoroughly processed from them. And that’s a fair call.

One Pauline Kael chimed in on (in her essay Fantasies of the Art-House Audience), objecting, seemingly to everything about Wilder’s underlying statement. Because it was… well, I guess she’s saying it’s essentially facile: “It is a depressing fat that Americans tend to confuse morality and art… and that, among the educated, morality tends to mean social consciousness… explicit, machine-tooled, commercialised social consciousness”. Wilder, it seems is guilty of characterising the corporate players in inappropriate broad strokes and the serfs also: “little people are little dolls; the guys at the top are vicious and corrupt and unfaithful to their wives as well”. And that’s a problem because…

I mean, Wilder’s presenting a process of evolution here, evidently. Budd catches his soul exiting stage left only because he has feelings for the latest duped contest crossing his apartment threshold. For Kael, this is simplistic: “The moral is, stick to the bottom and you don’t have to do the dirty”. I confess, I can’t see anything wrong with that particular moral, because as broad morals go (and morals tend to be broad ones; that’s the idea), it’s fairly on target and legitimate. The idea that the capitalist system isn’t, by and large, suffocating of one’s essential self, the more immersed in it one becomes, shouldn’t really be up for debate. Most recognise it as an inherent truth, whether or not they’ll admit to it.

So again, when Kael snarks at The Apartment’s position, that is “so old-fashioned and irrelevant, its notions of virtue and vice so smugly limited, it’s positively cosy to see people for whom deciding to quit a plushy job is a big moral decision” one wonders both at the thinking ( a more optimistic or nuanced view of big business is in order?) and the level of realism she is seeking that would be a corrective to Wilder’s ‘false’ massaging.

Ironically, she’d lay into the same director’s mercenary manipulativeness in her review of One, Two, Three, charging him with the kind of attitude she objects to in The Apartment’s players. Wilder is, she suggests, far from the world’s greatest movie director; “he’s s a clever, lively director whose work lacks feeling or passion or grace or beauty or elegance. His eye is on the dollar, or rather success, on the entertainment values that bring in dollars”.

In the interests of a degree of balance, Baxter himself identifies that the four or five execs making use of his apartment represent the minority “out of a total of 31,259 – so actually, we can be very proud of our personnel – percentage-wise”. The effect of this mode of existence on the ants on the treadmill is also very evident – as opposed to Kael, luxuriating in her relatively lofty critic’s tower – revealed as urban emptiness and a diet of TV dinners over TV itself, before another day attempting to scale the ladder in a manner that has very little to do with talent and acumen (and even if it did, this is the insurance industry, the very definition of a racket).

Fran: Watch your hands, Mr Kirkeby.

Musical How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, staged the following year (and eventually becoming a movie in 1967) would play with the same essential themes for broader laughs, with a shrewder central operator (Robert Morse’s Ponty), but a similar milieu of manipulative, degenerate bosses (A Secretary is Not a Toy). In both cases, our hero isn’t a “real man”; he’s a besuited, emasculated average joe, and it’s only by finding his moral centre that he becomes “himself”. Albeit, this is less John Wayne machismo than Jimmy Stewart decency.

Fran: Yeah, that’s me, the happy idiot. A million laughs.

In How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, the object of Ponty’s attention has been unsullied by such attentions. Shirley MacLaine’s lift operator Fran Kubelik is something of a doormat for love, though, in thrall to conniving adulterer Fred McMurray as Personnel Manager Sheldrake (even more ironic, since that’s the equivalent of the modern HR Department, theoretically bastions of fair treatment of staff and protectors of their interests and welfare. Theoretically). The idea of hanging on to an impossible promise (and so winning the married man) wasn’t remotely a new one then, of course, and if such a role might be seen to lack agency (dependent as it is on the affirmation of the elusive would-be partner), MacLaine breathes life into Fran.

My recollection is that, when I first saw MacLaine in movies, around the time of her ’80s second wind, my perception of her earlier roles was filtered through that later, steelier, no-bullshit personality (although, even by 1970, Don Siegel was complaining she had no “redeeming” feminine qualities). Revisiting her early career, though – such as her debut The Trouble with Harry – she’s wholly winning, and you can readily see why schmuck Bud confesses “I absolutely adore you” at the conclusion (less winning is Bud’s admission of reading her personnel file and her thinking it’s okay for him to do so!)

Fred MacMurray, meanwhile, going through a Disney “renaissance” at the time, is strikingly unsympathetic. Even when his game is called by former conquest Miss Olsen (Edie Adams), who talks to the wife after being dismissed, Sheldrake has no intention of doing the right thing by Fran (instead, he’s going to “enjoy being a bachelor for a while”).

Amongst Kael’s objections to The Apartment were “its cute, soft-hearted Jewish doctor and his cute, soft-hearted, fat, mama-comic Jewish wife – so unworldly and loveable that they take the poor frustrated sap for a satyr”. Or “notorious sexpot”. Undoubtedly, Dreyfus (Jack Kruschen – the studio wanted Groucho Marx) is broadly played, and the responses to Bud’s assumed behaviour are cartoonish, but that’s rather a legitimate and discerning device on Wilder’s part, defusing the starkness of the nasty business Bud is mixed up in, leavening the harsh spotlight.

Fran: Good luck, and wipe your nose.

I could mention how Baxter’s cold (from getting cold) displays all the failings of germ theory, and how Fran knows better (“I never catch colds”). And the Monroe-alike (evidently Wilder taking revenge) going on about Castro for no clear reason, unless it’s poking the badger. There are also name checks of The Music Man (turned into a Best Picture Nominee two years later), Grand Hotel (a Best Picture winner 29 years earlier) and a “lost weekend” (the title of Wilder’s previous Best Picture winner.

The Apartment was, it seems, a big influence on American Beauty (unsurprising, since Sam Mendes’ filmmaking has little genuine inspiration in its bones). It received mixed reactions at the time, not just from Kael, and there were those, both critics and audiences, who considered it unwholesome, unsuitable and rather filthy (“a dirty fairy tale”).

Bud: I’ve decided to become a mensch. You know what that means?

But if one looks at its positioning, on the cusp of a decade that would make its content seem bashful and discreet in retrospect, it takes on a greater import. This was an early strike in breaking down Hayes Code-era barriers and encouraging greater permissiveness, however expressly manufactured one may consider the cultural developments of the ’60s (Tavestock Institute et al). Arguably, Wilder could be seen to stand with Hitchcock in delivering his peak moment at that point, leading the vanguard yet gradually dwindling in relevance thereafter, despite occasional box office flurries or attempts by critics to persuade us otherwise. The Apartment won five of its ten Oscar nominations, and its crowning victory at the 33rd ceremony is one whereby the deservedness is undiminished with hindsight.


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