Billy Wilder is often cited as the one the greatest directors to have ever worked in Hollywood, having made such classics as Sunset Boulevard (1950) and Some Like it Hot (1959).
But the pinnacle of Wilder’s career, in my opinion, is his 1960 romantic comedy-drama The Apartment, a film which won him an Academy Award for best director, best picture and earned nominations for its stars, Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine.
Lemmon plays C.C. Baxter, a low-level employee at an insurance company who lets higher-ups use his apartment for their extramarital affairs in exchange for career advancement. MacLaine plays Fran Kubelik, the elevator operator who Baxter crushes on without realising she is the mistress of his boss, Mr. Sheldrake (played by Fred MacMurray, who has played the romantic lead in Wilder’s classic noir Double Indemnity fifteen years earlier).
Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond’s screenplay, at turns funny and poignant, offers sharp commentary on opportunism and corporate culture. But it would not have been nearly as effective without the incredibly appealing performances of Lemmon and MacLaine.
It’s been said that MacLaine’s greatest talent as an actress is her ability to smile through tears. She specialises in playing characters who are broken and hurting but who mask their pain under a facade of easy-goingness, characters whose perky personalities allow them to be mistreated by men who often fail to recognise their humanity.
MacLaine has played such roles in Some Came Running (1958), Two for the Seesaw (1962) and Irma La Douce (1963), which reteamed her with Lemmon and Wilder. But The Apartment is the best of all these films because it is practically a dissection of the trope.
Fran’s suicide attempt is not the climax of the film, it’s the midpoint. The entire second half is devoted to not just Baxter’s realisation of the human cost of his behavior by witnessing what it does to Fran, but also Fran’s realisation of what she has done to herself.
She comes to recognise her own humanity. Instead of just being a catalyst for the male protagonist’s growth, she is allowed to grow beyond her limiting archetype.
As a filmmaker, Wilder is at his best when he exposes the vulnerability that lies beneath the veneer of cynicism. In Lemmon and MacLaine’s wayward office workers, he finds his perfect vehicle.
Source of Image: BFI