Calvin Clifford ‘C.C.’
‘Bud’ Baxter: Jack Lemmon
Fran Kubelik: Shirley MacLaine
Mr. Sheldrake: Fred MacMurray
Written (with I.A.L. Diamond)
and directed by Billy Wilder
Over the last year, a wonderful thing has happened to me. I discovered
that not all movies of the early 60’s were watered down drivel. Some actually
still stand up to the films of today. It started when I saw The Hustler
last summer and then Cool Hand Luke at the beginning of last school year. Here
were two films that not only were great films in their day, but contained all the grit, drama, and skill of today’s
films. I decided I would not as narrow-minded when choosing movies from the library. 60’s films would now be as welcome as the new releases on the shelves.
Which brings me to another discovery made this summer. The new old/new
classic is The Apartment from 1960. It contains great wit and incredible
performances to go along with the clever writing of I.A.L. Diamond and director Billy Wilder.
The first time I heard mention of the film is when the media buzz surrounding 1999’s American Beauty took
off. If memory serves me correct, that film’s creators wanted to capture
a similar feel to The Apartment. I love American Beauty and immediately
put The Apartment on my long list of films to look out for at the library.
I got lucky. The Apartment was there and I got to see one of the
best “dramedies” ever made, made even before the term was coined.
The film stars the wonderful Jack Lemmon as C.C. “Bud” Baxter, an employee at one of the largest insurance
companies in the world. He has taken a different approach to realize his desire
to rise in the ranks of the company: he loans his apartment out to higher ups for romantic entanglements with women that are
not their wives. He’s gone as far as to keep an appointment book listing
the times his bosses would be at his place.
Baxter’s sacrifice of his home life means he also sacrifices his health.
In the film’s opening moments, Baxter comes home to find that one of his bosses is still occupying the apartment
with a woman past the agreed upon time. Baxter goes back out into the pouring
rain and loses the sleep he had counted on getting. The next morning, he’s
sneezing and sounding like someone’s holding his nose closed. But he has
big things in mind for his career and he is poised to get promotions well ahead of people who have been working for the company
years longer than he has. So he takes all the gumption he gets from his horny
bosses (including Ray Walston) with a feigned smile.
Baxter has a friendly relationship with the building’s beautiful elevator operator, Fran Kubelik. Eventually, he gets up the nerve to ask her to a show in town. She
agrees, but says she has plans prior to the show. Elated, Baxter marches off.
The problem is, Ms. Kubelik’s plans are with Mr. Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray), a top executive of the company. All this is unknown to Baxter when, under pressure from Sheldrake, he offers the apartment
for same night to the man for a rendezvous.
Baxter starts falling for Ms. Kubelik just as he learns of her relationship with the married Sheldrake. Sounds like a situation ripe with conflict, does it not?
The film deals with a great lot of the hypocrisy of the day, the popular working family man as cheating husband gets
taken for a ride. The vague allusion of promiscuity as normal also plays in The
Apartment. When Baxter’s friendly neighbor comments on all the noise
and action going on in Baxter’s apartment, it is because he thinks it is Baxter having all the sex and booze and dancing
and laughing. He speaks about all this with an envious spark and tone in his
voice. Corporate ethics also get taken for a ride. Baxter gets his promotion, but the question of whether the cost was too high is dealt with. Baxter has a crisis of conscience that stems from the knowledge of Sheldrake’s relationship with
Fran. What Baxter is willing to sacrifice for a seat on the top floor wages an
inner battle on his morals and conscience.
Lemmon on Baxter is a delight. The skill of the actor was evident to me
with the viewing of Glengarry Glen Ross (a great performance in a movie full of great performances), but his range
is now more evident after viewing his work in The Apartment. He plays
so much of his characters under his exterior that most of his brilliance remains unseen by the naked eye. He is famous for his work as the “everyman,” but his work as such is like no man before him. Baxter is a personification of a lot of the plights and struggles the everyman dealt
with, but only Lemmon could infuse so much humor and unshakeable likeability into that personification.
I’ve known that Shirley MacLaine is an Oscar winning actress, but somehow that never really got me excited about
seeing any of her work. I knew her more as the most famous believer of reincarnation. Lo and behold, she can act, too. She
can act very well. She was an actress on the rise when she took on the role of
Fran Kubelik in The Apartment, but she played it like a seasoned veteran born to perform. She displays a dry sense of humor and just the right amount of sassiness to carry the role through the
character’s difficulties. Fran Kubelik is a complicated character and MacLaine
nails every complexity with considerable charm and flair.
Perhaps my grandest discovery from viewing the film is the amazing talent that was Billy Wilder. I had often read of the “classic Wilder” films and knew Cameron Crowe was an enormous fan of
Wilder’s body of work. There’s a reason they call it classic. Wilder was a brilliant writer and director.
The Apartment is a great film and a great deal of the credit must go to the mind behind it.