The Best Picture Project: THE APARTMENT (1960)

With the 2012 Oscars less than a week away, Ruth at Flix Chatter came up with an amazing idea: A bunch of bloggers each pick a past year’s Best Picture winner  and defend (or not) its merits and win-worthiness. I chose the year 1961. There’s no question that the Best Picture Oscar race that year was an interesting one. All the films in the contest had mighty talent behind and in front of the camera; some had sweeping scope, literary sources, and/or exotic locations. The eventual winner, The Apartment, relied on a deceptively simple concept and a very focused, contemporary setting to work its magic. The apartment of the title is that owned by C.C. “Bud” Baxter (Jack Lemmon), one of thousands of workers at the bottom of the pecking order at a giant insurance company in New York City. So many people work in the company’s offices that the start and stop times of the business day are staggered, so that there isn’t too massive of a crowd trying to catch the elevators at the same time.

At some point before the movie begins, Bud had lent the key to his conveniently located residence to one of the office higher-ups. Soon the key was in high demand by married execs who needed a place to entertain their mistresses. Bud doesn’t want to rock the boat, and he does want to get ahead, so he’s agreed to every request. Not that it’s easy on him. Bud has to find something else to do between the end of the business day and 8 p.m., when his “tenants” are supposed to be out. They eat all his food, drink all his booze, and leave their dirty dishes around. It seems he’s got it made, though, when he gets promoted after the execs give him rave reviews. Called upstairs to see the sleazy vice president of personnel, Jeff Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray), Bud receives a promotion, complete with an office that has a window. There is only one condition…Bud must now loan his key exclusively to Sheldrake, which Bud agrees to do. Soon after, Bud discovers that the lovely company elevator operator Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine) is Sheldrake’s mistress. Although Bud hasn’t quite figured it out yet, he is in love with Fran. When circumstances throw them together, his life really gets complicated.

Anonymous corporate office life, c. 1959

Billy Wilder directed and co-wrote the film and much of the time it has the trademark seriocomic vibe of another Best Picture nominee he wrote and directed, Sunset Blvd. (1950). The Apartment is both a satire of American corporate society, which seems not to have changed much since the late ’50s/early ’60s, and a charming, bittersweet romantic comedy. Wilder uses stunning wide shots of hundreds of desks or a seemingly endless park bench to emphasize the anonymity and facelessness of modern life, while using tight shots to signal the growing intimacy between Bud and Fran. His script laid the groundwork for really memorable, three-dimensional characters. The acting is uniformly great; Lemmon and MacLaine, who have some of the best chemistry ever, are perfect as two neurotics who take a while to realize they’re meant for each other. Fred MacMurray is astonishingly effective as one of the worst cads in a movie ever.

Shut up and deal: Jack Lemmon as Bud, Shirley MacLaine as Fran

The Academy recognized The Apartment with 10 Oscar nominations, of which it won Best Picture, Director, Screenplay (Written for the Screen), Art Direction, and Editing. Lemmon and MacLaine were both nominated as well, but competition was tough that year. Burt Lancaster, Trevor Howard, Laurence Olivier, and Spencer Tracy received nods for Best Actor, while MacLaine contended with Elizabeth Taylor, Greer Garson, Deborah Kerr, and Melina Mercouri. (Lancaster and Taylor were the winners. MacMurray wasn’t nominated at all, which I find inexplicable.)

In the Best Picture category, The Apartment faced formidable competition from four other excellent films, all of which were set in the past: The Alamo in 1836 Texas, Elmer Gantry in small-town America in 1927, Sons and Lovers in London and Welsh coal mines in the early 20th century, and The Sundowners in 1920s Australia. And I would argue that, The Apartment, set in contemporary New York City, deserved to win, because it has retained its relevance and has the most to say about modern American life.

The questions dealt with in The Apartment — What are you willing to give up to get ahead? Which is more important, love or money? — resonate in everyday life possibly even more today. It’s easy to see oneself in Bud, Fran or possibly even Sheldrake (though I hope not the latter). Even more people are working in offices than in 1960 and can readily relate to its situations and dilemmas. If anything, corporations are even larger and more faceless, and even more depends on a person’s ability to survive workplace politics, doublespeak and backstabbing. If, God forbid, anyone wanted to do a remake set in the 21st century, a different location, a few mobile phones, and some laptops would be all that is necessary to update it.* Yes, elevator operators and giant metal adding machines are a rare sight in 2012. But greed, manipulation, deception, and infidelity, as well as love, friendship, and generosity are all still alive and well. And the small scale and everyday setting of The Apartment makes its comedy and wisdom universal. Oscar-wise, The Apartment was a great choice.

*The location change is absolutely necessary because I don’t believe there is any way an entry-level employee could afford a place in the west Sixties, just half a block from Central Park, but I am told that wild Christmas parties still occur, though I’ve never been to one.

25 thoughts on “The Best Picture Project: THE APARTMENT (1960)

  1. Hi, Paula and company:

    Wilder, Lemmon and MacLaine absolutely knocked it out of the park with ‘The Apartment’!

    The scenes of the gigantic office building and cramped, busy hives within always bring a smile. Especially when seeing variations of the theme in later films like ‘Brazil’ and ‘The Hudsucker Proxy’.

    Shirley MacLaine has never been more vulnerable. Jack Lemmon was just beginning to show his greatness for later dramas. And Fred MacMurray reveling in one of his last, great, slimy heel roles!

    1. Hi Jack, i totally agree. They are an amazing team. And you’re right, I forgot about Brazil, though I can’t remember Hudsucker Proxy.

      If I hadn’t seen MacMurray in Double Indemnity, I’d have been in shock. I guess he had just signed a deal with Disney & was worried about their reaction to his taking the role of Sheldrake….I guess it worked out though. And I’m glad he took it.

      1. Hi, Paula:

        Fred MacMurray had a short career playing superb louses in several films before signing on as Disney’s ‘Absent Minded Professor’ and later on CBS’s ‘My Three Sons’.

        One of his best is as a slimy, crooked detective in the very decent Noir, ‘Pushover’ in 1954. His Walter Neff in ‘Double Indemnity’ reigns supreme. With his Lt. Tom Keefer in ‘The Caine Mutiny’ a very close second!

        What’s interesting and watchable about MacMurray’s Sheldrake. Is that Sheldrake knows he’s a slimy s,o.b. and doesn’t care.

        1. “Superb louses” — what a great phrase. I’ll have to check out Pushover, one of the many noirs I haven’t seen. To me, he’ll always be Walter Neff or Sheldrake, & yes very true…he is almost sociopathic in his complete lack of conscience.

      1. I might have to check my local library if they have this one and also ‘It Happened One Night’ as I’ve been meaning to watch that for so long.

  2. Great write up Paula!

    Alas this is a Wilder film which I have not seen. I do not know what I am waiting for quite honestly, but this just happens to be one that has slipped through the cracks somehow.

    I agree with your assessment of the merits of the film as well with respect to its competition in the Best Picture category. It is a worthy winner indeed.

    1. Thanks so much, you’re very kind. There’s a lot of classics I’ve missed, and I haven’t seen all of Wilder’s work either,so don’t feel too badly about it…according to IMDB, he directed 27 pictures and wrote or co-wrote 76! If you do check this one out, let me know what you think 🙂

  3. NAILED IT! Great, great perspective on this Billy Wilder classic, Paula. What a cast, too. I don’t think audiences looked at Lemmon, MacLaine, or MacMurray same after watching them in this. And you’re quite right about its corporate viewpoint. Great contribution. Well done.

    1. Thank you so much, that’s very kind of you! I agree the casting really was perfect…it’s difficult to imagine anybody else playing the roles, even though someone else (Paul Douglas) was initially cast as Sheldrake (he died just before filming started). I read somewhere that people so identified MacMurray with Sheldrake that he got a bunch of not-so-nice letters after the movie came out.

  4. Great review Paula. I haven’t seen this one, but it sounds like I would enjoy it both for its romantic comedy aspects and for some of its social commentary. I’ll try to check it out!

    1. Thank you 🙂 I think you will enjoy it if you do. Like I said, it’s a little dated but a lot of it is spot-on…thank you for stopping by!

  5. Fantastic post, Paula! I finally watched The Apartment for the first time last week, and I absolutely loved it. A straight up 10/10 in my book.

    1. Thank you, that’s so cool…that would be my rating as well. I only saw it a few months ago but now I watch it every time it’s on. Thank you for stopping by 🙂

  6. Fantastic review of The Apartment Paula, one of my all time favourite films. (We actually wanted to do this one for the blogothon but you beat us to it!) I think the issues dealt with in the Apartment are, as you say, as relevant today as they were back then. The film rips your heart out, shows it to you and then helps you see the funny side. Definitely Oscar worthy, 5 stars.

    1. Hi Ronan, thanks so much. Yes I completely agree, 5 of 5 stars. Sorry about that…I definitely caught your co-author’s username…I had just seen it on a proper screen & it’s even better like that, in the Cinemascope. The office is even more hive-like and poor Bud looks even lonelier on that looong park bench.

      Actually there’s part of The Artist, near the end, that reminds me of The Apartment…I don’t want to spoil it, but when you see it, I’d love it if you’d let me know if you think so too. Thanks Ronan!

  7. I think The Apartment winning for Best Picture was an example of the Oscars getting it spot-on. It is one of my favourite films and probably the finest achievement of Billy Wilder. It is such a charming experience but has plenty of bite and darkness to go along with the romantic elements. The performances are flawless as is the direction. One of the best films ever made in my opinion.

    1. Thank you for commenting! Very good points. Some Like It Hot is lighter, Sunset Blvd. is much darker, but The Apartment has a perfect balance, so that even though it shows us some of the worst of human nature, it isn’t depressing. I agree…it’s one of my favorites & one of the best ever made as well.

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