“The American Film Institute’s list of the 100 Greatest Movies was selected by AFI’s blue-ribbon panel of more than 1,500 leaders of the American movie community to commemorate 100 Years of Movies”. Every weekend(ish) during 2015, I’ll review two(ish), counting them down from 100 to 1.
“Ya know, I used to live like Robinson Crusoe. I mean, shipwrecked among 8 million people. And then one day I saw a footprint in the sand, and there you were.”
It’s always interesting to see an old movie that has seemingly more progressive ideas than what’s being made today. If a movie was made today about a woman involved with a married man who’s also her boss, she’d be more than likely portrayed as some emotionally broken shell, dealing with issues and demons through sex. She’d also probably be seen as some variety of damaged goods by the movie’s good guy protagonist. That same protagonist would later be seen as a hero once he learned how to look past it. But more than half a century ago, Billy Wilder made a surprisingly open minded and objective movie about all of that stuff with The Apartment.
CC Baxter (Jack Lemmon) works in an insurance firm, a very popular industry according to movies in the 50s and 60s. An office drone almost lost in a sea of other office drones, his only discernible feature to upper management is his conveniently located apartment. A conveniently located apartment they use to rendezvous with their mistresses while Baxter is often forced to spend his nights out in the cold. All the while building a reputation with his neighbours as the ultimate lady killing lothario.
Just when he thinks it’s all becoming too much and decides to pull the pin, Baxter called into the office of big boss, Jeff Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray). Once Sheldrake becomes the latest short term tenant of Baxter’s apartment, the long promised promotion becomes a reality. The only problem is, Sheldrake is using the apartment for clandestine meetings with Shirley McClaine’s spunky office elevator operator, Fran Kubelik. Who also happens to be Baxter’s workplace crush. So now, Baxter’s torn between his growing affection for Fran and the growing professional success offered by Sheldrake.
Nobody does flustered, bewildered everyman better than Jack Lemmon. And as far as put upon sad sacks go, he could be the best in the history of Hollywood. Which is a major part of what makes The Apartment such and enduring classic. But that’s expected from Lemmon, what surprised me was McLaine and MacMurray. I’ve never thought of Shirley McLaine as a great screen beauty, but as Fran Kubelik, she’s so sassy and charismatic, I totally believed Baxter and Sheldrake’s infatuations with her, and for totally different reasons.
And MacMurray shows a prickish side I never would have thought he was capable of. Even as the desperate and conniving murderer in Double Indemnity, his gullibility and easy manipulation gives him some vulnerability. As Jeff Sheldrake, MacMurray is 100% selfish asshole, and he’s great at it.
The Apartment is also Billy Wylder doing a combination of what I like most about his work. It’s funny, but not in the broad way of The Seven Year Itch or (the massively over rated) Some Like it Hot. It’s dark, but not in the heavy handed, preachy way of The Lost Weekend. It’s the perfect balance of the best bits of those movies, while avoiding the worst.
It won the Best Picture Oscar that year, as well as Best Director, Best Screenplay and nominations for Lemmon and McLaine. I have never heard of any of the other Best Picture nominees that year except The Alamo, and just the fact that The Apartment is still constantly referenced today makes me positive it’s one year when the Academy got it dead right.
Best Director – Billy Wylder
Best Original Screenplay – I.A.L Diamond, Billy Wylder
Best Editing – Daniel Mandell
Best Art Direction (Black and White) – Alexander Trauner, Ed