The Apartment: A rom-com ahead of its time
Clarisse Loughrey | On 07, Jun 2015Reading time: 6 mins
Whether making films about writers, detectives, playboys or pilots, before 1960, director Billy Wilder was as enamoured with Hollywood glamour as the rest. Fresh as he was from the veritable romp that was Some Like it Hot, Wilder’s long-time collaborator and co-writer, I.A.L. Diamond, was keen to profit off the success of its star and once more pen Jack Lemmon a winning lead. So how did we end up with a movie like The Apartment?
This is the film where Wilder put to rest the cynicism that came to peak in 1951’s ruthless satire, The Ace in the Hole, in service of one of the most genuinely heartfelt, bittersweet romances of cinematic history. But, most importantly, it’s a romance not between the heiresses and cunning rogues of the Hollywood dream machine, but a love that blossoms between the lowly, ordinary schlemiels who populate this lonely planet.
The short answer? 1945’s Brief Encounter. While audiences were brought to tears by David Lean’s tale of illicit romance, it appears as if Wilder had become far more concerned with the choice of location for such a tryst, meeting as they did in a flat owned by a trusted friend. To him, “the interesting character is the friend, who returns to his home and finds the bed still warm, he who has no mistress.” Pull back the curtain on Hollywood’s idealised romances and you’ll find the loneliest of souls, those lost in the current and beyond the hope of a life preserver. Indeed, Wilder needed only to look around him to see the cruelty of lovers: whether in the scandal that rocked Hollywood, when producer Walter Wanger shot an agent in the leg for having an affair with his wife, or in one of Diamond’s friends, who returned home after ending his relationship to find she had killed herself in his own bed.
Wilder embraced that darkness fully. That darkness was truth: life at its most unsavoury, yet most honest. The Apartment sees the lowliest of office drudges, C.C. Baxter (Lemmon), trapped in the uneasiest of agreements: loan his apartment to his womanising superiors, so they may continue their affairs in comfort and secrecy, and Baxter will soon find himself with that coveted promotion. That is, until Baxter arrives home to discover the elevator girl he’s been yearning after (Shirley MacLaine), passed out on his bed and clutching a bottle of his sleeping pills.
Though the film opened to commercial and critical adoration, allowing Billy Wilder to become the first person to win Academy Awards for Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Picture, The Apartment wasn’t without its fair share of criticism. Some were not prepared for Wilder’s brand of reality, with Hollis Alpert of the Saturday Review calling it a “dirty fairy tale”, and actor Fred MacMurray claiming he was regularly accosted by women in the street for making such a “dirty, filthy movie”.
Yet Wilder’s film did something far more radical than simply challenge the sexual taboos of the day. It exposed capitalism to the world in all its pitiless cruelty. The Apartment is about two people who are victims to the very system they so listlessly cling to, not because they believe in it, but because they have no choice. As MacLaine’s depressive Fran puts it: “Some people take, some people get took. And they know they’re getting took and there’s nothing they can do about it.” Fran and Baxter are the losers on Earth, simply because they never lacked the empathy to take from those they saw weakness in, but in turn let their own weaknesses be exploited. If Baxter was as manipulative as his superiors, he’d have long ago turned the situation to his advantage, yet he’s the one left out in the rain, while they indulge in their sordid affairs, taking pleasure in reminding him: “We made you and we can break you.”
For what hope do the likes of these two fools have when society remains blind to the individual? Baxter must keep reminding himself: he is merely one of NYC’s 8,042,783-strong population and one of his company’s 31,259 employees. He is an entity judged only by his monetary value to society and not by the contents of his soul; and so The Apartment portrays modern society as a structure in which every relationship has become increasingly mediated by the capitalistic focus on the transaction. Where the value lies only in what is exchanged between people, and not in the people themselves. The way an adulterer’s charms are compared to the tactics of a salesman proves this transactionary nature has bled even into the affairs of the bedroom, where love can merely be the masquerade of two people attempting to profit from each other’s vulnerabilities. Which is basically the entire founding principle of Tinder, right?
It’s a hopeless notion. No wonder Fran attempts to end her life, when she fully realises she is merely one of these products with a set value, and an ever declining one at that, as her lover attempts to discreetly slip a $100 bill into her hand as a Christmas gift. This is a comedy which fully, and empathetically, deals with suicide; at its darkest centre, the cha-cha tones of the record player cut to silence as the doctor tries to revive an unconscious Fran, slapping her over and over as Baxter flinches with ever hit. It’s a sobering moment, echoed only by Baxter’s own admittance that he once attempted the same, and a realisation of how far the system they work beneath has abused their honest spirits.
All rather revolutionary when you start to consider the climate this film premiered in: the tail end of a decade that focused entirely on post-war wealth building, where the glamour of Hollywood had morphed from a fantastical distraction from the horrors of Europe to a possible reality – that is, if you worked hard and followed the American Way. Here was a director with the bravery and the perception to see what others refused to acknowledge: that success in the modern world ultimately relies on the failure of others. Others just like Fran and Baxter.
Yet the key to why The Apartment has become such a timeless classic lies in a cynic like Wilder’s surprisingly earnest cling to hope; the belief that every lost soul has a life preserver somewhere out there, waiting. Fran attempts to escape the cruelty of the world in death, and Baxter attempts to hoist himself above his own position and towards the world of the takers; yet it’s during a drunken stupor, in which he begins to play the role of the “notorious sexpot” his employers regale in, that their fates cross, as he returns home to discover her passed-out in the bedroom. And in her recovery, each comes to understand that their worth can be found in each other, that they can be rescued from the life Baxter describes as “shipwrecked among 8 million people”. It’s love that finds our value where society doesn’t; and that’s the way it crumbles, cookie-wise.