Monday, June 21, 2010
That's the way it crumbles, cookie-wise
By Edward Copeland
When Oscar discussions turn to how rarely comedies take the best picture prize, one of the examples always cited is Billy Wilder's The Apartment, which marks its 50th anniversary today. While it's true that laughs are plentiful in The Apartment, the film isn't a flat-out comedy the way Wilder's Some Like It Hot was the year before. There is just as much, if not more, in the way of pathos in this best picture winner, but pure comedy or not, The Apartment remains a great film and one of Wilder's very best.
Over images of the New York skyline of Nov. 1, 1959, C.C. (C for Calvin, C for Clifford) Baxter (Jack Lemmon) informs us that the population of that wonderful city at that time is 8,042,783 and that if you stretched all those people end to end, figuring an average height of 5 feet 6 1/2 inches tall, they'd stretch from Times Square to Karachi, Pakistan. Somewhat ironic considering a recent event involving that N.Y. landmark and that country. Baxter knows odd statistics such as this because of his work as one of the 31,259 Manhattan employees of Consolidated Life Insurance. The company's home office has more employees than the population of Natchez, Miss. Baxter works on the 19th floor and though he goes by his initials C.C., most people call him Bud. He makes $94.70 a week and has a second floor apartment at 51 W 67 near Central Park that costs him $85 a month and whose price probably makes most current New Yorkers experience minor strokes when they hear it and realize that was only 50 years ago. Bud is very popular with the executives at Consolidated Life for a very simple reason: When they need a safe locale for their philandering, the single Baxter lets them use that second floor apartment. It sometimes takes a toll on his own health and it makes his neighbors thinks he is the Don Juan of all time, but it's earning him brownie points at the company, and a single man in Manhattan will do whatever he can to help ascend the rungs of capitalism's ladder to what it defines as success.
Bud's apartment has become such a party central that when his doctor neighbor (Oscar nominee Jack Kruschen) sees him setting out dozens of empty liquor bottles for the trash, he suggests in all seriousness that he leave his body to a university for scientific study because he's amazed by his stamina and is certain he can't keep up this pace forever (since he isn't aware that it isn't one man carousing with all these women). Bud is looking forward to a rare evening with himself (He'd watch Grand Hotel if they'd stop showing the sponsors' ads and get to the movie) and his apartment when one of the execs, Joe Dobisch (Ray Walston), calls unexpectedly asking for emergency use of the pad because he's got a hot number who is a dead ringer for Marilyn Monroe (a very dead-on spoof of the troublesome star of Wilder's last film). Baxter tells him he's out of booze and snacks, but relents and lets him have the place anyway, even though that means getting stuck outside in a cold, pouring rain and getting sick.
The next day at work, Baxter is a bundle of coughs and sneezes. It seems not only was he left in the cold while Joe fooled around, Joe left the wrong key under the mat so Bud was locked out of his apartment all night. He laments his illness to the cute elevator operator, Miss Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine) before proceeding to his desk to try to re-arrange the sexual schedules of the men who use his apartment (who also include David White, better known as Bewitched's Larry Tate and David Lewis, General Hospital's original Edward Quartermaine) so he can get much-needed bedrest. Unfortunately, this is the day the executives come through with their favor and he meets with the company's top man, Mr. Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray). At first, Bud worries that he's about to get in trouble for being the arranger of such moral turpitude but he soon realizes that not only has he just earned a promotion, but Sheldrake wants in on the apartment, so much so that he wants to secure it for that very evening, giving Baxter two tickets to The Music Man on Broadway to keep him occupied. Suddenly, Baxter feels much better, so confident he asks Miss Kubelik if she'd accompany him to the show. She tells him she's meeting a friend for dinner, but if she can get away, she'll meet him in the lobby before the 8:30 p.m. curtain time. Once again, Wilder proves his knack for bringing out the darkness in Fred MacMurray, as he did in Double Indemnity in 1944, only this time in a film with a more comic bent. He almost couldn't get MacMurray to agree to the part this time, wrapped up as he was in Disney projects and beginning My Three Sons, but fortunately he did because Wilder's instincts were correct and the casting was perfect. (Then again, maybe it's something inherent about how MacMurray and/or Wilder feel about people who work in the insurance business.)
Miss Kubelik never meets Baxter at the theater, much to his disappointment, but he doesn't realize it's because her dinner date is with Sheldrake. Fran plans it to be merely dinner, but she still has feelings for the cheater and ends up going back with him to Baxter's apartment. Of all the many great things you can say about Billy Wilder (and his screenwriting partner I.A.L. "Izzy" Diamond, who was teaming with Wilder for the third of their 12 collaborations), what a gift they had for creating memorable names: C.C. Baxter, Fran Kubelik, Sheldrake. Just insert them into a nonmovie related conversation and if the other party has seen The Apartment, odds are, they'll know of whom you speak. It's inevitable watching this 1960 film, full of smoking, boozing and philandering in the Manhattan business world to not think of the current series Mad Men. The show's first season was set in 1960 and its characters referenced seeing The Apartment, though the brilliant John Slattery as Roger Sterling found fault because he found it unrealistic that any company would have female elevator operators. Still, despite his disappointment at being stood up, Sheldrake lives up to his word and the following day C.C. moves on up to his new office.
The excitement over the promotion doesn't deter Baxter from the idea that he's going to be able to date Miss Kubelik. As Bud is settling in to his new digs, his adulterous subletters come to visit en masse, wondering why he's been ducking them. Baxter leaves Sheldrake's name out of it, but mentions that he's found himself a girl and would like to be able to use his apartment for himself. The men congratulate him for his conquest, but question his need to see her every night. When Baxter's called away to Sheldrake's office, the quartet can't believe how selfish Bud is being about his own apartment. When he thanks Mr. Sheldrake for the promotion, he also returns something he assumes his lady friend left behind: a compact with a cracked mirror. Yes, she threw it at him, Sheldrake explains. Women can get a bit irrational at times. Sometimes he wonders if they are worth the trouble.
As the office's Christmas party arrives, Baxter takes it upon himself to remove Fran from her post at the elevator to join in the festivities. Everything is going well at first until Bud departs briefly to fetch some punch and Fran gets ambushed by Miss Olsen (Edie Adams), Sheldrake's secretary and his mistress several women ago. She greets her as the branch manager from Kansas City, the line Sheldrake used the night before when giving Baxter the tickets to The Music Man. Then Miss Olsen goes on to recount Sheldrake's other chain of mistresses before telling her, "You haven't done anything. It's him — oh, what a salesman! Always the last booth in the Chinese restaurant — and the same pitch about divorcing his wife — and in the end, you wind up with egg foo yong on your face." Bud returns and spots the stricken look on Fran's face and whisks her off to his office. He tries to change the subject by showing her the new bowler hat he's bought. He asks if she has a mirror he could borrow and she hands over the compact. Bud's heart sinks when he spots the crack and realizes she is Sheldrake's mistress. He points out that her mirror is broken. "Yes, I know," Fran says. "I like it that way. Makes me look the way I feel."
What follows shows Wilder and Diamond's perfect blending of the humor and the pathos dripping in their story. A devastated Baxter, who had already agreed to let Sheldrake have an evening rendezvous, heads to a bar, ready to get blotto now that he knows the mistress Sheldrake will be having his way with at his apartment is the woman that Baxter desperately wants to make his own. The contrast between the two locations proves telling as Baxter's drunken depression definitely leans toward the comic thanks to the appearance of the great comic character Margie MacDougall (Hope Holiday). Last weekend, Katie Finneran won a Tony for her version of Margie in the Broadway revival of Promises, Promises, the musical version of The Apartment. At the apartment, things are tense, despite the planned exchange of gifts as Fran confronts Sheldrake about what Miss Olsen shared with her. The intercutting is masterful, keeping the tone perfect, never allowing the film to go too far into a dark or light direction. At the bar, Margie pursues Bud, first firing straw wrappers at him before going up to him personally and telling him about her husband who is being held in Cuba by that "jerk Castro." At the apartment, as if Fran didn't feel bad enough already, after giving Sheldrake an album of the music played at their Chinese restaurant, Sheldrake obviously forgot to get her anything and just hands over $100 in cash, oblivious to the implication. A furious Fran makes it clear to him rather quickly, but Sheldrake insists he's not calling her cheap. "100 dollars. I wouldn't call that cheap," she replies. Sheldrake tries to calm her as she continues to demean herself and go back to what Miss Olsen was telling her. Seeing he's getting nowhere, Sheldrake tells her that he'll miss the last train home and better get going and makes a hasty exit. At the bar, Baxter and Margie continue to get drunker and dance until the owner kicks them out. Margie asks whose place they should go to. "Might as well go to mine. Everyone else does."
When Margie and Baxter stumble their way back into his apartment, Bud is quite annoyed to find Fran still there in his bed. He wants her gone, but he soon realizes that she's not napping — she's unconscious after swallowing his bottle of sleeping pills. This sobers Baxter up quickly who rushes an angry Margie on her way, who vows that he can't treat her like this and her husband will get even once he escapes Castro's clutches, but Cuban dictators and the spouses of drunken women are the furthest things from his mind at this moment. He heads next door to get Doc's help, which Doc gladly offers, though he's still assuming that Fran's suicide attempt came from Bud's treatment of her and his neverending train of women. The doctor and Baxter spend the rest of the night trying to bring Fran around, pouring endless cups of coffee down her throat and parading her around the apartment to keep her awake and to try to get the sedatives out of her system. The doctor continues to subtly and not so subtly criticize Bud's behavior and Baxter does nothing to dissuade him of the notion that he's the man who pushed Fran to the edge, even going as far as trying to take the blame when Fran asks what he's doing there and rambles in a way that obviously indicates that he's not the man in her life. While there are laughs in this sequence, the suicide attempt is treated in a way that belies the film's rep as a pure comedy. It's not that laughs can't be found when suicide is the subject (see Heathers, a different type of movie, 29 years later), but The Apartment is not that film. Don't take this to mean I think Heathers and The Apartment are on the same level. I love both films, but I seriously doubt I will ever make a Top 100 list that Heathers will land on.
As the Christmas Eve crisis leads into Christmas Day, Baxter calls Sheldrake at home telling him what has transpired. Sheldrake, trapped with his family, has little interest in relieving Baxter of his Fran-sitting duties, so Bud and Fran get to spend the holidays and beyond together. They begin to open up to each other as Fran expresses regret about Sheldrake. "He's a liar and that's not the worst of it. The worst of it is that I still love him," she admits. Once everyone else has returned to work, Baxter calls Sheldrake again and begs him to at least talk to Fran. He reluctantly takes the call and tries to get her to be reasonable and think about how all of this will look. Fran assures him he has nothing to worry about and they can all pretend it never happened, just like Sheldrake wishes. "I never took those pills. I never loved you. We never even met," she tells him acidly. Along the way, the beans are spilled about Miss Olsen's role in Fran's downward spiral. Sheldrake calls his secretary into his office and coldly tells her that she'll get two weeks severance pay. Miss Olsen doesn't leave without letting Sheldrake in on how he treats his women. "You let me go four years only you were cruel enough to let me sit out there and watch the new models pass by," she tells him. As she's clearing out her desk, she makes certain to set up a lunch date with Mrs. Sheldrake. The stage is set for all the players to resolve their situations and the movie to lead to its conclusion with, as so often happens in a Billy Wilder film, one of the classic closing film lines of all time.
The Apartment brought Wilder three Oscars in one night, a first for a single person, as writer, director and producer and each statuette was a deserved one. The idea for the film had been circulating in Wilder's head for decades. When he saw David Lean's Brief Encounter, his mind began wondering about the guy who provided the locale for the married lovers to meet, but the times weren't quite ready for that sort of material in the 1940s. When the real-life scandal broke in 1951 when film producer Walter Wanger shot agent Jennings Lang because he thought he was having an affair with Wanger's wife, actress Joan Bennett, it revived the idea in Wilder's head again. By the end of the decade, he and his new writing partner, I.A.L. Diamond had transformed those various strands into The Apartment.
All of the technical credits are top notch, particularly a nice underscore by Adolph Deutch, and it goes without saying that the casting is stellar from the supporting cast including Adams, Holiday, Kruschen, Walston and MacMurray. Lemmon perfectly blends the humor and tragedy in his role as the schnook and shows he can be a master of the doubletake. Still, the best work of the film, perhaps of her career, belongs to MacLaine as Fran Kubelik. Her performance gets better each time I see it. She's charming when she needs to be and heartbreaking when that's required. Most importantly, she never hits a false note. If not for Elizabeth Taylor's timely case of pneumonia and subsequent tracheotomy, perhaps she would have never won for the dreadful Butterfield 8 and MacLaine might have taken that Oscar. She certainly deserved it.