Content note: Suicide
The Apartment is an intimidating project. Writingwise.
It’s the Hollywood movie as Great American Novel, a penetrating statement about America circa 1960, or even life itself, that shows up most message movies for the shallow bullshit they are. And these achievements in Billy Wilder’s film go underappreciated because it’s so good at other things. Namely, being great fucking entertainment. Wilder believed great filmmaking never drew attention to itself — every stylistic choice was for a specific effect, and that effect was always subordinated to story and character. Most critics disagree, leaving him perpetually stranded in the middle tier of great directors instead of his rightful place somewhere near the top.
Speaking of underappreciation, The Apartment may have won Wilder his second Best Picture Oscar, but plenty of other tastemakers didn’t know what to make of it. They said it was inconsistent. Tonewise.
And they were right. In fact, that’s the whole point. This is what I meant by life itself. Life isn’t just comic, and it’s not just tragic. It’s all of the above, and it can be any of the above, and you never know what you’ll get as each moment goes by.
Tonal consistency is a relatively new idea anyway. Shakespeare’s tragedies were full of bawdy comedy, and his best comedies were built on the threat of tragedy. Look up and down the rest of the literary canon and it’s full of the same inconsistencies — grim moral lectures on the torments of hell interrupted by demonic fart jokes, polemics on the injustices society inflicts on characters with names like Pecksniff and Gamp, exhaustive catalogues of contemporary life in the shape of wacky stories people tell to distract themselves from a deadly plague.
Wilder, who spent his career bouncing between dark, cynical noir and melodrama and light, cynical comedies, knew this better than anyone. His story — of Jack Lemmon as office drone C.C. Baxter, who tries to rise up the corporate ladder by letting out his apartment to the higher-ups for their extramarital affairs, including one that sets up a love triangle between him, the gloriously despicable Fred MacMurray as Sheldrake, and Shirley MacLaine as Fran Kubelik — brings the two halves of his career together.
The studio wanted Groucho Marx to play Baxter’s neighbor Dr. Dreyfuss, but Wilder knew better. What starts out as an alter kocker comic relief character evolves into the vehicle for some of the movie’s most searing drama. I can’t be sure Marx doesn’t have the range, but it’d be hard to pull it off when you’re sitting there watching him and remembering “Hey — that’s Groucho fucking Marx!” every couple minutes.
It’s a comedy in the truest sense, a story where everything seems to be going wrong until it finally, joyfully, goes right. That and in the sense of being really fucking funny.
One of its most hysterical moments is in the middle of its central tragedy, and it’s funny not in spite of that whiplash but because of it. Baxter, dejected after learning about Kubelik and Sheldrake’s relationship. gets sloppy drunk and brings another woman home to his apartment. Then he finds Ms. Kubelik passed out in his bed from a suicide attempt. “I broke a nail trying to get the ice-tray out. You ought to buy yourself a new refrigerator,” the other woman says as Baxter races out to find a doctor. “Well, not right now!”
Wilder was the great observer of the midcentury, crushing dehumanizationwise. Looking at Wilder’s bleak vision of America at the onset of the ‘60s, it’s no wonder people spent the rest of the decade trying to burn it all down.
The title says it all — with the exodus from spacious rural to cramped urban areas, a man’s home is no longer his castle, but a little cell squeezed together with a hundred other cells. And Baxter doesn’t even get that, since he keeps getting thrown out of his nominal home so his bosses can have their “ring a ding dings.”
The Apartment is a pretty realistic film — sometimes shockingly so — but Wilder knows how you sometimes have to exaggerate beyond literal reality to get at the real truth of it. You can’t talk about The Apartment without talking about that great office set, the first thing we see after stock footage of the New York City skyline, cold, blinding lights and crammed-together desks stretching off into infinity.
You wouldn’t think of The Apartment as an effects movie, but that’s just what this scene is. Wilder used near-invisible forced-perspective tricks to make this nightmare possible, filling the back with tiny desks manned by children and marionettes.
Speaking of, either word could describe Baxter. Pre-character-developmentwise. The producers were concerned audiences would find him unlikable, but he’s never evil, just weak. He’s ambitious, yes, but in an oddly passive way. He never volunteers his apartment to any of his bosses, and every once in a while he tries impotently to toss them out. But they’re all stronger than him, at least until Baxter gets to lean on their boss.
He only inches toward evil as he gets closer to other, more evil men. He picks up their habits. Speech-patternwise. He even quotes directly from one of Sheldrake’s most despicable moments: “You see a girl a couple of times a week — just for laughs — and right away she thinks you’re going to divorce your wife. I ask you — is that fair?” Remember that — we’ll be returning to Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond’s script. Callbackwise.
The current generation of film fans probably knows Lemmon best from his late-career role as Shelly Levene in Glengarry Glenn Ross and its parody on The Simpsons as Ole Gill. It’s a fitting bookend to Lemmon’s career. Levene’s a picture of Baxter’s future, where he’d have ended up without Kubelik, still sweating to climb a ladder that leads nowhere.
One of the most disturbing aspects of The Apartment is how much we’ve all become Baxter. In 1960, a man sitting alone on his dirty couch in a dirty apartment, munching on a prefab dinner in front of a TV that never seems to show him anything was social commentary. Now, it’s just everyday life. And how many of us in today’s constantly depreciating job market would endure even worse indignities than Baxter does for the security of a job even more miserable than his?
If The Apartment is a classical tragedy, Baxter is the tragic hero we learned about in English class, doomed by a fatal flaw that in other contexts would be a virtue. He’s unwaveringly loyal, but to a man who never begins to deserve it. When Kubelik tries to kill herself, Baxter goes to great lengths to take the fall for Sheldrake, enduring verbal abuse from Dr. Dreyfuss and physical abuse from Fran’s brother. As for Sheldrake, he can’t be bothered to see her or even talk to her, except to lecture her on how the despair he drove her to affects him.
As Kubelik, Shirley MacLaine is the real heart of the film. If The Apartment belongs in the top ten films of all time (and it does), MacLaine belongs in that same tier of performances. And standing out above Lemmon and MacMurray’s no mean feat.
It’s an old joke that people tend to confuse “best acting” and “most acting,” and one “Art of Acting” montage that recently circulated social media was just 60 seconds of white dudes yelling. MacLaine knows better. She conveys the unendurable depths of Kubelik’s pain in bitter, seemingly emotionless sarcasm and a hoarse whisper. She has that odd little smile that makes it impossible not to see why Baxter falls for her. A masterclass. Performancewise.
My dad didn’t have much interest in this movie when I mentioned it to him, describing it as sexist. At the time, I thought he might have been confusing “sexist” and “sexual,” laying a veneer of social responsibility over his distaste for The Apartment’s unprecedented frankness. Watching again, I see he may have had a point. There’s no better way to describe the interchangeable, caricatured floozies who parade in and out of Baxter’s apartment. But the script still finds the crushed humanity in Sheldrake’s previous castoff, Miss Olsen, and even in the sloppy drunk Margie, grieving for her imprisoned husband.
And then there’s Kubelik at the center. Here is, as near as I can tell (and as with any man writing about women, you need to take that with a grain of salt) one of the most vividly realized women in cinema, certainly at the time. It’s hard to know how much to credit that to MacLaine and how much Wilder and Diamond contributed. Scriptwise.
But either way, what a script! Maybe Wilder went light on the visual pyrotechnics because he saved all his spectacle for the scripting stage. Let’s call back to our earlier discussion on callbacks. It seems like almost everything that happens in The Apartment, no matter how insignificant, comes back later. Wilder said important plot points should never be recognizable as such. He plants enough guns on enough mantels to make Chekhov proud so that he can fire them later to explode in emotional fireworks. The sleeping pills Baxter takes to get through the cold he contracted after being locked out. Sheldrake’s broken mirror. The key to the executive washroom. A literal gun in a blood-freezing moment in the last reel.
Many viewers are suspicious of this kind of polished perfection. After all, when does life line up so neatly? But Wilder and Diamond are doing more than showing off. Lines change their meaning as they recur, rewarding the attentive viewer with “aha!” moments just like the one where Baxter discovers Kubelik and Sheldrake’s affair in the broken mirror.
Olsen euphemistically describes Sheldrake’s string of affairs as “ring a ding dings,” adding an extra layer of bitterness to Kubelik’s joyless delivery over an hour later of, “Ring in the new year, ring out the old, ring a ding ding.” A line as simple and silly as “That’s the way it crumbles, cookiewise,” becomes an emotional climax.
The running gag of Dreyfuss exasperatedly yelling, “Mildred! He’s at it again!” every time some corner-office lothario gets thumping in Baxter’s apartment (thinking it’s Baxter himself) turns deadly serious when he lectures Baxter on the cost of his supposed lifestyle. For the wrong reason, he gives Baxter the right advice. Baxter is a nebbish. He needs to become a mensch. “Do you know what that means? A human being!” You have to appreciate the audacity of a Jewish refugee from the Holocaust giving his film’s thesis statement in his mother tongue. And of course, this moment gets its own callback in the climactic key-switching scene.
Most importantly of all, all this callbacking is enough to make you believe in Baxter and Kubelik’s blossoming romance. It’s not just tight scripting. It’s like the running jokes you develop with the people you’re closest to. Intimacywise.
Moralistic critics denounced The Apartment in 1960, but sixty years later, it seems almost conservative. Sexualitywise. All the “fun” Baxter’s bosses have in his room looks like anything but. In this capitalist nightmare, even sex is strictly transactional, and Wilder makes that symbolism explicit in scenes like Baxter frantically coordinating “conferences” over the intercom. Dreyfuss’s lecture could almost serve as a denunciation of the sexual revolution and general hedonism that was just around the corner, historywise: “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!”
However you interpret the Wilder-Diamond vision, it still has room for love as a redeeming force. That scene of Kubelik running down the street to catch up with Baxter is the kind of pure catharsis hundreds of airport-dash movies have tried and failed to recapture. And of course, there’s that final line. Wilder and Diamond knew expectations for high for a capper after Some Like It Hot and “Nobody’s perfect.” They rose to the occasion, and nearly as many people remember The Apartment’s final exchange:
“Did you hear what I said, Miss Kubelik? I absolutely adore you.”
“Shut up and deal.”
When I first saw it, out of context, it seemed cruel. Seeing it in context, I knew better. Kubelik doesn’t say, “I love you too” in words. But in MacLaine’s delivery, “Shut up and deal,” means the same thing.
It’s the only way the movie could have ended. Perfect, like everything else in it. Catharsiswise.