The Oscars Project: The Apartment (1960)

For 82 years the Academy Awards have purported to choose the year’s best film. For the next year I’ll be watching one best picture winner per week starting 52 years ago and working up to tonight’s winner. Some of the films are rightly regarded as classics. Others decidedly less so. But each of them must have had some quality that earned it the top spot and I’ll be trying to suss out what that is and why it holds up — or why it deserves to be forgotten.

The Apartment (Best Picture Best Director and three others)

“How could I be so stupid? You’d think I’d have learned by now — when you’re in love with a married man you shouldn’t wear mascara.” — Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine) in The Apartment

Hollywood morality can be tricky to parse. The Academy Awards rounded out the 1950s by honouring Ben-Hur a biblical epic that purports to show the value of faith and forgiveness but spends the bulk of its not-insubstantial running time extolling the amazing motivational power of hatred. In its own way Ben-Hur seems like a fitting cap to the decade that’s most popularly associated with McCarthyism the Cold War and segregation (not to get too cynical).

It’s tougher to say whether The Apartment is an appropriate kick-off to the 1960s. The subject matter — infidelity suicide and the corrupting influence of capitalism — are definitely more in tune with the new wave of films that would sound the death knell of the Hollywood studio system at the end of the decade. But for all its cynicism about love and the American dream The Apartment is also a conservative story at heart. The characters may live outside the chaste conventionally moral world that most 1950s media projects but that’s not exactly to their benefit.

The movie’s premise is best explained by watching the intro which is a classic exception to screenwriting’s usual rule of “Show don’t tell.” But since I can’t find a video online that goes all the way to the end (the image above links to most of it on the Turner Classic Movies site) here are the basics: Jack Lemmon is a young go-getter at a New York insurance company. In addition to his actuarial duties Lemmon has a little job on the side pimping out his unassuming apartment to company executives who need a place to take their little-something-on-the-side. The executives get a bit of privacy and a (slightly) more respectable venue than a by-the-hour motel and Lemmon gets glowing letters of recommendation and the promise of promotions. It isn’t exactly prostitution but well there are definitely some parallels.

But back to that intro sequence: As Lemmon introduces himself via a string of statistics and bits of trivia the camera first pans over the New York skyline then a seemingly endless office tower and finally a massive work floor that stretches back to infinity. These are all beacons of the modern corporate era monuments to the inexorable march of capitalism but the office interior is easily the most impressive. The endless stream of assistants and actuaries toiling away in a sea of shuffling paper and clattering typewriters is a wonderful bit of production design in a film that rarely calls attention to such things: Supposedly to get the effect art director Alexandre Trauner used progressively smaller desks and progressively smaller extras (including dwarfs) to force the perspective.

All this just to establish Lemmon as a square straight-laced corporate climber who’s willing to sacrifice his morals for his own office on a higher floor. Aside from the fact that it’s set in an insurance company and not an ad agency you’d be forgiven for confusing The Apartment’s offices for the ones in Mad Men . Both are mostly interested in the morass of sexual gamesmanship that lies under the slick veneer of American capitalism and while the former plays more as comedy and the latter as tragedy each has elements of both. Decorative touches like the hat racks and rolodexes definitely serve to anchor the two to their period setting but not nearly as much as the ass-slapping sex-crazed boys club in charge. Heck Mad Men’s Jon Hamm even looks more than a little like Fred MacMurray the personnel manager who helps throw Baxter’s life for a loop.

See while Baxter’s been climbing the corporate ladder he’s also been developing a crush on elevator operator (Shirley MacLaine in a star-making performance). So when Sheldrake gives him a pair of tickets to The Music Man in exchange for the key to his apartment Baxter seizes the chance.

Before I get to the rest of the plot I just want to point out how weird it is that MacLaine isn’t at all put off by Lemmon’s encyclopedic knowledge of her life. Nowadays you could probably learn all that just off of someone’s Facebook page but even that minimal amount of cyber-stalking isn’t exactly something you’d cop to before a first date. She may find it charming but I think it’s downright creepy.

In any case it turns out that the man MacLaine has to see before her date is none other than MacMurray and their scene together in a Chinese restaurant is a textbook example of writer-director Billy Wilder’s skill when it comes to dialogue. MacMurray who broke out of his typical good-guy mold in Wilder’s noir classic Double Indemnity and is again in sleazeball mode here lays on the charm: “Remember that last weekend we had?” Her response is both wistful and withering: “Do I. That leaky little boat you rented. Me in a black negligee and a life preserver.” But just when you think this’ll be little more than a verbal sparring match MacLaine lets out with one of the most sympathetic portraits of ‘the other woman’ ever offered on the silver screen especially for a movie that began production in the ’50s.

“For a while there you try kidding yourself that you’re going with an unmarried man” she says. “Then one day he keeps looking at his watch and asks you if there’s any lipstick showing then rushes off to catch the seven-fourteen to White Plains. So you fix yourself a cup of instant coffee and you sit there by yourself and you think – and it all begins to look so ugly.”

Even at its most crushing though there’s a snap to the dialogue in Wilder’s films that echoes the classic screwball comedies and foreshadows more post-modern fare like the Coen Brothers’ Hudsucker Proxy . That stylization could throw some people off but personally I can’t get enough of it. Take the scene where after finding out about MacLaine and MacMurray’s romance Lemmon drowns his sorrows in a local bar. First there’s the novel approach that a soused-up fellow lonelyheart takes to get his attention. Better still though is her opening line: “How do you feel about Castro?” It’s a weirdly contemporary comment and a total throwaway line but somehow it just works:

Lemmon takes the floozy back to his apartment only to find MacLaine unconscious on his bed having taken an overdose of sleeping pills. And here again Wilder shows off his skill as both a screenwriter and director: topics like suicide don’t lend themselves to light comedy. Think of Shawn of the Dead a fantastic comedy that loses its footing after its main character has to kill the zombified remains of his mom — some moments are just too real to bounce back from. But Wilder finds exactly the right balance showing respect for the moment but refusing to let it grind the movie to a halt. He managed a similar task the year before with Some Like it Hot building a comedy around the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre which must’ve seemed about as tasteful an idea as a Columbine-based comedy today; with The Apartment the drama eases into both the flow and the themes of the film.

Because at its heart The Apartment is a very moral story. Like Mad Men it’s tempting to look at the movie’s workplace as an indictment of corporate America. Not only are Baxter’s bosses willing to throw around promotions in exchange for his indirect sexual favours putting the lie to the idea that the workplace is anything like a meritocracy Baxter himself is willfully blind to the costs of his ladder-climbing ways. So what if his long hours mean that he lives alone? So what if the “arrangement” with his apartment means that his neighbours think he’s living the epitome of the playboy life? As long as he gets that office anything goes. (On a bit of a tangent in his book The Conquest of Cool Thomas Frank makes a compelling argument that rather than stealing “hip” ideas and selling them back to the hippies the leading edge of corporate America actually got there first in the early part of the ’60s. If that’s the case then Baxter’s bosses aren’t so much cads as just ahead of the free-love curve.)

But even as the film’s characters flaunt conventional morality they never seem particularly happy. Constant affairs just mean constant pressure to impress and constant maneuvering to avoid consequences at home. If Ben-Hur was a revenge film dressed as a Christian fable then The Apartment is an ode to conventional relationships dressed as something more risqué. It never allows itself to get sappy (just watch the ending which is as close as it really gets to romance… but er… spoiler warning I guess); it just leaves the mushy stuff implied; but there’s little question where its heart is.

Coming up next:

1961: West Side Story

1962: Lawrence of Arabia

1963: Tom Jones