Oscar’s 90th birthday is just around the corner and to celebrate, every other day from now through March 4th, I will be taking a look at each and every film selected for his top award – the good, the bad and the sometimes not-so deserving.
Out of the deca of films that won the Oscar for Best Picture in the 1960s, The Apartment is the only selection that I return to with any regularity. Perhaps the fact that it comes from Billy Wilder may explain why. I find his work irresistible. His films were never about only one thing; they never had just one emotional structure or just one purpose. There was a pure psychology to his films that made them fitting to show in any psych class. The common bond was the madness of carnal lust, whether it be sex (Some Like It Hot and Double Indemnity), alcoholism (The Lost Weekend) or the damning caverns of celebrity (Ace in the Hole and Sunset Blvd.)
The Apartment may be his most subdued but the most relatable because it is the most common. It tells of the adventures of C.C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon), a lonely office middle-man whose trapped in the doomed destiny of spending the rest of his career standing in line waiting for a promotion. He wants to get there, and knows that he must nose up to the upper-level executives who use his solitary apartment as a safe house to conduct their extra-marital affairs. They use him by dangling promises of a promotion in front of his face but, of course, never deliver. On any given night, poor Baxter can be found standing on the sidewalk outside of his building peering up at the window in his own bedroom light.
Meanwhile, in a struggle all her own, is Fran Kubelik (played by a 26 year-old Shirley MacLaine), a pretty girl who works the elevator in Baxter’s building. She sees her only way out of her drudgery by carrying on an affair with Mr. Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray), the big boss. He uses her by dangling promises of leaving his wife in order to marry her. Sheldrake, of course, is fore-flushing rat. Fran knows it, but she sees few other options.
What is beautiful about The Apartment is that both C.C. and Fran really want the same thing, to get the promotion to be able to have the lives that they want. It’s a romance, but not in any conventional sense. The story has brains and so do the characters. Their actions are logical and their plight is not unrealistic. The main through-line of this story are all the lonely people; those who go home to their empty apartments (it is a masterstroke that the story takes place at Christmas) and have no real social interactions. Their lives are a long, slow climb to the middle. What makes Baxter and Kublick so interesting is how similar they are and the fact that they find a solace in each other’s solitude. There’s no remedy to their situation when the story is over but we know they won’t have to face it alone.