“That’s the way it crumbles…cookie-wise.” – Jack Lemmon as C.C. Baxter in The Apartment
The Film and Performance:
When The Apartment was first released into theaters, it effectively held up a mirror to its audience and many didn’t like the reflection they saw. While the film was a comedy, it was more of an indictment of marriage, monogamy, and integrity. The film exposed the blatant sexism occurring in the workplace and the psychological effects it has on an individual. Even more glaring was the portrayal of success, which was shown as being achieved through backdoor deals and doing immoral favors for others. Given the era, there was much truth to this portrayal of society. The Apartment forced its audience to acknowledge the prevalent societal issues that had been long ignored. A large part of the problem was blissful ignorance where women didn’t want to confront their philandering husbands partially because they were prescribed gender roles that confined them. As a result, men behaved in a manner because they felt they could get away with it. They acted invincible because they had crafted the very system they were manipulating. The Apartment finally confronted these persons and gave women the voice they needed.
The film stars Jack Lemmon as C.C. Baxter, who works at an insurance corporation and strives to climb the corporate ladder. In an effort to become an executive and working to the good graces of his bosses, Baxter lends his apartment to them for the purposes of extramarital sex. These bosses frequent Baxter’s apartment with their flings, using the apartment as a safe haven to have fun without being discovered by their wives. Eventually the head of the corporation, Jeff Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray), learns of this apartment arrangement and decides to utilize it himself for his most recent affair. That female is an elevator operator named Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine), who Baxter has been coincidentally attracted to. Miss Kubelik is a fragile individual and continually feels diminish by Sheldrake who always has an excuse as to why he won’t leave his wife for her. Feeling emotionally lost one evening, Miss Kubelik attempts suicide when left alone in the apartment. Upon finding Miss Kubelik, this awakens Baxter to the reality of his situation and he proceeds to change both his and Miss Kubelik’s lives for the better.
What is especially brilliant about the film’s narrative falls in that Baxter is a spectator to the immorality that surrounds him. He looks the other way in the hopes that it will translate into a promotion. Yet even though he is getting exactly what he is striving for, he is at the precipice of losing himself. He is sacrificing who he is for the sake of immersing himself amongst a group of individuals whose morals are close to nonexistent. That is what Jack Lemmon’s performance hinged on: doing what is right opposed to what is easy.
Lemmon had to craft the character as sympathetic, which he does with his typical charisma and comedic style. There is a certain boyish charm to Baxter, whose intentions may be self-serving, but he is actually being used by the very people he is trying to manipulate. Lemmon frames the film as him trying to work the system woefully unaware of who it might hurt. Once he learns of the reality of his situation, his performance shifts to one of moral determination. In many regards, the evolution of his character, as portrayed through Lemmon’s acting, directly speaks to film audiences that the only way to change something that is blatantly wrong is to not ignore it and to openly confront it. That is why Baxter is a character audiences come to love, because he takes a stand against something he knows to be wrong.
More central to the film is Shirley MacLaine whose performance as Fran Kubelik was a definitive eye-opener to audiences. The character was a mirroring of real-life where women were continually used and lied to the benefit of the person who claimed to love them. For Fran, she defies the female cliché of the films during this era by being a strong woman who knows exactly what she wants. Her decisions are her own and she doesn’t allow others to influence her. Ultimately all she wants is be loved and she clearly realizes the difference between love and being a momentary object. This is what fuels her depression, knowing that she is nothing more than a physical commodity to Sheldrake. She genuinely loves Sheldrake and clings to the hope that he will actually follow through with his repeated promises of leaving his wife for her. This type of person was not outside the realm of reality.
MacLaine’s performance made men uncomfortable for revealing the psychological torments they inflicted on women. The performance also was a plea to women to no longer give men such power over them and to trust one’s intuitions. For Fran, she recognizes that Sheldrake is a liar but she doesn’t want to fully accept it. She resents him since she sees him for exactly for who he is but wants to believe that he could change. This is because MacLaine’s performance is anchored in love, wanting to be loved. As evidenced by this film, love extends beyond the physical and it is about respecting your partner, seeing them as your equal, and standing up for you. That is what makes the evolving relationship between Fran and Baxter so beautiful to observe throughout the course of this film. As the film progresses Fran’s perception of love shifts as she realizes what true love is, which makes The Apartment a truly wonderful film experience.
The Apartment is very frank in its dialogue and its actions, which was absolutely necessary for a film like this to succeed. Writer/director Billy Wilder, who was known for his boundary-pushing films such as Some Like it Hot or Sunset Blvd, doesn’t shy away from the repugnant personalities occupied by those who use Baxter’s apartment. How the film veers away from being unbearably real is in its wit and its comedy, which merged perfectly with the dramatic sequences of this film. Jack Lemmon’s character may function a certain way, but he still provides the necessary laughs to keep the film even in its tone. Much of that credit goes to the incredible script that never allows the film to be entirely dramatic. Due to the witty dialogue, the film veers into satire territory, mocking the philandering lifestyle. Along with the script was Billy Wilder’s precise direction of this film that is both cynical but sentimental at the same time, which gave the film relevancy and also gave the film a bittersweet tonality opposed to being a laugh-out-loud film or a stunningly depressing movie. The Apartment was a film that needed delicate attention in order to be effective and Billy Wilder ensured that it would be made exactly that way.
The Apartment was a commercial success in 1960, receiving rave reviews from both audiences and critics. The film nominated for 10 Oscars, winning five, including one for Best Picture. Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine were both nominated for Oscars for their performances, but neither won. However, both Lemmon and MacLaine won Golden Globes for their outstanding acting work.