The Apartment (1960) is very much a film about wanting all the wrong things. It’s about maneuvering for that big, corner office no matter what the cost to your dignity or integrity. It’s about grasping for the affection of that powerful man in that corner office even while he tramples your self-esteem. It’s about cheating your ass off just because you can, simply by taking advantage of others. In that way, it is also a movie about taking things for granted, about not appreciating the value of what’s right in front of you. The funny thing is, that for all its Academy Awards, accolades, and lasting regard, The Apartment is one of those movies you might easily take for granted. Re-watching it for the first time in years, I realized just how much I had overlooked.
Let’s just start with the superficial stuff: Shirley MacLaine. When it comes to Billy Wilder classics with smitten, fidgety frontmen, The Seven Year Itch Man has always been my bag. The memory of Marilyn Monroe descending those stairs is indelible. Unfortunately, my memories of MacLaine are mostly from her recent, infinitely less effecting work. But, back in the day, even without Monroe’s particular va-va-va-voom, MacLaine was a stunning beauty with wide-set eyes and a button… well, basically a button everything. Her heedlessly philandering boyfriend, played by Fred MacMurray – yes, that Fred MacMurray – claimed to dislike her haircut. But I like to believe Billy Wilder must have known the pixie ‘do would be timeless. I also suspect the director placed more than one disposable, cooing blonde in the film as an acknowledgment that Monroe’s expressiveness wasn’t ideal for every story. In stark contrast, MacLaine played Fran Kubelik with a regality that elevated her elevator girl status and an arch stoicism that belied her heartsickness and fragility. Fran is sad, pitiable – melancholy even – but never melodramatic.
An equal opportunity under-appreciator, I tend to think of The Apartment as just a comedy because Jack Lemmon is the romantic lead. And, to his credit, Lemmon makes the absolute most of every single opportunity for physical comedy in Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond’s script. The way his C.C. Baxter sits at his desk working the phones and fighting back pneumonia with Kleenex at the ready would be masterful enough without him extending the gag all the way up to the twenty-seventh floor and into his superior’s office for a hilariously unsanitary payoff. But The Apartment is not Some Like It Hot. And, while MacLaine does most of the dramatic heavy lifting, Lemmon is the protagonist, not the sidekick. As such, he is responsible for the film’s forward momentum, and his dopey optimism and irrepressible forbearance do the trick. We know he’ll never give up. We’re just rooting for him to figure out what he should be fighting for.
It may seem a bit pointless to praise and reappraise a film that won Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, Best Editing, and Best Art Direction upon its release. But the way that The Apartment addressed sexism and attitudes toward women in the workplace lends the movie a certain, stinging resonance. The Apartment is set in an era when a gainfully employed white male’s infidelity was regarded as little more than a bit of mischief, female employees were “girls,” and the dating pool and the secretarial pool were one and the same. This is the playground of The Seven Year Itch. This is also the era in which Mad Men has both enthralled and appalled us. But Billy Wilder wagged his finger first, if not so seductively.
Lemmon’s Baxter starts out as the schmuck, aiding and abetting the adulterous shenanigans of five ranking colleagues for a hand up the corporate ladder. The highest ranking of these, Jeff Sheldrake (Yes, that Fred MacMurray), happens to also be the blandest, an oversized human resources cog so toothlessly even-tempered it’s hard to imagine him goosing Miss Kubelik in the lift, much less carrying on a torrid affair with the young lady. But it’s exactly Sheldrake’s passionless commitment to the status quo that makes him such an ogre. “You know, you see a girl a couple of times a week just for laughs and, right away, they think you’re going to divorce your wife. Is that fair?” he asks Baxter, as glibly as if he’s complaining about meatloaf in the cafeteria. Later, as Miss Kubelik’s mascara streams down her cheeks, he tells her, “This isn’t like you, Fran. You were always such a good sport, such fun to be with,” right before he hands her a hundred dollar bill for Christmas.
Eventually, Kubelik tries to kill herself over Sheldrake. When Baxter finds her blotto in the titular apartment, he summons his neighbor – a doctor – to revive her. In addition to passing smelling salts in front of her nose and forcing coffee down her throat, the physician slaps Miss Kubelik open-handedly across the face repeatedly, petitioning her to wake up. The scene feels disturbingly violent – and not just because such doctoring is now outdated. In a film oozing with gender-based ugliness, this assault, however well-intentioned, feels like injury added to insult. Billy Wilder knew this and wisely cut to a shot of Jack Lemmon wincing and turning away at the impact. In that moment, you imagine Baxter realizes that the whole system is unjust. Ultimately, he chooses not to turn away from that realization. When he gives up his careerist machinations and stands up to Sheldrake later in the movie, it’s not so that he can get the girl for himself. It’s because the girl – the woman – and all the other women in the office deserve better.