Jack Lemmon watches TV in The Apartment (1960).

Is it appropriate to describe Jack Lemmon’s performance in The Apartment (1960, dir. Billy Wilder) as beautiful?  Because that’s the word that came to mind as I re-watched the film the other day for the first time in over a decade.  Oscar Hammerstein once remarked that he was more likely to be moved to tears by scenes of happiness than by scenes of sadness; I thought of that at several points during the film, namely whenever Lemmon’s character goes into giddy mode, wound up first by the thrill of a promotion (even one that amounts to moving his desk from one side of a glass wall to the other) and then by burgeoning feelings of love for Miss Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine), the chronically depressed elevator operator who has the good fortune to attempt suicide in his apartment.  Happiness for Lemmon’s C. C. Baxter looks almost like mania: he chatters endlessly, makes bad jokes, and laughs at himself, often failing to realize that he’s the only one laughing.  Lemmon captures the experience of Baxter being so cocooned in the bubble of his own elation that he can’t see how ridiculous he looks, or that other people around him—like Miss Kubelik—are busy being trapped in their own private hell.  The moments when this realization dawns crushingly on him are beautiful, too, as for instance when he catches sight of his reflection in Miss Kubelik’s cracked compact mirror and discovers that she’s the latest victim of his predatory boss.  His whole self deflates like a leaky balloon.  So yes: beautiful seems the right word. 

The beauty of happiness (top)...and happiness punctured (bottom).

Baxter’s coming into consciousness about his own victimization, and Miss Kubelik’s, is also a crucial piece of the film’s political ethos.  For a mainstream Hollywood film The Apartment is surprisingly bold in its willingness to challenge ideological systems like capitalism and patriarchy; even its Hollywood ending is predicated on the main characters deciding, independent of each other, to reject those systems.  Hollywood has long made a business out of (hypocritically) appealing to the audience’s identification with the Little Guy in his rage against the machine, and neither Billy Wilder nor his co-writer I.A.L. Diamond is Jean-Luc Godard, exactly, but their screenplay seems to me relatively forward-thinking in its willingness to identify parallels between the dehumanization of the modern worker and the sexual oppression of women by a monolithic structure in which bureaucracy, misogyny, and the profit motive go hand-in-hand-in-hand.  (One of the film’s many wonderfully dark jokes is that the oppression of women has itself become bureaucratized—something to have to schedule, like a dentist appointment.) 

Further to the credit of Wilder and Diamond, the film identifies as the locus of this system none other than bland, smiling Fred MacMurray—TV dad and perennial Disney star.  In Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944) MacMurray signified something like the stupidity of crime; here he signifies something closer to the banality of evil.  MacMurray’s Sheldrake and his philandering cronies coerce and bully Baxter in the same way that they use and abuse women; one of the interesting things about the film is that Baxter comes to realize that he’s being had—duped, lied to, fucked—in the same way that Miss Kubelik is, and by the same man.  It’s a theme on which Mad Men would seize in a big way, especially in key episodes like “The Other Woman.”  That The Apartment is able to treat its subject matter with such glancing comic zeal is a tribute to Wilder’s (and Diamond’s) formidable talent.

The banality of evil: Fred MacMurray as Sheldrake in the Christmas-morning scene.

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