What Do Other Countries Think This Is About?
The Apartment (1960)
Given all we that are learning and all that we have always known about certain men in certain jobs, why oh why would anyone want to spend time watching a movie about an ambitious weakling who lends out his apartment to philandering executives for after-hours hookups? A movie that is billed as a romantic comedy and infuriatingly holds up as such? Why?!
I certainly didn't feel like it. In fact, I'm supposed to be writing about Baby Face (1933), a film about an ambitious man-trap who uses the corporate ladder to better her circumstances the only way she knows how. THAT movie's protagonist is steely, goal-directed. After a lifetime of sexual exploitation and poverty, Lily Powers (Barbara Stanwyck) wants the kind of security that money and power provide and the fastest way to achieve that is to go where the money is and exploit men's weaknesses. She uses sex to get ahead because she learned early that her greatest skill was sizing up men: what they want to hear, how they want her to be, and how to make them feel powerful. I get Lily Powers: nobody pushes her around, not even the Hays Office.
But The Apartment kept intruding on me, with its gross premise and its many Academy Awards. It is a 57-year-old, irritatingly recognizable tale of a man who uses sex (if tangentially) to get ahead, who keeps his superiors' secrets, and compartmentalizes the sleaze of it enough to enjoy his advancement until someone he actually knows and likes is adversely affected. It is exactly the stuff that is supposedly shocking us all to our core today: that there are men in power who engage in sexual misconduct in the workplace as an expression of that power and hurt the less powerful in the process.
In The Apartment, Jack Lemmon plays C.C. Baxter, a low-level employee at an insurance company who happens to have an apartment felicitously close to work. Some of the married executives learn about his bachelor pad and promise Baxter promotions and perks in exchange for the use of his place for adulterous hookups. Since this is a comedy, we only see the consensual liaisons and get to sniff at the callous, dreadful men who exploit their underling and string along their women. Baxter finds the arrangement distasteful and gross, but goes along, catching colds while he waits outside some nights and catching sidelong glances in the mornings from neighbors who think he is a sexual dynamo. When The Guys come through with a meager promotion, Baxter believes it's all paying off.
Meanwhile, news of The Apartment reaches the head of personnel, a Mr. Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray), who decides to get in on the action, offering Baxter a meteoric promotion in exchange for exclusive access to the place. At first, Baxter thinks he's being noticed for his work, since he has been there for several years, but it's the key or no promotion. To complicate things further, Baxter learns that Sheldrake's office conquest is the smart, cute elevator operator, Fran Kubelick (Shirley MacLaine), the girl for whom Baxter has a Thing. This fact not only dashes his own hopes in that regard, but also makes working for Sheldrake and being in his own apartment all the more difficult.
Unfortunately, Sheldrake's most immediate past mistress (played beautifully by Edie Adams) clues Fran in on Sheldrake's pattern, laying out the history of his conquests, tracing his path from girl to girl, department to department. Fran and Sheldrake break up spectacularly in Baxter's apartment (which she still does not know is his) and Fran impulsively downs a bottle of sleeping pills she finds in the medicine cabinet. Baxter comes home to discover an unconscious Fran in his bed, leaps to her aid, and lets her recuperate there for several days. Fran makes clear that Baxter is too weak a man for her (the apartment set-up is gross), but they become friends nonetheless.
Eventually, of course, these two get together. It takes a smooth retaliatory act by Sheldrake's secretary, Sheldrake's own personality, and Baxter finally listening to that little voice to do it, but it happens.
Billy Wilder, the co-writer and director of the film, does a masterful job of making us care for both Baxter and Miss Kubelick, who are required to navigate some difficult moral terrain: he is the social climber making dubious professional choices; she is a regular girl who falls in love with a married man. Jack Lemmon is marvelous at conveying pangs of conscience in his face and body; you can see this likable weakling register the sordid situation he's enabling, quickly rationalize it, then continue down his path. Shirley MacLaine can play vulnerable with incredible strength of character and natural humor: unlike Baxter, Fran Kubelick is fully aware of the consequences of her actions and chooses to meet them head on. (Like Lily in Baby Face, which I swear to god I'll get back to, but with more introspection.) Fred MacMurray, despite all the nonsensical hand-wringing over this role ruining his "good guy" image, has always been superb at playing a smooth-talking heel.*
It irritates me that this is a great romantic comedy, because it is. I hate that I had to steel myself to watch it again because I was worried that my memory of it would be wrong -- wrong in the way you might think "Oh look, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers is on. I love that movie. I bet it's not rapey at all." I feared that the sexual politics in The Apartment would be too broadly drawn, that Baxter might be less aware that not every encounter there would be consensual (Ray Walston is super sketchy); that he wouldn't see his bosses for who they were or be disgusted with himself. I worried that Shirley MacLaine's character would have less self-awareness or that we'd be asked to sympathize somehow with the adulterous executives. The film is better than my concerns and I'm so relieved.
But I *hate* that The Apartment is nearly sixty years old and is probably the only film to date that makes us look at workplace sexual misconduct from the point of view of one of the "nice" guys -- a guy who didn't think too hard about what he was doing to get ahead and enjoyed his perks with vague unease until he just couldn't do it anymore.
Here's what finally tips the scales for Baxter: he had just come into his boss's office with a bunch of charts and stats about personnel and a plan to improve retention. He was positively giddy about it. Sheldrake waves the work away and tells Baxter that his wife has kicked him out and he and Fran are back together, so hand over the key. In that moment, Baxter realizes that as a newly promoted junior executive, not only will he have to be OK with the object of his affection sleeping with his boss in Baxter's bed, but none of the work he will ever do in that office will be taken seriously. Ever. His success in the company will always be whispered about and his merits never fully acknowledged no matter what he does -- as if he were one of the girls, instead of one of the boys.
So he says no.
And loses his job. As did Miss Kubelick. As does Sheldrake's secretary, fired by her boss and former lover.
But you know who's still head of Personnel*?
And that, boys and girls, is why we can't have nice things, like pay equity or a woman president.
I'll do just about anything a movie tells me to do. Unless it tells me wrong...
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