I have been watching all the movies that won the Oscar for Best Picture. Next on my list was the 1960 winner, The Apartment, directed by Billy Wilder (The Lost Weekend, The Seven Year Itch, Some Like It Hot, Sunset Blvd.) and starring Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine and Fred MacMurray.
Where the 1959 winner, Ben Hur, was a flashy epic, The Apartment is understated. It's even black and white (the last black and white film to win Best Picture until Schindler's List). It tells a simple story about a handful of people, taking place on a handful of sets. But that story, while small in scope, is large in impact.
Its competitors in the Best Picture category were The Alamo, Elmer Gantry, Sons and Lovers, and The Sundowners.
Jack Lemmon plays C.C. Baxter, a nebbishy office worker who has worked out a deal with some of his superiors, allowing them to use his apartment to meet with their mistresses. This is often a somewhat inconvenient arrangement, but it has gotten him in the good graces of the people who have control over his career.
The arrangement has been starting to get on Baxter's nerves, since he no longer has free access to his own place. Having once said yes to his superiors, he doesn't feel he can now tell them no. Things get more complicated when he pursues a romance of his own with the bright-spirited elevator girl, Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine).
Everything about The Apartment is compact, from the minimal number of characters to the fact that there are only two main sets (the office and Baxter's apartment) for much of the movie. This characterizations, plot and dialogue are outstanding, so that the viewer gets engaged in this sometimes funny, sometimes heartbreaking story.
Lemmon is perfectly cast as Baxter, who has a quirky charm. On one hand, he's a bit of a pushover, but on the other, he masks stronger emotions. He reconciles those aspects of himself by copious use of self-deprecating humor, and he's given to quirky speech patterns (such as adding "-wise" to the end of words). In certain scenes, as he forces a smile, you can almost hear his heart breaking. It's no surprise he works so well in the role, as Wilder and screenwriter I.A.L. Diamond had him in mind when writing the part.
As the perky elevator girl, MacLaine shows range: going from bubbly to melancholy and hitting several notes in between. It might be strange for modern viewers to watch the woman we all know for her strong, non-nonsense roles as a young ingenue, but that is, after all, how she got started.
MacLaine was given only 40 pages of the script initially, because Wilder didn't want her to know how the story would turn out. Of course, she thought that was because the script wasn't finished. While that's not true, it is true that some portions were added during the filming, such as the gin rummy game and some lines that came from Shirley MacLaine philosophizing about love during a lunch break.
Fred MacMurray plays against type as Baxter's philandering boss, a role which was just as jarring to contemporary audiences as it is to today's viewers. He plays it surprisingly well. You'll probably never watch My Three Sons again without wondering if Steve Douglas is also hiding a darker side.
This movie is often characterized as a comedy, but it's more aptly categorized as a dramedy, since it contains elements of each. The Apartment may seem like light fare when compared to such weighty epics as Ben Hur, but it addresses big issues, such as loyalty, ambition, self-respect, and of course, the nature of love and friendship.
Sensing the potential in the story, Neil Simon adapted the screenplay for the 1968 musical, Promises, Promises, which featured the hit song by Burt Bacharach and Hal David, "What Do You Get When You Fall in Love?"
Several sources, including Premiere and the American Film Institute, have ranked this movie among the best films of all time. Although it was made nearly 50 years ago, this film still feels just as current and relevant today. It may have more subdued production values than many Best Picture winners, but The Apartment is big in terms of emotion.
The right story and the right cast can go further than millions of dollars.