Saturday, March 22, 2008
"That's the way it crumbles...cookie-wise."
The Apartment | dir. Billy Wilder | 1960
Excellent romances are hard to come by these days. It is even more difficult to find a good romantic comedy. Good romantic comedies are a rarity these days because they are starting to become more conventional and less engaging. Even the ditsy charm of the genre from the 1990s is slowly fading away. Thank goodness for DVDs, though. I had the pleasure of watching Billy Wilder's immortal 1960 classic, The Apartment for the first time, and it was wonderful. The film is, undeniably, a perfect blend of romance, drama, and comedy and says a lot about human nature. The characters in the film are willing to go to great lengths to get what they want, even if it's not what they need or even deserve.
The Apartment stars two very likable actors--Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine. Their chemistry is quite sweet and lovely throughout, essential for a romantic comedy to work well. But the real centerpiece of the film is of course, Lemmon's character, C.C. Baxter, a determined (but lonely) man trying to climb the corporate ladder by renting out his cozy bachelor-esque New York apartment to some top executives and their mistresses each night in return for some praise--praise that may lead to paycheck raises and promotions.
Baxter's neighbors think he is a notorious loverboy who goes from one woman to another. But he only has one girl on his mind, and that is MacLaine's Fran Kubelik, the adorable elevator girl at work. Things get complicated when Baxter finds out that Ms. Kubelik is the mistress of Mr. Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray), the boss that Baxter is trying so hard to impress.
Baxter is a great character, perhaps one of my favorite characters in cinema. He is completely flawed and places himself in a vulnerable situation where he is continuously taken advantage of. But at the same time, he is courageous enough to be a true gentleman towards the girl he has fallen in love with. When Baxter realizes that Mr. Sheldrake is unwilling to take Ms. Kubelik seriously, he does not instantly take advantage of the situation (like others have done to him), but he tries to be the middleman who attempts to work things out. Baxter does not instantly make insane declarations of love and instead, he respects Ms. Kubelik's forbidden feelings for Mr. Sheldrake because that is simply part of who she is. Lemmon is terrific as Baxter and there is not a single false note throughout the film. Even when there is no dialogue, Lemmon's priceless facial expressions says it all.
I just watched Double Indemnity a few weeks ago and is surprised by MacMurray's range. What range, you may ask? He plays rotten characters in both Double Indemnity and The Apartment and it doesn't take much versatility to make a few modifications to psuedo-villainous roles who work at insurance companies. But what makes the contrast between MacMurray's performances in these films so special is that he is able to disappear into his character and completely change his persona. It's not easy for some actors to shed their past roles so the audience is not reminded of some other performance, but for MacMurray, it seems like it's a piece of cake.
Another performer of great versatility is Shirley MacLaine. I am more familiar with her post-sixties roles, so I was surprised by the vulnerable, wholesome naivety of her character in The Apartment. MacLaine's character, Ms. Kubelik is just pure emotional baggage in the film, but the audience likes her anyway because she understands herself enough to admit her own flaws. Mostly, we like her because we see all the charms, all the flaws, and all the sweetness that Baxter sees in her.
The more Billy Wilder movies I see, the more I admire his body of work. My favorites include Double Indemnity, Some Like It Hot, and now, The Apartment. There are some wonderful one-liners in The Apartment, the kind classic film geeks quote in certain situations. There is such comedic wit and quickness in The Apartment that just works so well due to Wilder's (and I.A.L. Diamond's) writing and direction. Wilder's is, first and foremost, a quintessential actor's director and this becomes transparent through his actors' outstanding and complex performances.
The Apartment is an example of a great romantic comedy, the kind that Hollywood doesn't make, or heck, doesn't want to make anymore. It's not like The Apartment is the kind of movie that emulates golden age innocence like another great romantic comedy, Roman Holiday, did. The film is simply a timeless piece of work and has aged very well, probably because it was so ahead of its time. What makes the film so funny and the obstacles believable is that the characters and their emotions are so authentic. This kind of feeling in film can be repeated in this day and age, and the current film industry machine just choose not to. The ending is one of the most perfect endings I've ever seen in my film-watching career. It has a marvelous mixture of last-minute suspense, humor, bittersweetness, and most importantly, hope, that makes The Apartment worthwhile.