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While it may be hard to imagine now, The Apartment (1960) actually shocked some moviegoers upon its initial release. The problem wasn't the central premise - an ambitious office worker performs dubious favors in exchange for career advancement - but the actual treatment of it. In the hands of writer-director Billy Wilder and his collaborator, scenarist I. A. L. Diamond, The Apartment became a razor-sharp farce that equated corporate success with immorality. Actually, filmmakers in communist Russia viewed it as an indictment against capitalism. The central character, "Bud" Baxter, is actually little more than a pimp for upper management while the girl of his dreams, elevator-operator Fran Kubelik, is a demoralized working girl whose solution to a failed love affair is to commit suicide. These are not the most wholesome characters in the world and we're talking about the hero and heroine! However, as played by Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine, Bud and Fran not only win the audience's sympathy but also charm them in the process. The most astonishing thing about The Apartment is how Billy Wilder manages to keep the tone light and playful while exposing the worst aspects of Manhattan corporate life, from the drunken office parties to the casual adultery committed by married employees. Despite these controversial elements, the film racked up ten Oscar nominations and won the Academy Award for Best Picture and Best Director of 1960.
The Apartment marked the first time Shirley MacLaine had worked with Billy Wilder and she quickly discovered that her habit of occasionally improvising or changing dialogue was not welcome. For example, she delivered a wonderful take of a scene set in the company elevator but it had to be re-shot when Wilder discovered she had omitted one word of dialogue. Still, Wilder was sufficiently impressed with her acting to cast her in the lead role of Irma la Douce in 1963. The Apartment also won MacLaine her second Oscar nomination as Best Actress (the first time was for Some Came Running, 1958) and she found herself competing against Deborah Kerr, Greer Garson, Melina Mercouri, and Elizabeth Taylor in the 1960 Academy Award race. (She lost to Taylor for Butterfield 8).
Unlike MacLaine, Lemmon was already used to the way Wilder operated, having recently completed Some Like It Hot (1959) for him. In fact, Wilder developed such trust and respect for Lemmon's instinctual gifts as an actor that he gave him the freedom to improvise certain bits like the bachelor spaghetti dinner scene where Lemmon strains the pasta through a tennis racket or some physical comedy routines involving a nasal spray. Lemmon later commented, "Working with Billy I began to understand 'hooks' - those little bits of business that an audience will remember, sometimes long after they've forgotten everything else about the picture. The key was a 'hook.' For ten years after that film, people would still come up to me on the street and say, "Hey, Jack, can I have the key?"
Paul Douglas was originally cast in the role of J. D. Sheldrake, the heel who dumps MacLaine rather than end his loveless marriage. Unfortunately, Douglas died two weeks prior to production on The Apartment and Wilder coaxed Fred MacMurray to take the role. Not only was MacMurray completely convincing as the despicable company boss, his performance was so realistic it inspired an avalanche of hate mail from female moviegoers who begged him to play sympathetic roles in the future. He did just that, signing on as the amiable father figure in the popular TV-sitcom My Three Sons (1960-1972) and scoring leads in Walt Disney flicks like The Absent-Minded Professor (1961).
Director: Billy Wilder
Producer: I.A.L. Diamond, Doane Harrison, Billy Wilder
Screenplay: I.A.L. Diamond, Billy Wilder
Cinematography: Joseph LaShelle
Editor: Daniel Mandell
Art Direction: Alexandre Trauner
Music: Adolph Deutsch
Cast: Jack Lemmon (C.C. Baxter), Shirley MacLaine (Fran Kubelik), Fred MacMurray (Jeff D. Sheldrake), Ray Walston (Joe Dobisch), Jack Kruschen (Doctor Dreyfuss).
BW-126m. Letterboxed. Close captioning.
by Jeff Stafford