A poignant and profound study of loneliness and conformism, Billy Wilder’s 1960 The Apartment showcases two actors – who would eventually become stars – at the top of their games, with Lemmon as naïve and vulnerable as much as MacLaine is smart and luminous.
The two leading actors in this Billy Wilder’s masterpiece – these two great performers and iconic stars – transform two common lives into case studies of uniqueness. C. C. Baxter and Fran Kubelik might be suckers for authority, deeply conformist and self-interested people, but they aren’t your regular guys. Lemmon and MacLaine manage to bring to the fore their characters’ idiosyncratic traits while maintaining the overall feeling that these people are like those office colleagues who annoy us for their unashamedly deference and blind submission.
In New York City, lonely office worker C. C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon), who works for an insurance company, allows several managers to use his Upper West Side apartment for their extra-marital affairs. The logic behind such arrangement is that he would gain a promotion more easily. As personnel director Jeff D. Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray) finds out, instead of admonishing Baxter, he asks to be part of the scheme. He promotes Baxter and, after giving him two tickets to a Broadway musical, asks to use the apartment that same night. Elevator operator Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine), who coincidentally is Sheldrake’s fling, accepts to go with him. After Fran realises that Sheldrake will never leave his wife to stay with her she tries unsuccessfully to commit suicide. At the end, Baxter leaves his job and Kubelik ends the relationship.
It is impossible to overemphasize how relevant The Apartment is for modern audiences. The theme of how capitalism has been changing itself over and over again in order to adapt to new realities is of crucial importance in recent years. As financial crises erode people’s purchasing power and work-related rights, the system itself proves resilient enough to make a mockery of Marx’s dictum ‘dictatorship of the proletariat.’ Not only the 1 % still handles every lever in the machinery of political power but it still is the case that where a majority is really heard, this large mass of people become simply another cog in the wheel, just like C. C. Baxter.
..When Frustration meets Apathy… Happiness might Arise.
The problem with trying to demonstrate a thesis like this is that one does not miss what one does not know. It is therefore hard to mobilise a mass of people for a cause that flies through people’s head. Despite America’s delusion that its people live in the land of the free and the home of the brave very few of them really know pure independence. Most people just accept their burden and try their best to better themselves. Even if that means degrading yourself for the sake of an uncertain promotion. – A man’s got to do what a man’s got to do!… Or perhaps, if you’re a sassy girl, you might try marrying an already married man.
It is totally apt that the story of Fran Kubelik’s inability to disengage from Sheldrake runs parallel to the one of C. C. Baxter’s willingly submissive attitude. Love and money following leads from a dream turned sour, which has been taken to its logical conclusion. Was that a trend taking root in American mores (more than 50 years ago), one that was transforming free citizens, living in a free society into materialistic zombies, ready to sell their souls to the biggest bidder? At the end, when they both free themselves from such toxic relationships they are finally able to see what’s in front of them: meaningful, authentic, true love.
Unfortunately, there’s no other way for one to start engaging in the serious business of being truly happy: you must escape superficial subterfuges and dive deep towards the essentials of life. A job must provide money and a means of buying you crucial items, but it also must NOT crush your soul. When one loses the fear of losing their jobs – admittedly, that’s not an easy thing to do! – then one should be ready (and willing) to refuse humiliation and other ills. And in that moment, when a person’s soul is liberated from such burdens, he or she will see things with human eyes. And finally, it won’t be difficult for them to really consider the human being in front of them.
Free from a vision of authoritarian hierarchies and obedient drones, this newly found man or woman will feel lighter in their hearts and sober in their heads. This overall in-the-clouds feeling will concentrate their gaze planted into the present. It is in this context that when Baxter declares his love for Kubelik – ‘I love you Miss Kubelik. You hear what I said, Miss Kubelik? I absolutely adore you.’ – and she replies ‘Shut up and deal…’ that one must understand the exchange. It should not be lost in the audience that although he obeys her and start dealing the cards, their gazes never retract from each other. These are two people who have just learnt what’s important in life and will live that moment to the full.
This is how we all should live our lives: Present 100 % in the here and now, regardless of how others see us, grade us or judge us. Let the Joneses keep up with themselves…
ps. TOWARDS A GREATER CANON has presented three Chritsmas-related posts discussing three magnificent masterpieces, each one dealing with different themes of tis the season to be jolly, la la la la la la la la la la… Anyway, I just wanted to wish A HAPPY NEW YEAR to you, my reader, who tolerates my ramblings on these masterpieces of world cinema…