by John Greco
Office politics has changed a lot over the years but sex in the workplace, in one form or another, is alive and well. Billy Wilder’s superb comedy/drama is a time capsule look back at one man’s struggle on how to succeed in business by lending out his apartment to four middle level company executives on various nights for their extramarital liaisons. In exchange, the four executives praise our antihero at work, writing glowing reports on him to senior management, including putting in good words with Mr. Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray) the top dog at personnel.
C.C. “Bud” Baxter (Jack Lemmon) is the original lonely guy, an actuarial, crunching out numbers for a major insurance company. Baxter works at a drab grey desk in a large corporate office building, populated by faceless individuals all working at hundreds of other drab grey desks.
Baxter’s home life consists of frozen dinners, watching TV and cleaning up the empty liquor bottles left over from the night’s escapades, bottles which he leaves outside his apartment door for garbage pickup, suggesting, to his neighbors, Dr. Dreyfuss (Jack Kruschen) and his wife, that Baxter leads a wild life of swinging parties.
When Mr. Sheldrake gets wind of what is going at Baxter’s apartment he confronts Baxter informing him that such goings on is not good for the company’s image. However, instead of being fired, as Baxter suspected was going to happen, Sheldrake wants to book the apartment for himself that evening. He gives Baxter two tickets to the then Broadway hit musical, “The Music Man” as compensation. After work Baxter, with tickets in hand, builds up the courage to ask elevator operator Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine) who is the girl of his dreams to see the play with him that night. She agrees. Little does Baxter know that Fran is Sheldrake’s mistress and the girl he plans on taking to his apartment!
In between the many laughs, there is a sad tale about how far people, even good people, as Baxter and Fran are, will go to get ahead in the business world. Morals are tossed aside when seduced by morally bankrupt but more powerful people making promises of promotions and indecent proposals. You see Baxtcr is looking for the key to the executive washroom, he wants out from behind the drab grey desk, no longer wanting to be one of the crowd, while Fran is looking to become the wife of an important executive and stop having to smile at every leering male jerk who enters her elevator.
The germ of the idea for this movie had been with Wilder for many years going back to the 1940’s. There were actually two incidents that triggered Wilder’s imagination. First a scene from the movie, “Brief Encounter” where the two married lovers meet at the apartment of a friend. Billy thoughts were not so much on the lovers than on what the guy who lent the apartment does when he gets back his place and the sheets are still warm. The second incident involved a true Hollywood scandal. Actress Joan Bennett was having an affair with talent agent Jennings Lang. Bennett’s husband producer Walter Wanger found out about it and shot Lang, wounding him. One of the facts to come out about all this was how Lang had been taking Bennett to an apartment belonging to a subordinate at the talent agency. This was intriguing to Wilder who surmised the underling must have believed that by lending his apartment out to a higher up he was making a good career move.
The idea for “The Apartment” remained stored away in Wilder’s mind for years because he knew he could not do much with it due to the censorship standards of the day which forbid showing adultery in a movie or at least unrepentant adultery. By 1960, the censorship laws were starting to crack and Wilder, ever the provocateur, decided the time was right. He just had a big success with “Some Like it Hot” which already pushed some buttons with the see-through dress Monroe wore during her “I Wanna Be Loved by You” number. Now it was time to try something else.
The screenplay by Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond is a brilliant blend of farce and melancholy, reflecting on the 1950’s, early 1960’s, pre women’s lib office politics, corporate culture and the general widespread disregard for women in the workplace as equals. Additionally, the film blatantly looks at the dark side of ambition, the drive to succeed at any ethical expense.
And it all takes place during the Christmas season! Bittersweet yet heartfelt. The film’s ending is justifiably one of cinema’s best known and moving.
While all the characters are sleazy in their ambitions you still find yourself rooting for Baxter and Fran and this has a lot to do with the extremely fine performances from Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine. Lemmon manages to make Baxter come across as a decent loveable, average guy and I believe this is due to Lemmon’s real life inner decency that despite his character’s moral ethics or lack of, you still like him. It the same with Shirley MacLaine who was a perfect choice for the role of Fran Kubelik. Sweet, vulnerable, and like Lemmon’s character looking to improve her standing in life, only for her it is finding a good man with a good job. Unfortunately, Sheldrake the man she hooked up with was just using her. Both Lemmon and MacLaine were nominated for Academy Awards that year. Jack Kruschen received a Best Supporting Actor nomination for his role as Baxter’s neighbor, Dr. Dreyfuss. Surprisingly Fred MacMurray was passed over for his role as the slimy personnel boss. In the two times they have worked together, Wilder has been able to bring out the “worst” in Fred MacMurray with two superlative performances, first in “Double Indemnity” and here in “The Apartment.” There is also a wonderful cast of supporting players who are all worth mentioning and have graced more than one Wilder film; Ray Walston, Joyce Jameson, Hope Holiday and Joan Shawlee are all treasures.
How The Apartment made the Top 100: