Thursday, January 15, 2009

The Apartment (1960)

C.C. Baxter: The mirror... it's broken.
Fran Kubelik: Yes, I know. I like it that way. Makes me look the way I feel.
~from The Apartment (1960)
Another classic film about lost girls is Billy Wilder's 1960 The Apartment. It is described as a comedy but underneath the wit is a serious treatment of exploitation in corporate America. According to Turner Classic Movies:
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, [C.C.] 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....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.
For those who think that all was moral in the America of the 1950's and that hell did not break lose until the mid-sixties, they have only to watch The Apartment to be disillusioned. It is amazing how the executives in the office take it for granted that the young women employees are at their disposal, to use and discard at their pleasure. The big boss, Mr. Sheldrake, goes through the girls at the office faster than Louis XV went through mistresses at Versailles, and I doubt that Louis XV was such a two faced liar. An insurance clerk C.C. Baxter, in order to rise in the corporation, is prevailed upon by the upper echelon to let them use his apartment for liaisons. Such lackadaisical attitudes about adultery, cloaked by a veneer of respectability, certainly paved the way to the breakdown of family life that we have now.

Shirley MacLaine plays Fran the elevator girl who has one heartbreak too many. C.C. Baxter, the office worker who pimps out his apartment in exchange for career advancement, is portrayed with humor and poignancy by Jack Lemmon. It is a poignant role since in spite of his apartment being such an active place, he leads a lonely life, and is not at peace with himself. How could he be? His conscience is the Jewish doctor down the hall. Dr. Dreyfuss saves Fran's life and is one of the only truly noble characters in the film.

In the end, it is Baxter's love for Fran that inspires him to rise out of the slime of compromise and lose his career in order to do what is right. Refusing to cooperate with evil might bring about the loss of a job but it is also the only way to true freedom and peace of mind. In this case, Baxter's stand also releases Fran from her sordid relationship with Mr. Sheldrake. The Apartment was followed by Breakfast at Tiffany's in which the hero and heroine are much deeper into whoredom, showing how there can be many kinds of slavery, even in a free land. Share

19 comments:

Georgette said...

I remember this film from way back. When I recently watched Breakfast at Tiffany's for teh first time not long ago, I was left with the same feeling of disgust at the glorification of immorality as I had felt watching this film.

I suppose both these movies could be of some historical interest, in that they document the stages of society's changing values. But even in some much older films, those elements are there, too-- as anybody who's seen a Mae West film can tell you!

elena maria vidal said...

I could never stand Mae West. Yes, I agree, although, I don't think "The Apartment" glorifies immorality at all. I think it shows how immoral behavior is dehumanizing and can lead to suicide. And it is only by Baxter being a man and trying to be protective that the girl is saved. As for "Breakfast at Tiffany's," it also exposes such immoral behaviors and the hypocrisy that covers them on behalf of so-called respectable people. Holly Golightly is the poster child for feminine dysfunction. What is sad is that what used to be the undercurrent of society is now the norm.

elena maria vidal said...

Some of the pre-code films in the thirties are actually much more raunchy than the films in the forties and fifties ~ and then they threw out the code again.

Ms. Lucy said...

I find that whenever we want to get that safe 'wonderful life' feeling, we go back to reminisce about the 50's; when in reality every new decade has its own set of problems. And by the looks of it, we tend to favour bringing back the worse of better times and turning it into the norm of today- I totally agree with you on this Elena.

Terry Nelson said...

I love both films. The broadway show "Company" was the stage interpretation of "The Apartment" Dean Jones and Elaine Stritch were in the original production - I forget who played Fran.
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I am not sure if a study on Breakfast at Tiffany's has ever been done, but there is a very definite homosexual subtext to the story. Never read the book, so I do not know if Capote made it more obvious there.

elena maria vidal said...

Thanks, Lucy, yes that is very true. "The Apartment" is just a film but it is based on some actual corrupt scenarios. It ends with the hero and heroine escaping their sordid lifestyle; in reality we know that some people never escape and when they do it is not necessarily into happiness. The psychological damage from living hard and fast can be lifelong, and a true struggle to overcome.

I never read the book either, Terry. I have heard that Capote based the character of Holly on the model Dorian Leigh who lived in his building. Dorian eventually had a deep conversion and got herself back on track.

Terry Nelson said...

I should have said - I think regarding the subtext. Paul Varjack could well have been kept by a man, and probably an idealized autobiographical sketch of the author. I didn't know Holly was based upon Dorian Leigh - you know that Suzi Parker was her sister, I'm sure.

elena maria vidal said...

Yes, I've heard that too, about Paul. I know that in the book there is no romance between Holly and Paul and so it probably is autobiographical to some extent.

Clare said...

Barbara Nicolosi has a great podcast interview on Salvo magazine on the loss in recent years (like half a century... yikes!) of the craft of storytelling
http://www.salvomag.com/r&r.php

-- uite helpful for those of us who haven't yet learnt to appreciate the need for paradox in great drama, like that Elena Maria draws our attention to in this movie, readers may perhaps appreciate the take of this great Catholic intellectual who makers her living in Hollywood?
Cheerio
Clare Krishan

elena maria vidal said...

Thank you so much, Clare, for letting us know about Barbara Nicolosi's podcast, whose insights about drama are always worth taking into account.

Terry Nelson said...

I just watched Breakfast last night. With these comments in mind, it ocurred to me that the immorality is softened, even eclipsed by the beauty of the actors and the glamourous settings. Very seductive.

elena maria vidal said...

If sin were not seductive and glamorous then we would all be saints. I don't think the immorality is softened though, considering the film was made by Hollywood pagans. It is not as torrid as it could be since it is not at all graphic. It is a very tragic story about an abused girl. She is a pitiable character hiding underneath a glamorous persona. She plays at being fun and charming to cover her woundedness. She has legions of contemporary counterparts which is why this film intrigues me. When Holly goes berserk and tears up her room, and later ends up in jail, the sordidness of her life is laid bear. Of course, it is not for children; if shown to teenagers, this film should be watched with adult supervision and commentary. I personally never found it enticing but pathetic. Holly and Paul are both trapped in their horrid lifestyles but in the end they escape.

Barbara said...

Thanks so much for the link, Clare! I'm happy you liked the Salvo interview. God bless -

Barbara Nicolosi

elena maria vidal said...

Thank you for stopping by, Barbara. And thanks to Clare for putting links to this post around on the internet!

SF said...

We must have watched it the same night as you on TCN, my parents and I.
It took me by surprise in the way it spoke to the heart and showed the ramifications of illicit sexual liaisons.
I liked when the doctor told Jack Lemmon to become "human"! Very personalistic! :>

Susan

elena maria vidal said...

Yes, Susan and I like the doctor's wife, too. She thinks Baxter is a complete barbarian who, on top of everything else, does not even have any cloth dinner napkins at his apartment.

hummingbird said...

"...there can be many kinds of slavery, even in a free land."

How true. I really regret the moral degeneration of the US and the rest of the West. If only there could be the same concern in society for virtue and good character as there is for political and personal "freedom." Too often people interpret freedom as license to do whatever they want, but this actually leads to moral enslavement.

elena maria vidal said...

Thanks, Hummingbird. That's exactly the point I've been hoping to make.

SF said...

I forgot the cloth napkin reference. That was excellent!
It contained much meaning: the decline of order, the beginning of decadence, the throw away society---all symbolized in paper napkins.
Love that.