- YEAR: 1960
- DIRECTOR: Billy Wilder
- KEY ACTORS: Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine
- CERTIFICATE: PG
- IMDB SCORE: 8.3
- ROTTEN TOMATOES SCORE: 93%
SEX SCORE: 4/5
✔️ This passes the Bechdel Test, although the site I use to check described its passing as ‘by accident!’
✔️ And it is definitely rewatchable. I’d even say that I’ve not watched it enough!
✔️ Just like Mad Men, it did inspire fantasies of being wined and dined in 1960s New York but they are probably not very healthy fantasies…
❌ But I didn’t want to fuck the cast. Although Lemmon is less sycophantic and more likeable by the end, he’s still not for me!
✔️ I thought a lot about the question of sex positivity and I’ve decided that it is sex positive. Even within the constraints of the Hays Code, the women are having consensually fun sex lives and any consequences are blamed on the toxic men rather than the sexually liberated women!
As always, this contains spoilers so watch the film before you read on…
STREAMING: Amazon Prime (buy for £7.99), YouTube (from £3.99). For a full list of streaming options, check out JustWatch.com
[Content warning: suicide, infidelity, work-based sexual harassment]
It’s CHRISTMAS!! Finally, finally we have reached the last month of the year and, while celebrations are understandably more muted than most years, it feels so wonderful to have an excuse to celebrate at all considering the trash fire that 2020 has been. But perhaps correctly for this difficult year, the first Christmas film that I’ve chosen isn’t entirely a joyful and care-free romp. There’s something incredibly poignant about The Apartment, and I love that. Despite the superficial sparkle, Christmas isn’t always a happy time and that makes the movie feel so real and incredibly relatable.
The Apartment tells a very simple story. C.C. Baxter (Lemmon) is a low-level worker at an insurance company who is keen to be promoted. He curries favours with his superiors by loaning them his apartment for their extra-marital affairs, often working late as he can’t go home and loitering outside his building while waiting for them to leave. This arrangement becomes increasingly difficult when he falls in love with Fran Kubelik (MacLaine), the elevator girl, but discovers that she has been using his apartment with her lover, Baxter’s boss, Sheldrake. After realising that Sheldrake will never leave his wife and realising what a fool she has been to have believed him, Kubelik takes an overdose of sleeping tablets while in Baxter’s apartment. Baxter finds her and helps her, and they bond over their failed suicide attempts. Despite getting the promotion that he has yearned for, Baxter quits his job so that he no longer has to facilitate Sheldrake’s affairs and, on hearing what he has done, Kubelik realises that she loves him and runs across New York to be with him, joining him for a bottle of champagne and a game of gin rummy for New Year.
Seeing it again after a long time, I was astonished by The Apartment and how it manages to achieve the extraordinary feat of both making me nostalgic for a time that I never experienced and for feeling incredibly modern and relevant. I can probably blame Mad Men for the rose-tinted nostalgia that I feel for 1960s New York but this movie reminds the viewer that is something wonderful about that time when you could dress in your finest and get a cab across town for 75 cents, carrying two martinis for the road. There is such depth and richness in the black and white cinematography and this choice, despite colour being the more popular choice at the time, adds to the vintage luxury feel.
But despite this old-fashioned feel and period fashion, so much of the plot and emotion in The Apartment feels extraordinarily relevant today. We recently watched BBC’s Industry so I have no doubt that the enormous debauched office parties still occur and, sadly, there is no doubt that work-based sexual harassment isn’t as old-fashioned as we’d hope. And we only need to look at the history of romcoms to know that infidelity and the trope of the hero’s villainous lover who won’t leave their wife really are as old as time.
Looking at The Apartment from a post-#MeToo perspective, as I am wont to do, I was interested to find that I wasn’t as concerned with the consent breaches as I’d thought I would be as they are often treated with the disdain they deserve – which is incredibly ahead of its time! Kubelik’s face when Baxter reels off all of her personal details that he has looked up in the insurance files make it clear that this was a breach of her confidence and not a romantic act, and all of the manipulative techniques that the men use to influence and bend Baxter are repeated in their treatment of the women and seem similarly as devious. Released before second wave feminism popularised the concept of the Patriarchy, The Apartment shows us exactly how toxic corporate structures, and by extension toxic masculinity, damages everyone.
Except that Wilder does acknowledge that some of us are more damaged than others, which is again very feminist and very current. At the beginning of The Apartment, Baxter is the central figure and we find ourselves feeling sympathetic towards him, oppressed and abused as he is by his bosses who take advantage of him and his apartment. But he does benefit from their attention; he does get paid for his sacrifices and gets his promotion. Kubelik, on the other hand, gets nothing and almost loses everything: ‘Fran’s suicide attempt shifts the tone of The Apartment, repositioning her, not Baxter, as its central tragic figure—the one who suffers the most under the patriarchal hierarchy that Baxter can at least sometimes benefit from.’
Because of this, The Apartment doesn’t feel dated and this is largely down to the casting, particularly of MacLaine. I love her so much in this role! She has attitude and sass and, while a contemporary review in 1960 described her as symbolising ‘the universal prey of convincing, conniving married men within the glass walls of commerce,’ there is so much more to her portrayal of Frank Kubelik than simply being another girl in the office. All the men want her and she is often referred to as some sort of prize, which is gross, but they want her because she is different and independent. We see her arguing back when someone slaps her arse in the lift and we are left in no doubt that she knows exactly what she is doing, such as when she cuts her hair short because her ex-lover liked it long.
But this is why her character and her story are so genuinely heartbreaking. She does know exactly what she is doing, even when she knows what it will cost her. When talking about her broken mirror, she tells Baxter that she likes it that way because it ‘makes [her] look the way [she] feels.’ Roger Ebert described her as ‘a young woman who has been lied to before, who has a good heart but finite patience,’ but he also says that she is someone ‘who is prepared to make the necessary compromises to be the next Mrs. Sheldrake’ and I don’t know that I agree. I don’t think she’s making compromises to be with Sheldrake and it’s more that she’s willing to delude herself into believing what he tells her. Although it is the discovery that she is the latest in a long line of office girls that Sheldrake has loved and lied to that finally pushes Kubelik over the edge, I never got the impression that she really believed he would leave his wife. Instead, she seemed to believe that she would never get a man of her own so convinced herself that she was happy with the choices that she was making. Of course, she’d have loved to marry him and spend her life with him but she shows the same weariness that we see again nearly 30 later in Carrie Fisher’s famous and repeated ‘you’re right, you’re right, I know you’re right’ in When Harry Met Sally when talking about how her lover will never leave his husband. She knows. Of course she knows: ‘When you’re in love with a married man, you shouldn’t wear mascara.’
For me, this is why the confrontation between Sheldrake and Kubelik broke my heart – after being confronted with the truth of Sheldrake’s long line of previous office girlfriends by his secretary, she can no longer lie to herself about her future with a man has lied to so many others and who won’t even buy her a Christmas present, instead giving her a $100 bill to get herself something pretty. Yet she still chooses to stay. She still starts to undress as if they might still have sex, leaning in to the notion that he is paying for her rather than loving her:
Kubelik: ‘As long as it’s paid for’
Sheldrake: ‘Don’t ever talk like that Fran. Don’t make yourself out to be cheap’
Kubelik: ‘$100. I don’t call that cheap’
I don’t agree with the suggestion that being a sex worker is demeaning and it is one of the few details of the film that has dated but, within the context of the period, it is a powerful way to represent both her state of mind and how little Sheldrake thinks of her. Her sense of self-worth is so low that she just accepts being treated like a commodity and it is only when he still rejects her, going home to be with his wife anyway, that she gives up and takes the overdose.
In many ways, Baxter is the same. He doesn’t recognise his value at work so looks to alternate means to be recognised and given a promotion. In fact, this is often cited as the reason why they don’t immediately fall into each other’s arms – neither can believe that they are good enough for the other and so they don’t go after what they want because they don’t think they deserve it: ‘these are two psychologically bruised individuals, conditioned to believe the key to happiness is as exclusive as the key to the executive washroom.’ Happiness just isn’t for people like them.
I think this is why The Apartment is such an important Christmas movie as it is about what happens between the parties and for the people who don’t find happiness in this season. Roger Ebert describes it as expressing the ‘melancholy gulf over the holidays between those who have someplace to go, and those who do not’ and how ‘on Christmas Eve, more than any other night of the year, the lonely person feels robbed of something that was there in childhood and isn’t there anymore.’ Christmas simply isn’t a guaranteed time of joy for so many people and can actually be a source of pain – for people who don’t have any family to go home to or whose family don’t accept them for who they are. And it can feel incredibly lonely, particularly when contrasted to the enforced jolliness.
And Kubelik and Baxter do embody the bleakness that many feel at Christmas but, because The Apartment is a comedy and because it is so beautifully made, they manage to do so without evoking pity. I feel sorry for them, sure, but I don’t pity them. I get it.
Finally, from a sex positive film nerd’s perspective, The Apartment is absolutely brilliant because of how it manages to be a truly filthy film about illicit and extramarital sex without ever saying it. In 1960, the Motion Picture Production Code, or Hays Code, was still in effect and wouldn’t be replaced by the current rating system until 1968. This code set moral guidelines about what was acceptable to show on screen and what was not, and sex outside of marriage was definitely not acceptable! But, as Variety’s 1960 review of The Apartment stated, ‘there is no hiding that full-fledged lovemaking is going on in these quarters.’ Movies released around this time had started to push back against the barriers put up by the Hays Code, Wilder’s own Some Like It Hot famously being a smash hit despite not receiving approval, and The Apartment seems to get away with being so filthy because ‘the story presents considerable immorality without obvious comment.’
Writing for the Hollywood Reporter in 1960, James Powers felt that ‘in frank situations and language, it might be confused for an immoral film…but to an amateur it seems to expose the wages of sin as deathly dreary.’ There are so many logistical arrangements that seeing behind the scenes of the sordid affairs really does make them seem less exciting. When watching the acutely awkward scene in A Brief Encounter when the two characters meet in a friend’s apartment, Wilder immediately wrote in his notebook, ‘what about the poor schnook who has to crawl into the still-warm bed of the lovers?’ And it’s a stroke of genius of sorts to find so much to relate to in such a banal detail, just as he finds tragedy in what was so ubiquitous in American homes in the 1960s – sleeping tablets, ‘handy in every modern medicine chest, odourless, painless, noiseless, as bland as the times and as lethal.’
But there is no doubt that the Hays Code influenced how sex is shown in The Apartment. Obviously, no one is ever seen having sex but I actually can’t remember seeing many kisses, despite the fact that many couples are seen on screen. MacLaine is the only person seen in a bed or not fully clothed, and this is only when she is recovering from her overdose and thus is an invalid rather than a sexual person. The dialogue is also absolutely littered with innuendo and assumption, hinting at how much sex Baxter is apparently having every night with a new girl without being explicit about what he is doing. As a fan of erotic innuendo, and the host of a regular writing competition that celebrates exactly this, I loved loved loved this! Mentions of ‘double headers’ when two different people use Baxter’s apartment in one night or how Sheldrake takes all the girls to the same Chinese restaurant and they ‘end up with pu-yung on your face’ are just so perfect and so funny!
It’s a fabulous, farcical, despairing and beautiful movie. It’s about damaged people and even more damaging expectations, but importantly it is also about how it is sometimes possible to find peace and happiness without making unacceptable compromises if we can just shut up and deal…
NEXT TIME… Happiest Season