“The Apartment”: A Film of its Time or a Timeless Film?

In 1960, Billy Wilder’s The Apartment garnered kind words from the New York Times (“gleeful, tender and even sentimental”) and Time (“funniest film made in Hollywood since Some Like It Hot” ). It was nominated for ten Oscars and won five. In 2015, this beloved film received an A+ from IndieWire, while The Guardian called it “absolutely brilliant.” Yet as I rewatched it, the film’s dark humor has transitioned into an almost-gallows humor, often uncomfortable in the implications as they reflect where we are today – which is to say, the film encapsulates a criticism of modern society that we seem to have only amplified.

Some films have staying power that transcends problematic representation and some don’t. Occasionally, it’s useful to dust off a film and determine that film’s relevance in the current culture’s zeitgeist; a litmus test of what has changed. Americans are still uncomfortable with films like Song of the South because they reflect a disregard for real experiences of race-based slavery. Yet, Gone With The Wind still heralds praise despite being a film that is equally reductive in its depiction of slavery and its romanticization of people who were willing to betray the U.S. in order to keep people enslaved. In a similar vein, The Apartment teeters between losing its staying power or transcending into the “timeless” classic.

In The Apartment, C.C. “Bud” Baxter (Jack Lemmon), an aspiring office lackey a large insurance agency. His promotion hinges his willingness to lend his apartment to managers for extramarital affairs. Complications abound when he flirts with Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine), one of the building’s elevator operators. She’s involved with Baxter’s new (married) manager, Jeff Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray) and the latest apartment user. When Fran realizes Sheldrake is using her, she attempts suicide in Baxter’s apartment. Baxter saves her, because Sheldrake is too busy enjoying Christmas with his family. As Fran recovers, Baxter hopes to woo her but Sheldrake resumes his tryst because his secretary (also a former lover) told his soon-to-be-former wife about his affairs. Sheldrake requests Baxter’s apartment key once more but Baxter refuses and quits. Later, when Fran realizes Sheldrake doesn’t want a relationship and that Baxter quit rather than share his apartment for her and Sheldrake, she ditches Sheldrake for Baxter.

It has the hallmarks of a typical, modern, romantic comedy but three aspects felt uncomfortable and yet timely. The film’s office setting demarcates strict gender roles: men lead and women gossip, operate elevators, and serve as sexual opportunities for men. One such opportunity happens to Fran daily when she is grabbed by a manager exiting the elevator. The Christmas party depicts a drunken bacchanal of women dancing for men and heterosexual couples making out everywhere. While women are encouraged to aspire to lead nations and companies today, the film’s gendered environment still exists in numerous forms. In fact, The Apartment’s sexism is no more egregious than Silicon Valley’s office debaucheries or its limited employment for women coupled with significant levels of sexual harassment.

Five men bully Bud for access to the apartment. Bud has no recourse to this or even the exposure to routine “locker-room” talk since Sheldrake is the personnel manager. Despite their professional and personal disregard to employees and women, these men get no comeuppance. The only one to suffer is Sheldrake, but neither his impending divorce or Fran leaving him give the viewer any sense that he feels remorse. Again, what played for laughs cuts too close to the quick when any day can be found the likes of Harvey Weinstein, Bill O’Reilly, Les Moonves, among others abusing their professional power, taking advantage of vulnerable people, and disregarding their marital relationships.

Then, there’s Bud: always a buddy to the men and never a friend to Fran. He enables the managers to cheat on their spouses and take advantage of often-drunk women, and at one point, he takes a drunk woman home himself. Fran’s suicide attempt interrupts his opportunity to be like one of the guys. Bud goes to great lengths to protect the men, which includes refusing to bring Fran to the hospital. Instead, he allows his neighbor, a doctor, to violently smack her repeatedly to awaken her. To watch and hear the smacks makes the scene utterly uncomfortable to watch because it shows that Bud allows violence towards Fran rather than jeopardize his or his bosses’ standing. Bud’s supposed bravest moment is quitting. He does not fight for his job, or publicize the malignant management at this company of over 31,000 employees. Rather, he allows the men to continue on cheating on their spouses and bullying their employees.

There’s one more part of Bud that in 2018 will set off warning bells. When talking with Fran, she asks about how he knows something she never shared with him. He responds,

“Oh, I even know who you live with – your sister and your brother-in-law – I know when you you were born – and where – I know all sorts of things about you…I know your height, your weight, and your Social Security number – you had mumps, you had measles, and you had your appendix out.”

He acquired this information by looking up her insurance policy, an abuse of power that is meant to look charming and sweet. Yet in today’s world, when company employees harvest users’ private data to stalk people, rarely do we consider them good guys. Bud comes across as a that cog in that machine of bro-culture.

The Apartment can be an enjoyable film; MacLaine’s charm is hard to resist, Lemmon’s innocence and straight-man attributes evoke laughs, and love stories are always popular. It worked for the time, and maybe it works for today, too but not as a work by a famous film director but rather as a parody of the ridiculous times under which we find ourselves today. The irony is that if a remake were made, the plot wouldn’t be the problem, given sex and gender problems that still permeate society. Rather, a remake would probably present Bud as an independent contractor and millennial hoping for permanent employment. To pay his bills, he rents out his apartment on AirBnB and uses his car for Uber, all the while his married supervisors are using Tinder to find dates.

Lance Eaton (@leaton01) is an Instructional Designer at Brandeis University, a doctoral student at UMASS Boston, and a part-time college instructor on subjects such as literature, history, popular culture, comics, and film. He reviews audiobooks and graphic novels for publications such as Audiofile Magazine and Publishers Weekly and his musings can be found at http://www.ByAnyOtherNerd.com.
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