Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (December 24, 2017)
Back in the summer of 2000, I decided that this site needed a special page devoted solely to films that had won the Best Picture Oscar. This became a somewhat daunting task because we didn’t offer reviews of many of these titles, but I took to it eagerly and we managed to put the page online within a few months.
At that time, there were a lot of gaps in the Best Picture DVD releases. By June 2001, the first “complete decade” occurred, as that month’s release of 1960’s The Apartment finished off all 10 flicks from that span.
In a way, it’s ironic that such a tumultuous decade finished up with one of its quieter films. As a comedic drama - or a dramatic comedy, if you’d like - The Apartment lacks the broad scope and scale of subsequent Best Picture winners like Lawrence of Arabia or The Sound of Music.
In addition, Apartment doesn’t attempt to provide the social commentary of In the Heat of the Night or Midnight Cowboy. It sticks with a low-key character piece.
That doesn’t make Apartment inferior, however, as it provides a strong effort. The movie concentrates on the semi-pathetic little life of insurance clerk CC “Bud” Baxter (Jack Lemmon), one small fish in a huge pond, as the Manhattan-based company for which he works maintains a payroll of more than 30,000.
Baxter wants to get ahead, but his meek demeanor doesn’t really lend itself to advancement. However, as the film starts, we discover he’s found a way to gain the attention and affection of some superiors: he allows them to use his apartment as the site of their extramarital trysts.
While this works well for his career positioning, it does little for Baxter’s own social life, or it would affect him if he had one. Most of his evenings at home are spent in front of the TV, so the main negative effect spurred by the manner in which others use his apartment stems from the fact he often gets left out in the cold – literally - and he becomes ill.
While this agreement may make Baxter look rather conniving, that’s not really the case. While he’s eager to reap the career benefits of his lending scheme, he prospers mainly because he’s a schmoe who can’t say “no”. Bud desperately wants to stand up to his higher-ups and regain control of his apartment - at least for an evening - but he can’t muster the backbone to do so.
Nonetheless, things seem to go his way career-wise, and he also makes his move on a cute elevator operator named Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine). He’s had his eye on her for quite some time, but he doesn’t ask her out until he gets his promotion and starts to answer to Jeff Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray). It seems that Sheldrake also wants access to Baxter’s apartment, and he gives Bud two tickets to a Broadway show to keep him occupied.
Baxter uses these tickets to ask out Fran, and she agrees, though she indicates they’ll have to meet at the theater since she must tend to a previous engagement. To the surprise of few, that earlier date pairs her with the married Sheldrake, as the two had a fling that he wants to continue.
Weak-willed Fran submits and heads to Baxter’s apartment with Sheldrake, while poor pathetic Bud waits alone in front of the theater. Despite that setback, he remains optimistic about his future in the company and with Fran, but things eventually become more complicated.
I’ll leave the remaining plot developments out of my review, for though I think many of them feel predictable, I still prefer to avoid any additional potential spoilers. Despite a storyline that often seems unsurprising, I really like The Apartment, as it provides a compelling and well-executed piece of work.
The deft way it straddles comedy and drama remains key to the film’s success. The movie begins as little more than a farce along the lines of director Billy Wilder’s earlier work like 1955’s The Seven Year Itch and 1959’s Some Like It Hot.
That comment shouldn’t be regarded as a criticism of the prior films, asboth were very entertaining and well made. I mention them just because a viewer new to The Apartment will likely feel that it fits in snugly with those movies.
However, as the plot complicates, the dramatic level escalates, and we find out just how troubled Fran really is. She’s a woman with extremely low self-esteem who really seems to dislike herself, and her feelings motivate her behavior. Good-natured Baxter tries to help, but there’s really only so much he can do - some people just don’t want to be saved.
Or do they? I’ll leave that plot point up in the air, but the manner in which Baxter and Fran get to know each other offers a twist from the usual fluffy romantic material. While the movie still offers some comedic moments, it becomes much more serious as it progresses and the complications amass.
In the hands of a lesser director, The Apartment could - and probably should - have been a mess. However, Wilder manages to dance between the humor and the pathos and make both sides of the coin believable and effective.
Though the film’s second half does become more serious, the picture lacks any form of abrupt change of pace. Instead, Wilder gently moves it into a different direction, and the shift works nicely.
It helps that The Apartment features a strong cast, though frankly, I can’t say that I’m wild about Lemmon’s performance as Baxter. He handles the screwball comedic aspects of the role well, but he doesn’t alter his tone strongly enough as the story turns dramatic.
As such, Lemmon still seems broad and over-the-top when the part calls for a quieter tone. I’m not greatly dissatisfied with Lemmon’s work, as I think he still makes the role compelling and endearing, but I feel he should have taken a more subdued tone and mugged less as the film progressed.
On the other hand, MacLaine is virtually perfect as Fran. I’ve never been a fan of her work, and I’ve usually openly disliked the woman, but I must acknowledge that she’s almost flawless as Fran.
MacLaine nimbly communicates the wounded inner core of the character without becoming maudlin or excessively sentimental. She maintains a cold distance from the world, a tone that seems appropriate for such a sad, hurt person. MacLaine also manages to keep her adequately chipper and lively when necessary, so Fran doesn’t degenerate into an emotional mess.
Honestly, the caliber of MacLaine’s performance stuns me. I’ve known women like Fran, and the accuracy she lends to the role seems very impressive.
She nails the part so well that it’s genuinely spooky - there were times I felt as though I was watching those past acquaintances. How hammy old Liz Taylor beat her for Best Actress makes no sense to me.
Well, at least Lemmon and MacLaine were nominated for Oscars, as was Jack Kruschen’s supporting turn as Doctor Dreyfuss. Poor MacMurray didn’t even get any form of Academy recognition for his solid work as the scheming Sheldrake.
By this point in his career, MacMurray was becoming established as the “genial family man” we know from TV’s My Three Sons - which premiered in 1960 just a few months after The Apartment hit movie screens - and flicks like 1959’s The Shaggy Dog. When MacMurray worked against type in Wilder’s 1944 classic Double Indemnity, I thought he seemed laughably unconvincing.
My biggest problem with Indemnity related to MacMurray, which was why I was pleased to see his work in The Apartment. I think MacMurray succeeds as Sheldrake because the role is just a small twist on his usual character.
He still portrays a family man, but he’s a fairly sleazy one who thinks nothing of cheating on his wife. He displays no qualms when he needs to lie to women, and he happily uses them with no apparent effect on his conscience.
MacMurray resists any urges to provide a warmer side to Sheldrake. He makes the character bright and personable enough to allow us to believe women would be attracted to him, but he keeps him cold and hard enough to avoid excessive charm. MacMurray excels in the role as he creates a realistic character who seems scummy but who avoids cartoonish elements.
If I have any complaint about The Apartment, it’d relate to the film’s length. At 125 minutes, it isn’t excessive, but I think it probably could have been shortened a bit. Nonetheless, the movie seems like a strong piece of work that provides a well-executed combination of comedy and drama.