THE APARTMENT (1960)

apartIn 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.

While not nearly as dark as Wilder’s earlier Double Indemnity or Sunset Boulevard, there are some grim elements that elevate the story beyond a simple love triangle between nice guy, cute girl and jerk. The shots of Baxter in his office echo images from King Vidor’s The Crowd and hint at a desperate urban dehumanization. After Fran’s suicide attempt, the sound of her vomiting in Baxter’s bathroom deromanticizes the situation and brings a sobering sense of realness to it.

Mouse and I are definitely on the same page about this film. It’s well-worn subject matter in many ways, but in The Apartment, the stakes are high. Choosing the love interest who will actually be good to Fran may be the difference between whether she makes it. I liked her pluck and spirit, and watching her also be ground down by the office culture and self-involved narcissist was difficult to see. The entire time, I kept rooting for her to have the strength to not allow blind love and a string of broken promises to erode her.

With Baxter, she was able to be herself. To find joy in peaceful daily activities. To strain spaghetti over a tennis racket (trust me, it’s one of the most endearing scenes of the movie). I liked seeing a woman fall for a man who could offer her consistency, loyalty, joy and stability where others before him had not. Not that I could relate to any of that.

The tennis racket colander was a nice touch and truly seemed like something from a single guy’s apartment. It reminded me a little of someone I know who tried to repurpose a T-shirt as a juicing bag to make watermelon juice. (It doesn’t work. Just buy the bag.) There are good little bits of color and characterization throughout the movie, and then some bits are just weird; but they fit well and I enjoyed them. Like when Sheldrake’s kid wants to send a housefly up in his toy rocket, then wants to send two to see if they’ll reproduce in space. That’s one way to spend Christmas morning, kid.

At some point in the movie, there is a gag about Fidel Castro and the Cuban revolution that would have been news at the time. It raised our eyebrows since that same day, Castro had died. It’s the weirdest, most morbid bit of coincidence since James Horner crashed his plane while we watched Titanic. Is Red Carpet Roulette some perverse kiss of death for those involved in the movies?

The Castro reference literally came on the screen minutes after we learned of his death. It honestly spooked me quite a bit. Also, I am now feeling like I must really have been out of it, because I don’t remember this housefly scene Mouse is referencing at all. I want to close this blog entry by saying that the final scene in the film – which I will not give away in full – is one of the most genuinely heartwarming I have ever seen in a rom-com. Cynics and regular watchers of the Hallmark Channel alike will have something to take from this charming film.

A couple of observations about one scene. At one point, Baxter is watching television with his TV Dinner, flipping through channels with a remote control- a practice I didn’t realize existed as early as 1960. I would have assumed viewers at the time were with faced with the terrible choice of either leaving the couch to switch or resigning oneself to seeing what was on the screen. Also, on one channel, the announcer is presenting the upcoming program- a movie starring Joan Crawford, John Barrymore and Wallace Beery…you guessed it, Grand Hotel. Not only do I enjoy when Hollywood is self-referential, but this is the second time a previous Best Picture has been referenced in a Best Picture, giving some support to my theory that just such a subconscious nudge is a good strategy toward getting the Oscar.

And finally, the appearance of Ray Walston was a pleasant surprise. I’m never sorry to see that guy- an actor who, like Abe Vigoda, was around for some time, yet was somehow never young.

By the time of the 33rd Academy Awards, color had pretty much taken over as the standard for big-budget Hollywood features, making The Apartment the last black and white Best Picture until Schindler’s List (1993) and later The Artist (2011) revived the medium for artistic purposes.

Also nominated in 1960:
The Alamo
Elmer Gantry
Sons and Lovers
The Sundowners

Next film: PLATOON (1986)

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