An astonishing blend of comedy, drama and satire create one sublime film
The plight of the little guy has never been so beguilingly portrayed as in this week’s highly entertaining classic, “The Apartment”. Boldly pushing the envelope of 1960’s American cinema, it toys with subjects such as sex, romance, adultery, suicide, prostitution, greed, blackmail, and the corporate world.... oh, and it’s also a comedy. This unapologetic look at two lonely people caught up in the rat race weaves together an unexpectedly fluid blend of humor and pathos better than any other film I can name. Produced, directed, and co-written by the incomparable Billy Wilder and starring the outstanding Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine, and Fred MacMurray, this stirring film won five Academy Awards (out of ten nominations), three Golden Globe Awards (out of four nominations), and three British Academy Film Awards – including Best Picture wins for each. Though it opened to mixed reviews, it was a stunning success and its emotional frankness and bewitching quality have aged it into a certified classic. The American Film Institute rated it the 20th Funniest, 62nd Greatest Love Story, and the 80th Greatest American Film of All-Time, and the British Film Institute's Sight & Sound magazine also placed it on their list of Greatest Films of All-Time.
A large part of its story is summed up by elevator operator “Fran Kubelik” as she tells Consolidated Life Insurance clerk “C.C. Baxter” (also known as "Bud" or “Buddy-boy”): “Some people take, some people get took and they know they’re getting took and there’s nothing they can do about it”. A film about reclaiming one’s humanity, "The Apartment" centers around “Baxter” and his New York City Upper West Side apartment. Sacrificing home and sleep, he lends the key to his cozy living space to higher level executives for their extramarital sexual rendezvous in exchange for moves up the corporate ladder. Just when “Baxter” begins to fall for “Miss Kubelik”, he discovers that she is the female half in a tryst with the married head boss, "Mr. Sheldrake", who also wants a key. Though she likes “Baxter”, "Kubelik” is still desperately in love with “Sheldrake” even though she knows he’s using her. The film follows "Baxter" and "Kubelik" as they each grapple with being “took” while falling for each other and trying not to lose their souls. The plot may not raise eyebrows today, but for a 1960 American film it was controversially risqué.
Albeit an unabashed portrayal of corporate sharks, sexual users, and the pain they cause, “The Apartment” is far from morose. Snappy dialogue and heavenly performances keep things deliciously engaging during moments of comedic slapstick and those just shy of tragedy. Not being a pure comedy or drama, “The Apartment” surprisingly reflects life’s simultaneous mix of complex feelings, playing more like a slice of life rather than a romanticized cinematic reality. Wilder once said, "If there's anything I hate more than not being taken seriously, it's being taken too seriously”, and with “The Apartment” he found an absolute balance.
The genesis for “The Apartment” came after Wilder saw David Lean’s 1945 classic British film, “Brief Encounter”, which tells the story of two married people having an affair and using a friend’s apartment as their meeting place. Wilder wondered what type of person would lend their apartment to others for sex, clean up after them and then sleep in the same bed, and he thought of exploring that character in a film. Knowing he couldn’t make the film due to the strict enforcement of the Motion Picture Production Code (which I explain in my “Red Dust” post) which forbid any displays of casual sex or adultery, he shelved the idea. Over a dozen years later the Code was steadily losing its grip and a new sexual realism was beginning to creep into Hollywood films, helped in part by Wilder’s previous film, 1959’s “Some Like It Hot”. Wilder co-wrote that film with screenwriter I. A. L. Diamond, and one of its stars was Jack Lemmon. Wilder loved working with Lemmon, immediately wanting to make another film with him, and thought Lemmon would be ideal as the perfect chump in his previous idea about the apartment. Wilder and Diamond were further inspired by a 1951 scandal involving Walter Wanger, who shot Hollywood agent Jennings Lang when caught having an affair with his wife, actress Joan Bennett. Lang and Bennett would consummate their fling at the apartment of a subordinate of Lang’s, which gave Wilder and Diamond the idea of having their character loan it to further his career. They wrote the screenplay for “The Apartment” specifically for Lemmon, and Wilder and Diamond shared a Best Screenplay Academy Award for it.
The writing team of Wilder and Diamond began with 1957's “Love in the Afternoon”, followed by “Some Like It Hot”, and then “The Apartment”. The two continued as a happy writing team for twenty-four years (until Diamond’s death), writing a total of twelve films together, including "Irma la Douce", "The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes", "Fedora", "The Fortune Cookie" (earning them a third and final Best Screenplay Oscar nomination – their first was for “Some Like It Hot” ), and their final collaboration, 1981's"Buddy Buddy”. The over one dozen screenplays Diamond wrote without Wilder include "Cactus Flower", "Monkey Business" (the 1952 version), and "That Certain Feeling”. He was married for just over forty years (until his death), and one of his children is TV writer and producer Paul Diamond. I.A.L. Diamond died in 1988 at the age of 67. Romanian-born, his first name was Ițec (Itzek), and he donned the moniker I.A.L., which supposedly stood for Interscholastic Algebra League, of which he had been a champion. Many called him Iz, Izzy, or Isadore.
Filming began with only about the first thirty pages of the script written, though Wilder knew exactly where the story was headed. He wanted to see the chemistry and behavior between Lemmon and MacLaine and incorporated it into the script, occasionally stealing lines of dialogue or business directly from the actors, such as adding “Kubelik’s” line “Why do people have to love people, anyway?”, which MacLaine said while at lunch with him. MacLaine was being taught how to play gin rummy by Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin at the time, so Wilder put a gin game in the film. The fact that Wilder could get the green light to shoot a film without a full script and the luxury to tailor it to his actors shows the power and respect Wilder had already acquired as a filmmaker.
Along with co-writing, Billy Wilder also produced and directed “The Apartment”, and being one of cinema’s truly gifted filmmakers, the mastery of his craft is seen in full force. He knows how to fill a frame and show an audience what they need to see in the most enjoyable fashion – another reason this darkly-themed film never turns dour. He chose black and white and widescreen formats, and used both to enhance the film’s excitement and emotion. The black and white intensifies the cold, impersonal attitude felt at the bright, wide-open office and the intimate, human feeling in “Baxter’s” moderately dark, somewhat shabby apartment. And with widescreen, he manages to show characters scurrying from room to room in “Baxter’s” apartment in one take, or show “Baxter” lost in a giant sea of desks. He brilliantly supplies clues that later provide emotional payoffs, such as “Kubelik’s” broken mirror, or “Baxter’s” gun. While Wilder's directing may seem invisible, it is mightily artful. Along with his Oscar with Diamond for the film's screenplay, Wilder also took home Academy Awards for Best Director and Best Picture (as producer), making him the second person to win three or more personal Oscars in one night (Walt Disney won four in 1953 for four short films). Many consider “The Apartment” the last of Wilder’s major masterpieces. I’ve written about three of his previous masterpieces, “Some Like It Hot”, “Sunset Boulevard”, and “Double Indemnity”, where you can read more about Billy Wilder’s life and career. Just click on each film title for more.
The design for the massive office in which we first see “Baxter” was inspired by a classic 1928 King Vidor silent film, "The Crowd” (which features a spectacular shot of a man in a giant office filled with rows of identical desks). For the version in “The Apartment”, art director Alexandre Trauner forced the perspective by making each row of desks a bit smaller as they recede, seating the tallest actors in the foreground, children in suits towards the rear, and marionettes moved by strings in the very back – all in front of a painted backdrop to make the space look even more cavernous. This stunning space and all of “The Apartment’s” sets earned Trauner and Edward G. Boyle Best Art Direction-Set Decoration Academy Awards. The office space has become one of the signature visuals of this film.
One viewing of “The Apartment” and it’s clear why Wilder would not do the film without Jack Lemmon. From Lemmon’s innate liability we know that “Calvin Clifford (C.C.) Baxter” is a good guy deep down, no matter how immoral his actions and Lemmon’s “everyman” appeal makes him easy to identify with. Because underneath his Average Joe air Lemmon is a fine actor with his own particular flair for comedy and drama (often at the same time), the film contains great depth. He flawlessly displays equal amounts of concern, repulsion, and humor while putting on a good face trying to protect "Miss Kubelik" in the scene with her and and his next-door neighbor "Dr. Dreyfuss". It clearly shows Lemmon's superb talents. And while Wilder and Diamond were sticklers for making sure actors said every word as written (including every “and” and “but”) without adding words of their own, Lemmon improvised his own physicality. He came up with the business of the nasal spray in the wonderfully laughable scene in which “Baxter” explains about his apartment key to “Sheldrake”. He did it in the first take without telling Wilder (evidently Wilder approved, since it remained in the film). Lemmon also invented the idea of having “Baxter” sing while making spaghetti, adding enough spark to make it become one of the film’s most famous scenes. For his delightful portrayal of the lonely guy with the apartment key, Lemmon earned a Best Actor Academy Award nomination. It was his third nomination, as he won a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award for 1955’s “Mister Roberts”, and a Best Actor nomination for 1959’s “Some Like It Hot”. "The Apartment" was the first film Jack Lemmon carried as a star. He went on to a long and fruitful career, earning five additional Best Actor Oscar nominations (including a second win for 1973’s “Save the Tiger”). Wilder stated many times that Lemmon was his favorite actor and they made a total of seven films together. You can read more about the life and career of Jack Lemmon in my “Some Like It Hot” post.
Shirley MacLaine stars as “Fran Kubelik”, an elevator operator at the Consolidated Life Insurance Company. With a sweet and cheerful disposition masking vulnerability, MacLaine makes this wounded woman a joy to watch. One example is the scene when she’s in bed playing gin rummy with “Baxter”. She delicately moves through so many emotions, telling him about the first time she was ever kissed and that “I just have this talent for falling in love with the wrong guy in the wrong place at the wrong time”, while feeling the pain of being used by “Sheldrake”. Nothing in her performance is forced. MacLaine listens and reacts to Lemmon impeccably, while maintaining the emotional life of “Miss Kubelik” without self-pity or excessive drama. It is truly beautifully acted. Like Lemmon, MacLaine has the ability to smile through tears with great honesty and earned a Best Actress Academy Award nomination for the part.
Born in Virginia to parents who gave up on hopes of a life in show business, Shirley MacLaine and her brother Warren Beatty inherited their parent’s unfulfilled dreams. Because of her weak ankles, her mother sent her to study ballet before she was three years old. MacLaine loved dancing, which she credited with forming her philosophical and psychological discipline, good posture, and grace. Growing too tall and bulky to have a viable ballet career, she turned to musical theater, eventually going to New York and making her Broadway debut as a dancer in 1953's "Me and Juliet”. The following year she was cast in the Broadway musical “The Pajama Game” as a singer/dancer and understudy to Carol Haney, who played “Gladys” and sang one of the show's big musical numbers, "Steam Heat". During a matinee, Haney injured her ankle and MacLaine got to perform in her place and earned a standing ovation. Paramount producer Hal Wallis happened to be in the audience and immediately gave her a film contract. Haney missed another performance several months later and this time Alfred Hitchcock happened to catch MacLaine filling in as “Gladys”. Her gamine quality was just what he wanted for the female lead in his 1955 film, “The Trouble with Harry”, which became MacLaine’s film debut and earned her a New Star of the Year Golden Globe Award. Unlike other actresses at the time, she didn’t glam it up but kept a fresh, natural quality which translated into her performances.
The Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis musical comedy film, "Artists and Models" came next, which was a hit and made her a star. MacLaine worked frequently with Martin (their other films include “Career”, “All in a Night's Work”, and “What a Way to Go!”), and also with Frank Sinatra (in such films as "Around the World in 80 Day" and “Can-Can”), and she was often referred to as a “Mascot” to what became known as the Rat Pack (a group of actors and Las Vegas performers who were known as Hollywood's "bad boys", which included Martin, Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., Joey Bishop, and Peter Lawford). In 1958, MacLaine appeared opposite Martin and Sinatra in "Some Came Running", earning her first Best Actress Oscar nomination ("The Apartment" was her second). Just after "The Apartment", she made a cameo appearance in the Rat Pack’s most famous film, “Ocean’s 11”. She appeared steadily in films through the early 1970s, including 1963's "Irma la Douce" (opposite Lemmon and directed by Wilder) , for which she earned a third Best Actress Oscar nomination. A feminist and outspoken Democrat, MacLaine took a break from films to briefly campaign for Congresswoman Bella Abzug and Senator George McGovern. After feeling disillusioned when McGovern lost his bid for President to Richard Nixon, she traveled to China and wrote, co-directed, and appeared in the 1975 documentary, "The Other Half of the Sky: A China Memoir", which earned her a Best Documentary Feature Academy Award nomination. In 1976 she returned to theater with a one-woman song and dance show in London, Europe, Latin America, Las Vegas, and Broadway.
MacLaine returned to feature films in 1977 with "The Turning Point”, earning a fourth Best Actress Oscar nomination. It proved a turning point in her own career from playing mostly victim types to more varied characters, including one of her signature parts as "Aurora Greenway" in "Terms of Endearment", for which she won a Best Actress Academy Award (and reprised that character in the 1996 film, "The Evening Star"). Some of her other notable films include "Being There”, ”Steel Magnolias", "Postcards from the Edge", "Two for the Seesaw", "Gambit", and "Guarding Tess”. She appeared sporadically on television, including her own short-lived comedy series "Shirley's World" in 1971, recurring roles on shows such as "Glee", "Downton Abbey", and "Out on a Limb", and starred in several of her own TV specials including 1971’s "Gypsy in My Soul", earning her an Emmy Award (her only win to date out of six nominations). Her other numerous honors include two BAFTAs (one for “The Apartment”), the Cecil B. DeMille Golden Globe Award, the American Film Institute's Life Achievement Award, and a Kennedy Center Honor for her contribution to American culture in 2013. Fiercely independent and forthright, she is passionate about New Age spirituality, calls herself a mystic, and believes in ghosts, aliens, and reincarnation. To date she has written over a dozen books on various subjects such as Hollywood, self-discovery, metaphysics, and spirituality, which include the bestsellers "Out on a Limb", "Dancing in the Light", and "I'm Over All That: And Other Confessions”. She was married once in an open marriage (from 1943 until her divorce in 1982) and has one daughter, actress Sachi Parker. Her brother is producer/director/writer/actor Warren Beatty, who became a major movie star by the 1970s). She continues to work to this day. As of the writing of this post, Shirley MacLaine is 87 years old.
The third star of “The Apartment” is Fred MacMurray, who plays “Jeff D. Sheldrake”, “Baxter’s” boss and “Kubelik’s” complicated love interest. MacMurray’s friendly and likable manner make the despicable, humorless and uncaring “Sheldrake” quite palatable. It is because MacMurray makes this man so accessible that we believe “Miss Kubelik” and “Baxter” could both be swindled by his slimy ways. Actor Paul Douglas was signed to do the role but tragically suffered a fatal heart attack two months before filming began. Wilder then called MacMurray, with whom he worked sixteen years earlier in “Double Indemnity”. Building a career out of playing good guys and having just starred in Walt Disney’s “The Shaggy Dog” (and signing to do more Disney family films), MacMurray was leery of playing the unsympathetic role. Wilder asked if playing a murderer in “Double Indemnity” had hurt his career, to which he recalled that it gave him a burst of popularity, so he apprehensively accepted the role of “Sheldrake”. Funny enough, his work in “The Apartment” and “Double Indemnity” stand out as his best film performances. Obviously Wilder saw something in MacMurray others missed. He never again played such a dark character. MacMurray went on to make more films for Disney (including "The Absent Minded Professor" and "Son of Flubber") and star on the wholesome classic sitcom "My Three Sons”. You can read about the life and career of Fred MacMurray in my post on "Double Indemnity". Please check it out.
The bulk of the supporting cast were predominantly current or future television actors, which is a bit hilarious considering that Wilder openly despised TV. One of those people is Ray Walston who plays “Joe Dobisch”, an executive who frequently uses “Baxter’s” apartment, most memorably seen when he calls "Baxter" requesting his apartment for a rendezvous with a woman he says "looks like Marilyn Monroe”.
Mississippi-born Ray Walston began on stage, making it to Broadway in a 1945 production of “Hamlet”. Working steadily, in 1954 he also began working on television. After appearing in just over a dozen Broadway shows, Walston won a Tony Award for the musical, "Damn Yankees" in 1955. His first film was “Kiss Them for Me” in 1957, followed by "South Pacific", and then reprising his “Damn Yankees” role in the 1958 film version. He went on to appear in about three dozen films, including "Paint Your Wagon", "The Sting", "Silver Streak", and "The Player". He became best known for his work on television, most famously as the martian in the classic 1960s science fiction sitcom, "My Favorite Martian" (appearing in the 1999 film version as well). Other shows from his well over 100 TV credits include "Love, American Style", "Santa Barbara", "7th Heaven", and "Picket Fences", for which he earned two Emmy Awards (out of three nominations). He was married once for nearly sixty years, until his death. Ray Walston died in 2001 at the age of 86.
Just a word about the Marilyn Monroe look and sound-a-like (played by Joyce Jameson). Rumors say Wilder wanted Monroe for the part of “Fran Kubelik” and she turned it down, which is not the case. He knew he could never tone down her sexiness enough to the point where she could fit this everyday character. Wilder previously worked with Monroe twice, first in 1955’s “The Seven Year Itch”, and then in 1959’s “Some Like It Hot”, just prior to “The Apartment”. Monroe was notoriously late, sometimes didn’t show up, and/or flubbed her lines, but Wilder knew all difficulties were worth the magic she brought to the screen. There’s a belief that though he liked Monroe, to get back at her for all the anguish she put him through (particularly during “Some Like It Hot”), he created this film’s “homage” to her in the form of a dumb blonde – an image she desperately wanted to shed.
Edie Adams has a small but vital role as “Miss Olsen”, “Sheldrake’s” eavesdropping secretary. Her major scene is with “Miss Kubelik” by the water cooler, when “Kubelik” realizes she will turn into “Miss Olsen” in four years.
Pennsylvania-born Edie Adams was raised in New Jersey and studied voice and piano at the Juilliard School of Music in New York, intending to become an opera singer. She attended acting classes at the Columbia School of Drama and the Actors Studio, and began in theater, singing in nightclubs, and appearing in TV commercials, and won the Miss U.S. Television beauty contest in 1950. Spotted on TV by the producer of Ernie Kovacs’ comedy show, Adams was cast as a regular. She appeared with Kovacs on nearly all his TV shows including "Ernie in Kovacsland", "Kovacs On the Corner" and "The Ernie Kovacs Show", for which she earned an Emmy Award nomination in 1952. Adams and Kovacs married in 1954. She had her own TV series, "Here's Edie" in 1962 and 1963, earning two consecutive Emmy Award nominations. Her Broadway debut came in 1953's "Wonderful Town”, which earned her a Theatre World Award. She followed that with the 1956 Broadway musical "Li'l Abner", earning a Tony Award. Already famous, "The Apartment" was her first film. She worked primarily on television, and some additional films including "Lover Come Back", "It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World", and "Up in Smoke". Other TV appearances include "Cinderella", "The Red Skelton Hour", "The Lucy–Desi Comedy Hour", "The Lucy Show", "Murder, She Wrote", "Designing Woman", and "Tales of the City". Adams was also famous for appearing on Muriel Cigars commercials from the 1950s through the 1970s. After Kovacs' unexpected death in a 1962 auto accident, she inherited his debt of unpaid taxes to the IRS and worked nonstop to pay it off, launching her own cosmetics line, and owning an almond farm. By the late 1980s she went from being in debt to becoming a millionaire. She had two additional marriages. She was one of many stars I saw at a memorial for Stanley Kramer with my parents. My father always thought Adams was a knockout and told her so when we saw her, to which she had almost no reaction (which I found amusing). Edie Adams died in 2008 at the age of 81.
Jack Kruschen is fantastic as “Dr. David Dreyfuss”, “Baxter’s" next-door neighbor, the wise, ethical voice in the film. He also brings a lot of humor, mistaking “Baxter” for the man sleeping with all the women he hears through the walls of his apartment and sees in the hallway. Kruschen gives the character a distinctly genuine personality, adding to the film’s feeling of reality. Kruschen earned his only Academy Award nomination (Best Supporting Actor) for the role.
Canadian-born Jack Kruschen began on stage, later entering films with 1948's "Red, Hot and Blue”. He started almost exclusively working in television in 1952, often playing Jewish or Italian characters. A prolific actor with well over 200 film and (mostly) TV credits, his other films include "War of the Worlds", "It Should Happen to You", "Lover Come Back", "Cape Fear", "The Last Voyage", and his final appearance in 1997's "'Til There Was You". His countless TV shows include "Webster", "Bonanza", "Batman", "The Rifleman", "Dragnet", "Full House", and "Murphy Brown". He was married three times. Jack Kruschen died in 2002 at the age of 80.
Hope Holiday plays “Mrs. Margie MacDougall”, the lonely woman at the bar who picks up “Baxter”. Though she appears briefly in the film, Holiday makes quite an impression. She is fabulous in coloring the film with pathos-filled humor as yet another person alienated in a lonely world. "The Apartment" was Holiday’s first speaking role in a film.
Brooklyn-born Hope Holiday began as a dancer as a kid, and made her Broadway debut in 1947's "Dear Judas”. In 1949, she was part of the singing chorus in the original Broadway production of, "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes”, and in 1956 appeared in the Broadway musical, "Li'l Abner”, reprising her role as a dancer in the 1959 film version, which was her film debut. "The Apartment" came next. As an actress, she accrued thirty film and TV credits (primarily TV), including the films "The Ladies Man", "The Rounders", and "Irma la Douce" (directed by Wilder). Some of her TV credits include "That Girl", "Vega$", and "Love, American Style". In the 1980s she became an associate producer for eight feature films before retiring in 1990. She was married twice, including her second marriage to actor Frank Marth. This past November 30th, Hope Holiday turned 91 years old.
A quick mention of David White who plays “Mr. Eichelberger”, an executive at Consolidated Life Insurance and user of “Baxter’s” apartment. TV fans will find him familiar, as he famously played “Larry Tate” on the classic TV show, “Bewitched”.
Born in Colorado and raised in Pennsylvania, David White began in theater and in 1949 started a prolific career primarily on television and by "The Apartment”, was already an established TV actor. Of his 132 film and TV credits, only a dozen are films, including "Sweet Smell of Success”, "The Goddess", "Sunrise at Campobello", and his final film, "Brewster's Millions" in 1985. He's appeared on practically every US classic TV show known to man, including "Perry Mason", "The Twilight Zone", "Bonanza", "The Untouchables", "My Three Sons", "My Favorite Martian", "The Odd Couple", "The Mary Tyler Moore Show", "The A-Team", "Dallas", and "Dynasty". Other than star Elizabeth Montgomery, White appeared on “Bewitched” more than any other actor (188 episodes), from 1964 to 1972. He was married twice. David White died in 1990 at the age of 74.
Along with Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, and Best Art-Direction-Set Decoration Oscar wins, "The Apartment" also won a Best Film Editing (Daniel Mandell) Academy Award. In addition to nominations for Lemmon, MacLaine, and Kruschen, the film also received Oscar nominations for Best Cinematography (Joseph LaShelle) and Best Sound (Gordon Sawyer).
With New Year’s Eve upon us, “The Apartment” is an enjoyably insightful film about new beginnings (and part of the film even takes place on New Year's Eve). Highly entertaining, this week’s classic also provides food for thought about humanity and what’s really important in life. You are sure to be enthralled by this perfectly made treasure. Enjoy “The Apartment”!
This blog is a weekly series on all types of classic films from the silent era through the 1970s. It is designed to entertain and inform movie novices and lovers through watching one recommended classic film a week. The intent is that a love and deepened knowledge of cinema will evolve, along with a familiarity of important stars, directors, writers, the studio system, and a deeper understanding of cinema. I highly recommend visiting (or revisiting) the HOME page, which explains it all and provides a place where you can subscribe and get email notifications each Tuesday of every subsequently recommended film. At the bottom of the Home page you can also find a list of all films currently on this site. Please leave comments, share this blog, and subscribe so you can see which classic films will be revealed each week. Thanks so much for reading!
YOU CAN STREAM OR BUY THE FILM HERE:
PLACES YOU CAN BUY THE FILM:
As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases, and any and all money will go towards the fees for this blog. Thanks!!
TO READ AFTER VIEWING (contains spoilers):
As with several Wilder classics (such as “Some Like It Hot” and “Sunset Boulevard”), “The Apartment” ends with one of cinema’s most famous lines, “Shut up and deal”, given a remarkable delivery by Shirley MacLaine.