Happy 2015, everyone!
To ring in the New Year, I wanted to look back at the New Year’s Eve holiday in film. There are plenty of New Year’s Eve scenes in cinema but my pick for the best has to be the one featured in The Apartment.
The Apartment was nominated for 10 Academy Awards in 1960 (including three acting nominations for Lemmon, MacLaine and Jack Kruschen in an unforgettable supporting role). It walked away with 5 including “Best Picture.”
Billy Wilder is one of my favorite directors. If I had to rank them, I’d put him second behind Alfred Hitchcock. Wilder knew how to tell a story but he also knew how to correctly balance humanity with humor. He could take you to some very dark places (Sunset Boulevard, The Lost Weekend, Double Idemnity), charm the pants off of you (Sabrina, The Major and the Minor), and of course make you laugh out loud in your seat (Some Like it Hot). Going over his filmography, I forget just what kind of a genius he was because he was so versatile.
The Apartment has been called by many as the “last great black and white film.” To me, it is a turning point from the 1950’s and into the decade of the 1960’s. Onscreen, we see the imperfections of our protagonists in an honest way the helps us understand them. The film deals with a myriad of adult themes among them loneliness, suicide, corporate culture, adultery; not the exact recipe to concoct a comedy. The issues were very real in culture at the time (just watch a Mad Men episode) but were never really discussed. In The Apartment, they’re in full view.
The film’s basic plot is about Manhattan insurance clerk CC Baxter who lends out his apartment to other company executives for hanky panky with their many mistresses. We’re introduced to Baxter in the first scene of the film where we see him isolated in a giant office room of the 19th floor among a sea of desks. It’s easy to lose Baxter because he’s one of many in this corporate office. Jack Lemmon is on point in this film as Baxter. At first, he’s a hard working, lovable loser always willing to help others but over the course of the film we see his character grow and it’s a beautiful transformation. The supporting players in the cast make up a great film that gets better with age. Fred MacMurrary is great as Baxter’s slimeball boss, Sheldrake, that you just want to punch Steven Douglas whenever he smirks. My favorite performance in the film is Shirley MacLaine’s. She’s vulnerable and submissive as Fran, the elevator operator in the office building who is having an affair with Sheldrake. Fran is charming but damaged by Sheldrake, she believes she loves him and believes he’ll leave his family for her. Baxter and Fran develop a friendship and like any good rom-com Baxter begins to fall in love.
What separates The Apartment from romantic comedy status is the transformation of its two leads. Baxter and Fran go from slaves to the unhappiness in their lives to two individuals gaining the confidence in themselves to lift a giant middle finger to what’s keeping them from achieving fulfillment. I won’t go into too much detail because I don’t want to reveal all of the plot points but when the two both find that confidence and break away they are led to each other. The two reunite at the end on New Year’s Even in Baxter’s apartment where so many mindless trysts were consummated but in this scene what we see is the beginning of what we can only hope is a deep, real love. Their love isn’t just about mutual affection, it symbolizes the two at the start of a new journey. It’s not a flashy New Year’s Eve scene with close up shots of champagne pouring, it’s just two people in an apartment having a quiet night in. Two people alone with each other getting rid of what was holding them back looking to move forward as they enter the new year together.
I stated earlier that The Apartment gets better with age. I say that because the adult themes are universal. While the office building where Baxter and Fran work may look different in 2014, the climate of corporate greed is still very much alive today. We can all relate to Baxter working day-in and day-out and leaving the building feeling like he has nothing to show for it. In Fran’s scenario, we can all relate to being stuck in a relationship where you give so much of yourself but receive little in return whether it be with friends, at work or romantically. It’s a timeless classic that deserves its 1960 Oscar for Best Motion Picture.