Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The Apartment: Shut Up and Deal

The Apartment is a perfect film to begin a discussion about the Academy Awards in the 1960’s because in many ways it is a film that bridges the 32 years of Best Picture winners that preceded it to the fifty years of Oscar history that would follow. The film’s final line delivered with razor-sharp precision timing by Shirley MacLaine—“Shut up and deal”—is also the perfect angle in which to approach the ten Best Pictures of the decade. In a period of unmatched tumultuous social change, the most enduring films were the ones that chose to shut up and deal with the changes Americans faced.

The Apartment is also the perfect transitory film because it is the last film to win Best Picture to be shot entirely in black and white (Steven Spielberg used black and white film for Schindler’s List in 1993, yet that was a deliberate artistic choice, and the film also has sections where color is used for specific purposes). However, like its recent Best Picture-winning predecessors, the film is gloriously widescreen. It gives Ben-Hur and The Bridge on the River Kwai a run for its money in terms of scope. The look of the film straddles the past and the future. Unlike the chiaroscuro film stock, there is nothing black and white about the themes contained in The Apartment. The story is extraordinarily modern and it perhaps resonates stronger now than when it premiered over fifty years ago (Look at the television show Mad Men, which exists squarely under the shadow of The Apartment).

What makes The Apartment a great film is the way director Billy Wilder pull the audience in alongside his characters. I think Wilder was a great humanist filmmaker. What I mean by humanist is this: Wilder’s films contain characters drawn with such a depth of humanity that it becomes impossible for the audience not to be carried alongside their journeys. These characters are just as human as the viewers watching them. In Double Indemnity, we are seduced along with Walter Neff (played by Fred MacMurray, who also has a key, also similarly against type role as an insurance man in The Apartment) when he meets deadly Phyllis Dietrichson and mistakes murder for honeysuckle. Ray Milland makes Don Birnam’s alcoholism so profound in The Lost Weekend that we can smell the booze sweating out of his pores as he searches for the bottle of hidden whiskey. A funeral for a monkey in Sunset Boulevard makes Norma Desmond’s madness palpable, inspiring both horror and sympathy. The idea of two men being able to find the meaning of true love only after they have disguised themselves as women sounds absolutely absurd, but in Wilder’s hands Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon (Lemmon plays the lead role in The Apartment, and in many ways, he was Wilder’s muse) make the absurd logical in Some Like it Hot. Every one of these films is a classic because the characters endure.

Each of the main characters in Wilder’s films share a common trait—loneliness—and in The Apartment, that great existential theme drives the actions of the characters in the film.

The film opens with a brief montage of New York City. Wilder means to convey the metropolis is a bustling epicenter of human life and commerce, but the helicopter shots of towering skyscrapers and office buildings underscore the fact that a single individual could easily find themselves lost among the hubbub. The narration is provided by C.C. “Bud” Baxter (Lemmon), an average, hard working yet powerless white collar worker employed by Consolidated Life of New York. Bud describes New York as if he were reading off the back of a baseball card. “On November 1st, 1959, the population of New York City was 8,042,783. If you laid all these people end to end, figuring an average height of five feet six and a half inches, they would reach from Times Square to the outskirts of Karachi, Pakistan.” His description of his workplace is just as statistically bent:

“We're one of the top five companies in the country. Our home office has 31,259 employees—which is more than the entire population of Natchez, Mississippi. I work on the 19th floor—Ordinary Policy Department, Premium Accounting Division, Section W, desk number 861. My name is C. C. Baxter—C. for Calvin, C. for Clifford, however most people call me Bud. I've been with Consolidated for three years and ten months and my take-home pay is $94.70 a week.”

Wilder then gives us a shot of the interior of Bud’s office on the 19th floor—a literal sea of desks, with one benign occupant after another (the shot is an homage to King Vidor’s 1928 silent film The Crowd). Bud even provides us this detail: “The hours in our department are 8:50 to 5:20—they're staggered by floors, so that sixteen elevators can handle the 31,259 employees without a serious traffic jam.” Bud is just one man in an ocean of desks, in a skyscraper that houses a small city, where elevator rides must be scheduled as to not upend the entire building. In a city where he is surrounded by eight million other people, Bud could not be more alone.

Bud’s narration dives right into the main plot of The Apartment. He often arrives at his desk early and stays late despite the prime location of his apartment in the “West Sixties, just half a block from Central Park”. What could keep a man away from an apartment which is “just right for a bachelor”? Bud has found a way to advance his career, by loaning his apartment out to his superiors so that they can engage in extramarital trysts with the secretaries, telephone operators and other low-level female employees in the firm (it should be noted that all of the female employees at Consolidated Life are low level; this doesn’t make The Apartment a sexist film, merely a historically accurate one). This arrangement is a fruitful way of brown-nosing, and Bud enjoys being called a “bright boy” and hearing promises of a promotion. However, Bud incurs two problems with this arrangement, one he is unaware of, and one that is painfully obvious.

The painfully obvious part of his problem is that his apartment is loaned out so often that he is unable to use it for a social life of his own. The “hospitality” the apartment provides Bud’s bosses extend well after work hours. When Bud does get home, he usually has a TV dinner and a bottle of Coke, a late night movie his only companionship (in one scene, Bud watches the 1932 Best Picture Grand Hotel, another film about lonely people in a busy place). Bud also suffers looks of indignation and scorn from his neighbors, especially Dr. and Mrs. Dreyfuss (Jack Kruschen and Naomi Stevens). Because Bud’s “guests” fail to ever clean up after themselves, Bud often has to tote bags of empty bottles of alcohol down to the garbage. While there, Dr. Dreyfuss comments, “The way you're beltin' that stuff, you must have a pair of cast-iron kidneys....As a matter of fact, you must be an iron man all around. From what I hear through the walls, you got somethin' goin' for ya every night...Sometimes, there's a twi-night double-header. A nebbish like you!” Bud never bothers to correct the assumption that he is a boozehound, skirt-chaser, and all around lothario. He assumes that if he keeps a low profile and keeps his supervisors happy, the ever-elusive promotion will come his way.

What Bud remains unaware of is that his supervisors regard him as a doormat. The first supervisor who absconds to the apartment in the film, Kirkeby (David Lewis), tells his mistress that the dwelling belongs to “some schnook in the office”. Later, Mr. Dobisch (character actor Ray Walston, and if you’ve seen Fast Times at Ridgemont High you’ll recognize him instantly), another middle manager, wishes to extend his date. He phones Bud at 11 pm, rousing him from his sleep, simply because he wants to screw his date, a “blonde who looks like Marilyn Monroe” (a dig at the actual Monroe, who though irreplaceable, gave Wilder absolute fits when directing her in his previous picture, Some Like It Hot). Bud doesn’t want to give up the only activity he can enjoy in his apartment—sleep—but Dobisch blackmails him, saying "Look Baxter, we're making out the monthly efficiency rating, and I'm putting you in the top ten. Now you don't want to louse yourself up, do you?" Bud meekly acquiesces, spending the night on a hard bench on a cold November night in Central Park. He’s in so deep, that in many ways, he has become a secretary for his own home, keeping each middle manager on a rigid schedule and having to iron out conflicts when two bosses wish to cheat on their wives on the same night. Bud isn’t moving upward, he’s simply becoming a bigger bitch for mid-level management.

Bud does have at least one source of happiness at Consolidated Life—his daily ride on the elevator. It is there that he flirts with the charming and cheerful elevator operator, Fran Kubelik (the incandescent Shirley MacLaine). Miss Kubelik is also clearly likes him (in a friendly way)—she is compassionate toward Bud comes in the elevator sick, she places a carnation in his buttonhole when Bud is nervous upon being summoned for a meeting, and she tells him, crucially, that “something happens to men in elevators. Must be the change in altitude—the blood rushed to their head or something—boy I could tell you stories.” Bud, however, does not rank among these men. He is the only man who removes his hat as a sign of respect when he enters Fran’s elevator; she’s noticed, and she thinks Bud is a nice guy. When Bud tires to find out information about her from Kirkeby—whom Fran has rejected before—he is told that Fran plays hard to get and that she isn’t that special. Bud defends her, calling Fran “a nice, respectable girl.”

In that first act, Wilder and his co-writer I.A.L. Diamond gives the audience everything we need to know about Bud and Fran. He is lonely, angling for a promotion, and at heart a romantic; the removing of his hat in Fran’s elevator and his chivalrous defense of her prove that trait. Fran shows true kindness in addition to being charming and attractive. There is also an undeniable mystery and allure to the girl. Wilder and Diamond provide the set up for the audience to be on the side of these two characters; Lemmon and MacLaine make us want to know them better. What will become of the moral quandary Bud has found himself in? Will we ever know more about this cute, elusive and charming girl who runs the elevator? Luckily, the answer to both questions is yes.

The big twist in the plot occurs when Bud is summoned to the office of the Director of Personnel, Jeff D. Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray, playing a version of his Walter Neff had he survived Double Indemnity and rose up through the ranks from insurance salesman). Bud figures that Sheldrake has discovered that he is letting his superiors use his apartment for their infidelities, and that Sheldrake will fire him on grounds of moral turpitude. Instead, Bud is surprised that Dobisch, Kirkeby and the others have finally recommended him for promotion. There is a catch though, because Sheldrake does know about the apartment—“I know everything that goes on in this building”, Sheldrake intones. It turns out that Sheldrake is just as adulterous as Dobisch, Kirkeby and the rest, and he seeks to gain membership into Bud’s “little club”. At first, Bud can hardly believe he isn’t being fired, but Sheldrake buys him off with a pair of tickets to The Music Man and the promotion. Bud’s rationale: “Four apples, five apples, what’s the difference, percentage-wise” (Wilder and Diamond create an extended gag in the film by tacking “-wise” onto the end of several words in the script; it is even seen in the tagline in the film’s poster).

Bud is so excited with his promotion and now that he has a pair of tickets to the hot Broadway show, he works up the courage to as Fran out on a date. She declines at first, citing a previous commitment to meet another man for a drink, but Fran is unsure of her current relationship, calling it “more or less kaput.” She dismisses dinner with Bud, but agrees to meet him at 8:30 in the lobby of the theater for the start of the show. What Bud does not suspect is that the man Fran is meeting is Sheldrake, and they have had an on-again, off-again affair.

The night of The Music Man Fran and Sheldrake have a conversation in a Chinese restaurant, in the booth nearest to the back, that reveals how Fran is torn about their relationship (in a nice touch, the piano man in the restaurant plays “Jealous Lover” upon Fran’s entrance). It is the first date between Fran and Sheldrake in six weeks. Sheldrake tells her, “It's been hell...You don't know what it's like, standing next to you in that elevator, day after day. Good morning, Miss Kubelik. Good night, Mr. Sheldrake. I'm so crazy about you, Fran...I never said goodbye, Fran.” Wise to Sheldrake’s pleas, Fran retorts, “For a while there, you try kidding yourself that you're going with an unmarried man. Then one day, he keeps looking at his watch, and asks you if there's any lipstick showing, then rushes out to catch the 7:14 to White Plains. So you fix yourself a cup of instant coffee—and you sit there by yourself, and you think—and it all begins to look so ugly…What do you want from me?” Sheldrake tells Fran that he wants her back. He tells her that he is getting a divorce from his wife. Still, Fran is unfazed. “They got it on a long-playing record now. Music to String Her Along By. My wife doesn't understand me. We haven't gotten along for years. You're the best thing that ever happened to me.” Finally, Sheldrake plays his trump card: he will promise to divorce his wife if Fran promises to tell him that she loves him. With resignation, Fran says, “You know I do.” This is a woman trapped between what her heart is telling her and what her conscience knows is right. All the while, Wilder cuts to Bud waiting in the theater lobby for Fran. He has been stood up. As Sheldrake and Fran leave the restaurant, he hails a cab to take the pair to Bud’s apartment.

Six more weeks pass, and Bud and Fran do not talk to one another until the Consolidated Life Christmas party (on Christmas Eve). His anger toward Fran for standing him up has subsided considerably, going so far as forgiving her. Bud tells Fran: “I mean, when you're having a drink with one man, you can't suddenly walk out on him because you're having another date with another man. You did the only decent thing.” Fran tells Bud that she is “no Girl Scout”. Bud will hear nothing of it, saying “as far as I'm concerned, you're tops, I mean, decency-wise, and otherwise-wise.” While Bud forgives Fran, secrets are also spilled under the influence of alcohol. Miss Olsen (Edie Adams), Sheldrake’s secretary, has seen Sheldrake parade his mistresses in front of her desk for the past four years; she was, in fact part of the parade at one time. A conversation is all it takes for Miss Olsen to dispel Fran’s fantasies.

Miss Olsen: Hi. How's the branch manager from Kansas City?
Fran: I beg your pardon?
Miss Olsen: I'm Miss Olsen, Mr. Sheldrake's secretary...You don't have to play innocent with me. He used to tell his wife I was the branch manager from Seattle, four years ago when we were having a little ring-a-ding-ding.
Fran: I'm sorry; I don't know what you're talking about.
Miss Olsen: And before me, there was Miss Rossi in Auditing, and after me there was Miss Koch in Disability, and right before you, there was Miss, uhm, oh What's-Her-Name, on the twenty-fifth floor...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.

Fran can no longer take it, and seeks out some comfort from Bud. He proudly shows her his new office, where there is a Christmas card from Sheldrake—pictured with his wife, sons, and dog—open on Bud’s desk. Fran begins to cry. When she goes to reapply her makeup, Bud notices Fran is using a compact—he recognizes a fleur-de-lis pattern—that he returned to Sheldrake after he used the apartment. He pieces together that Sheldrake and Fran have been having an affair. Both Bud and Fran leave the party disillusioned; Bud seeks comfort in booze at a dive bar, Fran leaves with Sheldrake to the apartment.

Back at the apartment, Sheldrake and Fran exchange gifts. She gives him a record. Sheldrake tells Fran that he cannot spend much time with her, that he has to be home because his in-laws are there, and that he is obligated to spend Christmas Eve with his family. Miss Olsen’s words prove prophetic—Sheldrake is the master salesman, and he has been stringing Fran along. He tells her, “When you've been married to a woman for twelve years, you just don't sit down at the breakfast table and say, 'Pass the sugar, I want a divorce.' It's not that easy. Anyway, this is the wrong time. The kids are home from school. My in-laws are visiting for the holidays. I can't bring it up now.” Fran knows now that there will never be a good time for Sheldrake to broach the subject of divorce with his wife. “You'd think I would have learned by now - when you're in love with a married man, you shouldn't wear mascara,” Fran says acknowledging the futility of her relationship. Sheldrake drives the stake Fran’s heart when he gives her his gift—a one hundred dollar bill. “You go and buy yourself something,” Sheldrake tells Fran, proving to her (and the audience) that she is no more than a prostitute in his eyes.

The theme of prostitution, or as is the case with Bud and Fran, of compromising one’s morals to attain a personal goal, runs deep in The Apartment. Bud has prostituted himself by turning his home into a hotel with rates by the hour. He isn’t a second administrative assistant; he is a scheduling manager for a brothel. Fran has it even worse. She has convinced herself that if she loves a married man enough, that he will return that love and marry her. Yet how much does it really weigh on her mind that if she receives a marriage proposal from Sheldrake, she will play a part destroying a family. Never mind that Sheldrake has made a farce of his wedding vows for years, Fran knows she is doing something morally compromising, and chooses to do it anyway. Simply because Sheldrake cheats on his wife does not mean that Fran should allow him to cheat on his wife with her. Bud—a single man with whom she shares a mutual attraction—could be a good man for her, but she deludes herself into thinking that Sheldrake will change. When Sheldrake gives her the $100, all he is doing is exposing Fran for what she has been in his eyes—a whore. What is worse is that Fran, until that moment (and this is true of Miss Olsen and the other women who the bosses cheat with) was lower than a whore. At least a prostitute is paid for her services.

The remainder of The Apartment seeks redemption for both Bud and Fran. In doing so, Wilder and Diamond’s script masterfully changes in tone—a move that would sink less assured screenwriters (and in Wilder’s case, director), but here is where the film truly becomes something memorable.

On the same Christmas Eve, bud returns to his apartment inebriated, with an equally lush date in tow. Upon entering his bedroom, he sees Fran passed out on his bed, having overdosed on a bottle of sleeping pills. At first, Bud is incensed at the sight of Miss Kubelik, but he soon realizes that Fran's health is critical. He dismisses his date (and really, what can the poor guy do to get laid in his own apartment?), and raps on the door of Dr. Dreyfuss. Dreyfuss already has a low opinion of Bud, and when the doctor spots a note lying next to the bed; he assumes that Bud has driven Fran to attempt suicide. Bud pleas with Dreyfuss to revive Fran, and he begrudgingly does so. The resuscitation is staged with such intensity that there is considerable doubt to Fran’s survival; the scene also helps jolt the film from being a lighthearted adultery comedy to a potentially tragic suicide drama.

Finally, Dreyfuss gives Bud a piece of his mind: “As your neighbor, I'd like to kick your keister clear around the block! I don't know what you did to that girl in there, and don't tell me, but it was bound to happen, the way you carry on. Live now, pay later. Diner's Club! Why don't you grow up, Baxter? Be a mensch! You know what that means? A mensch—a human being!” Dreyfuss has been incorrect in assuming Bud is a playboy, yet he rightly points out that Bud’s callous behavior reflects a lack of compassion for humanity. Bud may not have broken Fran’s heart, but he has created the environment for heartbreak. He is indirectly responsible for Fran’s suicide attempt.

Over the next few days, as Fran convalesces, a relationship slowly begins to develop between Bud and Fran. They spend Christmas together. They both speak of their failed romances. They play gin rummy. Fran tells of how she came to live in New York and become an elevator operator. Bud cooks spaghetti for her; the scene where Bud uses a tennis racket to strain the noodles is a great, pure example of a bachelor taking sublime pleasure in cooking a meal for the woman he loves for the first time, and Lemmon plays it perfectly. Bud tells her, “Me, I used to live like Robinson Crusoe, I mean shipwrecked among eight million people. Then, one day I saw a footprint in the sand, and there you were. It's a wonderful thing, dinner for two.” Bud is clearly in love with Fran; she though, remains cool, and says, “Why can't I ever fall in love with somebody nice like you?” Bud’s reply: “That’s the way it crumbles, cookie-wise.”

Meanwhile, back at Consolidated, change is afoot. Winning the Boss-of-the-Year Award, Sheldrake fires Miss Olsen for revealing his adulterous history to Fran. She serves him up with a sharp reply—“You let me go four years ago, Jeff. Only you were cruel enough to make me sit out there and watch the new models pass by."—and as a parting gift, she tells Mrs. Sheldrake about her husband’s infidelities. As a result, Mrs. Sheldrake begins divorce proceedings, and Sheldrake is kicked out of his home, living out of his suitcases at the men-only Athletic Club. Sheldrake—who was too cowardly to ask for the divorce himself—couldn’t be happier, and with the barrier of family no longer in place, he intends to rekindle his relationship with Fran. As a result, Bud is again rewarded with a promotion and the most symbolic gift of all—a key to the executive washroom.

Still, this isn’t a no-strings-attached promotion, and Sheldrake expects to continue to be allowed use of the apartment. Upon hearing this, Bud finally understands what it means to be a mensch. Sheldrake is shocked, telling Bud, “It takes years to work your way up to the 27th floor, but it only takes 30 seconds to be out on the street again.” Bud is no longer threatened. He passes the key to the executive washroom back to Sheldrake (who initially mistakes it for the key to the apartment), saying “I won’t be needing it, because I’m all washed up around here.”

On New Year’s Eve, a furious Sheldrake carries his anger over into a meeting with Fran in the Chinese restaurant. Sheldrake bitterly complains, "Just walked out on me, quit, threw that big fat job right in my face...that little punk, after all I did for him. Said I couldn't bring anybody to the apartment, especially not Miss Kubelik." Finally, this allows Fran to see that Bud is the right man for her. She tells Sheldrake, “I guess that’s the way it crumbles, cookie-wise.” She leaves a dumbfounded Sheldrake alone as revelers in the restaurant sing Auld Lang Syne.

The final scene is handled with remarkable restraint and perhaps a sly bit of skepticism. Fran, jubilant, runs down the street to Bud’s apartment. She finds him there alone with a bottle of champagne. Bud can hardly believe Fran is at his door. They resolve to move on to "another neighborhood, another town, another job." Regardless of where they end up, they know they will be together. Those who were once alone have found another person to share a meal with. They play another hand of gin rummy, and Bud finally tells Fran, “I love you, Miss Kubelik.” She remains reticent, almost stone faced, and continues to play the game. Bud tells her, “Did you hear what I said, Miss Kubelik? I absolutely adore you.” Her response is a fantastic one liner that closes the film: “Shut up and deal.”

What makes the ending perfect is that Wilder doesn’t immediately give the audience the saccharine conclusion they expect. Bud doesn’t kiss Fran in a moment of passion—in fact, our lovers are never seen kissing in the film—he only tells her he loves her, and she appears to be ignoring him. What Wilder knows is that the corny ending, the saccharine embrace, the give-over to romance is not in character for Bud and Fran. These are two weary souls, recovering from loneliness. Bud has told Fran he loves her; we know Fran loves him, when she surprises him on New Year’s Fran gives Bud all the acknowledgement of love he will ever need. The rummy game is a metaphor, for these two people have literally laid out all of their cards on the table to each other. All that remains is to shut up, and deal with it.

The Apartment signals a trend in film where romance is rejected in favor of realism. Bud and Fran don’t have a “meet cute” scene. They never go on a date. Neither of them makes a grand gesture of love to win the other over; their consciences come to the conclusion that they should be together. What they do understand is that each has made the other a whole human being. They no longer have to be lonely among eight million. The remainder of their lives is what they will have to deal with.

The 1960’s film that most embraces the notion of rejecting romanticism in favor of idealism is The Graduate. Ben whisks Elaine away—on her wedding day—in spectacular fashion. But when the young lovers board that bus together, Dustin Hoffman and Katherine Ross give the audience some two of the most quizzical and unsettled looks ever seen on film, and the audience isn’t left with happily ever after, instead, the characters seem to be saying, “Did I just really do that?” Wilder doesn’t end The Apartment on anywhere near of ambiguous of a notion, but neither does he give us the happily ever after we expect. He lets Fran do the speaking for him: “Shut up and deal.” He is saying that relationships are not always filled with fun and romance; they’re not an evening frolic in a bachelor’s apartment. In The Apartment, a true relationship is the one where two people grow into being better human beings. Wilder lets us know not to expect happily ever after, and in fact, we may be better off rejecting that notion.

“Shut up and deal” is an excellent way to view the Best Picture winners of the 1960’s. The Oscar winning films of the decade are monstrous and eternally popular and smaller, intimate and character driven. The best films are the ones that deal with the issues the characters—and by extension American society—face. The Apartment is one for the time capsule.


The Apartment (1960)

Director: Billy Wilder

Starring: Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine, Fred MacMurray, Jack Kruschen, Ray Walston, Edie Adams, David Lewis, Naomi Stevens

Studio: United Artists

Total Oscars: 5 (Best Picture—Billy Wilder, Best Director—Wilder, Best Original Screenplay—Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond*, Best Art Direction (called Art Direction-Set Decoration, Black & White at the time), Best Editing) out of 10 nominations (Best Actor—Jack Lemmon, Best Actress—Shirley MacLaine, Best Supporting Actor—Jack Kruschen, Best Cinematography (B&W), Best Sound)

*The acceptance speech given by Wilder and Diamond for winning Best Screenplay proves the axiom; brevity is the soul of wit. Diamond said, “Thank you Billy Wilder.” Wilder said, “Thank you I.A.L. Diamond.”

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1 comment:

  1. Nicely done -- this is an exceptionally well-crafted review. You hit all of the crucial points, and made me see at least one joke I'd never noticed before. When Kubelik says her line in the elevator about not knowing what happens to men in them, she says this as the elevator is going up (not down), and she's not talking about blood rushing to their heads, she's talking about it rushing to something (else).