The Apartment

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It’s been hard to collect my thoughts about Billy Wilder’s The Apartment. Lately, I’ve been drawn to movies that seem like real life. People are complicated, and though it’s fun from time to time to watch sci-fi or action adventures, real life isn’t usually about “adventures.” It’s about dealing with mundane, but important, things. I was listening to Looking Sideways yesterday, and I really couldn’t get into Pascal Anson’s project, Ordinary Made Extraordinary. The ordinary is fine just the way it is, as far as I’m concerned.

There is a certain sense of comfort in driving a car that looks like every other car, rather than a contact paper “masterpiece.” It may be a clever joke to cover one in contact paper, but having grown up in a bit of a “ghetto” where people often customized their cars with stickers that peel and fade, in an effort to give them personality, this art project seems forced and faux—faux rebellion, rather than introspective evaluation of our day to day habits and routines. It’s those routines, and deviations from them, that make The Apartment such a magical film.

Some of the most meaningful commentary on the magic I’ve found is from writer and comedian  Hallie Cantor. She begins by discussing the writing of Christmas episodes for TV, and the quality found in the film:

It’s hard to put into abstract descriptive terms this very specific way in which The Apartment, the last day of classes, and Christmas episodes make me feel happy. It’s something to do with the sense of being stuck in a group with people you wouldn’t necessarily choose, but feeling a part of something anyway. Something to do with a good, cheerful kind of sadness, the sense of romance and coziness and hopefulness this movie lends to mundane crappy nights spent eating frozen pizza and watching TV alone. A satisfaction that even if your heart has been broken and you’re walking home in the dark from the library and it’s a ridiculously early hour for it to be dark out, it’s all going to be okay because good things will happen and for now you can just enjoy being romantically sad in the snow and twinkly lights.

I hadn’t really thought that much about the “film within the film” where Jack Lemmon sits alone in the apartment, eating chicken and attempting to watch TV while being constantly interrupted by commercials. It’s details like that which hold the brilliance of Billy Wilder’s satire. Yes, it’s sad—but it’s also okay. The same could be said for those tired moments at the desk at the office, brought on not by overwork but because he had surrendered his apartment to his superiors at work—it’s sad, yes— but it’s also okay if he gets what he wants out of the arrangement: a promotion.

The moment when it becomes “not okay” is when Jack Lemmon becomes a mensch. And he becomes a mensch when Fran Kubelik is no longer an elevator operator in her uniform, but a real person. The setting matters, and not simply the office set that I described previously, but the “home” space, the apartment at the center of the film. Hallie Cantor puts it precisely:

There’s a location in the film that’s even more impersonal than the office with its rows of desks and crowds streaming into elevators: the apartment itself. It may look homier than the office, but no one is special to anyone there. Lovers are interchangeable (“Before me there was Miss Rossi in Auditing, and after me there was Miss Koch in Disability, and right before you there was Miss, um, oh, What’s-Her-Name on the twenty-fifth floor”). You have an affair with someone and then you send them a fruitcake every Christmas.

The fantasy of this movie, and of thousands of romantic comedies that are less romantic and less funny, is that you will be special to someone. You will be singular and adorable and the only one out of 31,259 people that somebody wants to love.

Everyone in this film is being traded or sold in one way or another, frequently to mutual advantage. The settings, and the people, are brought to life by the use of tiny details. Fran Kubelik is an elevator operator because she failed the typing test—she couldn’t spell. I immediately empathised with this myself. I’ve always had a love of literature, but my mechanical writing skills came to me late in life, in my late 30s as a matter of fact. I was hopelessly inept. This detail, and other little details make the film memorable.

A non-standard feature of the apartment kitchen was the tennis racket. Just as contact paper would make a crappy surface for a car, a tennis racket isn’t a very good colander:

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The apartment kitchen is interesting on a couple of levels. Like a typical apartment or Frankfurt kitchen, it doesn’t really hold two people. It’s a solitary space, echoing a solitary lifestyle. Fran can really only stick her head in, while Mr. Baxter is working. And he works with abandon, with joy, in putting together their meal. The choice of the tennis racket is idiosyncratic, but it doesn’t come across as a “forced” rebellion in the same sense as strangely decorated commonplace objects—it’s a pragmatic choice to reuse a piece of sports equipment. The plot doesn’t suggest that Mr. Baxter has many opportunities for tennis, so why not put the racket to use?

Returning to Ms. Kubelik, it’s worth noting that she isn’t simply a drone at the mercy of those with power over her, it’s not so much a case of succumbing to the power of Mr. Sheldrake (as is the case, with C.C. Baxter) but believing in the fantasy that he will leave his wife. Billy Wilder accentuates this with the curious detail of a paper crown:

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This is the scene when Fran decides to keep her date with Mr. Baxter, when she decides to give up on her fantasy. She removes the crown. As she leaves the restaurant, she is spotted by Mr. Sheldrake’s secretary, reinforcing the idea that the danger of public spaces is surveillance. This disclosure, confirmation of their intimacy, is significant. From this moment on, the illusions are shattered.   Shirley MacLaine recalls that this was the most difficult scene for her to get right, to meet Billy Wilder’s expectations.

“My line was, ‘So you sit there and you make yourself a cup of instant coffee while he rushes out to catch the train.’ I, being half-Canadian, would say ‘oat’ [instead of ‘out’] all my life, and I was self-conscious about that.” 

Trying to work around the offending “out,” MacLaine substituted “off” into the line and hoped that no one would notice her minor change. But there was no fooling Wilder, who insisted that she speak the dialogue exactly as written.

Whenever the director heard “off” where an “out” should be, “He would send the script girl down to basically beat the shit out of us.”

The young actress felt overwhelmed. “At the same time as Billy insisted on the intricacies of every word, in that particular scene I had to well up,” she recalled. “I couldn’t do it. It was hard.” 

Wilder expected better—and expressed his disappointment in MacLaine’s performance during the scene in no uncertain terms: “We went to the dailies the next day. And Billy stood up in front of everybody in the room and said, ‘Well, I tried.’”

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That’s the terse Austrian temper that I’ve grown used to in Adolf Loos. The critique offered isn’t candy-coated, it’s served up like a sharp shot of battery acid. MacLaine, as she tells the story, withstood the pressure:

“Now, let me tell you, this was wonderful for me,” she said, like a true pro. “When you hear someone be that sarcastic and that talented, you learn to take criticism, because his criticism was right.” 

The time came to reshoot the scene, but Wilder hadn’t suppressed his frustration yet. “We went back. Fred and I sat in the chairs. Billy said, ‘Action.’ And he left! He walked outside.”

Without the director, MacLaine mustered her courage and gave the scene her all. She overcame her pesky linguistic hang-up and delivered as heartbreaking a line read as I’ve ever heard, the kind that gives you chills just thinking about it. 

And that’s the take they used… shot while Wilder presumably fulminated elsewhere.

“That’s the scene in the movie!” MacLaine proudly informed the audience. “And I’m here to tell you, that’s because I was brave.”

That scene grounds the later disclosure, at the Christmas party, that Mr. Sheldrake’s secretary is aware of what has gone on; she puts Fran in her place by the litany of others who had also succumbed to his fantasy. The mechanism driving the plot is systematically furthered, but with healthy touches of humanity—and the ultimate in human frailty, the suicide attempt.

Elsewhere in the interview, MacLaine remarks on the scientific precision that Wilder brought to the pacing of these scenes, while at the same time it’s clear that he kept his approach to the film “loose” in the sense of incorporating ideas from the actors, and details from their real lives. The gin game, for example:

“I was hanging out with the Rat Pack a lot and a couple of gangsters were teaching me how to play gin rummy, teaching me how to cheat,” she remembered.

“When he would ask on the Monday mornings, ‘Well, what was it like for the weekend?’ I would tell Billy what I’d learned, and that’s why he put the gin game in the movie, because he was fascinated by who my compatriots were over the weekend.” 

The power of observation Billy Wilder brought to bear on human frailty is astounding, and the proof is in the details— even the smallest of details, like hats.

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