“Your home is your domain” the saying goes, a simple enough concept I’ve been pondering quite a bit lately, going through a transitional and rather plainly “domainless” phase that will entail living in a temporary arrangement. I suspect anyone who has dealt with similar ordeals in this callous city could boil living in New York City –or living anywhere– down to one sorry narrative (that a standard lease would also dryly include): one presumably has the right of “peaceful and quiet enjoyment” of one’s domain, if nothing else. Thus, revisiting Billy Wilder’s much celebrated, luminous romantic comedy The Apartment recently, I was admittedly captured less by the romantic or comedic aspects of the beloved classic, but caught more with a profound, nostalgic sense of empathy towards its sleazy, soft-spoken and at first glance disgraceful protagonist C. C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon) who had not been bestowed with such a basic entitlement despite holding the keys to a cozy (“nothing fancy,” he calls it) Upper West Side 1-bedroom.
And that is the irony of it all. C. C. Baxter creates his own problems and isn’t unavoidably robbed out of such a right. It is the parties and “honky tonky” (in his landlord’s words) taking over Baxter’s apartment daily that prevents him from reclaiming the warmth and security a home is supposed to shelter an individual within. The male version of Breakfast at Tiffany’s Holly Golightly he isn’t, though – our lonesome bachelor isn’t the one doing any of the partying. Seeing an opportunity towards speeding his journey up on the corporate ladder, C.C. routinely allows senior executives of Consolidated Life of New York, the insurance company at which he works, to borrow his apartment to carry out their extramarital affairs. It’s a dishonorable quid-pro-quo: the promise of a promotion in exchange of the secrecy and comfort of his apartment. As Baxter works his way up to higher floors and bigger offices, and struggles through the scheduling hurdles of the hook-ups he enables (of course, they are not referred to as hook-ups in the film and one would think all these executives do is wine/dine and play records to entertain their guests), the complication comes in the form of seemingly cheerful, pixie-haired elevator operator Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine in an early-career role that put her on Hollywood fast-track). And absurdly, both Fran and Baxter, who visibly have feelings for each other, are pawns of the same corporate monster disguised in a most courteous human form: Mr. Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray), the head of the firm, who’s romantically involved with Fran despite being married, and unbeknownst to Baxter, is meeting with her in his apartment.
The story takes place during the holidays, when the city is at its most joyous and at the same time brutal if you have no loved one or as much as a modest home to go back to. Thus, the melancholy of the season for the lonely, and the city’s cold and wet streets Baxter aimlessly strolls through on the nights he has to kill time, are poignantly emphasized in crisp black and white that washes out the temporary bliss colorful Christmas lights would normally illuminate. Add to that Wilder’s purposeful framing, focusing on his characters’ physical and emotional isolation, and The Apartment at once becomes a beguiling human portrayal of forlorn souls in chase of different aspects of the American dream that lead to the end goal of “security,” the common denominator of all treasures Consolidated Life of New York claims to protect. Baxter’s American dream is a high-ranking job, so he could perhaps take care of a family of his own one day just like Mr. Sheldrake. Fran, on the other hand, seeks security in the institution of marriage, if Mr. Sheldrake would indeed leave his current spouse as he often voices in his vacant promises. The paradox ultimately is the characters not knowing the real dreams could be made of littler things, and come true in tiny apartments of urban jungles, if only they would “marry their misfortunes together.”
Billy Wilder, who won 3 Academy Awards with The Apartment (Best Picture, Director and Original Screenplay), said in an interview that the initial inspiration for the movie came after he saw David Lean’s Brief Encounter and jotted down “What about the friend who has to crawl back into that warm bed?” (Note that the majestic score accompanying Fran’s emotional breakdown is reminiscent of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2.) Yet in his prolific career that spans over more than five decades, The Apartment came much later for Wilder than David Lean’s classic (due to censorship, he notes) and closer to the tail end of Hollywood’s golden age. It was a time when the adverse effect of television on movies was well underway (a brilliant scene in the film shows Baxter unable to enjoy Grand Hotel due to frequent commercial interruptions) and the moral code governing movies were loosening, paving the way to a new era of artistic freedom. Even though the film is still a part of classic Hollywood, and despite its decisively “tasteful” omission of what really goes on in Baxter’s apartment, one still can’t overlook how the film is remarkably ahead of its time with its handling of controversial material that involves sex and gender politics/roles–which Wilder is no stranger to, with his earlier films like Double Indemnity, Sunset Boulevard, and The Seven Year Itch–as well as the desensitized corporate culture that numbs its inhabitants.
Starting with Baxter’s voiceover that summarizes New York City with statistical, dehumanizing numbers (because he works at an insurance firm, he knows these factoids) and following rows and rows of people clocking in early in the morning for their corporate enslavement, and clocking out at the end of the day to escape to their respective living arrangements (the likes of Sheldrake commuting to suburban oases –an already-established American residential model for socially privileged white men), watching The Apartment is a dual experience today. Just when you begin to think things have improved exponentially in corporate offices (especially for women, who had to put up with routine sexual harassment, as several scenes display), you are quickly sobered up with the realization that corporate culture today could be just as faceless and disingenuous, and your superiors still occupy your living rooms — perhaps not physically, but in your handheld device. Thus, Wilder’s brilliant takedown of the culture, which he co-wrote with his frequent collaborator I. A. L. Diamond, still maintains its tremendous relevance today.
“If you really do want to be an actor who can satisfy himself and his audience, you need to be vulnerable,” Jack Lemmon once said. And he brings exactly that –vulnerability– to C. C. Baxter, a character with initially appalling morals you can’t help but root for throughout. Pairing that vulnerable uncertainty consistently conveyed in Lemmon’s face and body language with MacLaine’s sweetness and arguably un-classic, unique beauty, Wilder discovers a distinctive chemistry between two seemingly immoral misfits whose union would make all the wrongs right. And the progression of story doesn’t let the audience down either; Baxter and Fran still rise up to the principles we know they are worthy of. Thus, despite all its cynicism, The Apartment still ends on a hopeful note, where now jobless but united characters –with possessions as valuable as a tennis racket, a deck of cards and a broken mirror – know just how to “shut up and deal.”