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.
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.
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.