In general, I am not a fan of rom-coms, though there are a few – usually of the Ten Things I Hate About You/Better Off Dead/Can’t Hardly Wait ilk that I will enjoy at least marginally. I certainly don’t watch a lot of rom-coms in black and white. I was, however, pleasantly surprised with our most recent Oscar winner The Apartment (1960), featuring Shirley MacLaine and Jack Lemmon.
The film tells the bleak tale of C.C. Baxter (Lemmon), a lonely bachelor who lends out his apartment to a number of higher-ranking men at his work to help facilitate their extra-marital affairs. They dismissively refer to him as “Buddy Boy,” and he is often left in the rain or sleeping on a park bench while they are posted up in his abode. He continues in this arrangement in the hopes – which they fuel – of moving up the corporate ladder. Instantly though, I felt humiliated for him at the entire prospect. To make matters worse, the head of personnel, Mr. Sheldrake, learns of the setup and offers to make the career advancement an immediate reality but only if he can also get in on Baxter’s apartment borrowing.
A bright spot in Baxter’s days comes in the form of interactions with Fran Kubelik (MacLaine), a beautiful and independent elevator operator. The other men joke that no one has been successful with her romantically, wondering at it. In a few exchanges, we see a genuine rapport between Baxter and Kubelik. He eventually even works up the nerve to ask her on a date. She demurs, telling him she has plans to meet up with another man, but then agrees to meet him after. To our horror, we realize soon she is meeting up with Sheldrake, with whom she had previously been having an extramarital affair. Worse still, Sheldrake lays it on thick, promising to leave his wife for her. She ends up standing Baxter up, and going back to Baxter’s apartment (unbeknownst to her) with Sheldrake. In the scene where we see Baxter waiting alone at the theater for her, there is a heavy sadness. I found myself just yelping, “no, no!” I think this gloom and pitiful irony was what made this film more engaging to me than a run-of-the-mill flowers-and-sunshine rom-com.
A lot of things come together to make The Apartment work, but the keystone is Jack Lemmon as the hapless and slightly dorky optimist Baxter. There is a pitch perfect blend of pathos and humor to Baxter that makes him the ideal stand-in for anyone who has ever found themselves the third wheel, or realized they’d moved just a little too late on the one they were falling for; not that I would know anything about that. He is so earnest in trying to get ahead at work and pursuing a gentlemanly romance. We just watch him, waiting for the world to grind him down. But he has a resilience that wouldn’t let me stop pulling for him. Continue reading