“When you’re in love with a married man, you shouldn’t wear mascara.”
An aspiring insurance clerk (Jack Lemmon) allows his married colleagues to use his apartment as a love nest in exchange for advancement opportunities at work — but when he falls in love with his building’s elevator operator (Shirley MacLaine) and learns she’s the mistress of his supervisor (Fred MacMurray), he begins to rethink his goals.
The Apartment — directed by Billy Wilder and co-scripted by I.A.L. Diamond — won five Oscars (including Best Picture) and was nominated for five more, possibly as a belated or combined acknowledgement of the team’s comedy classic Some Like It Hot (1959) from the year before. In his Alternate Oscars, Peary gives the Best Picture award for 1960 to Psycho rather than this film, which he argues “was daring in its day because of the amorality of its characters and because it mixed humor with such serious elements as a suicide attempt”, but today is “somewhat dated and… still has a dubious premise”. While I can’t argue with Peary’s choice of Psycho as Best Picture, I disagree that this film — inspired by a sequence from David Lean’s Brief Encounter (1945) — is dubious or dated; it’s actually held up remarkably well on numerous fronts.
While one might question the need for a usable apartment when hotel rooms are readily available, it seems clear that this type of arrangement is about much more than a private space for sex: it’s about making the woman feel comfortable, happy, and unashamed of her fling (much easier in a fully furnished apartment with a kitchen, bar, sofa, and record player). It’s also, of course, about power: as an underling lost in a sea of other employees, Lemmon “freely” giving up his apartment night after night (even during bitterly cold weather, when he has nowhere else to go) is a way for him to demonstrate his loyalty and willingness to suffer in order to become part of the upper-echelon crowd. His aspiration story is a fascinating one, but so is MacLaine’s tale of woebegone romance — and the lives of the other supporting characters (including MacMurray, wonderfully cast against type here) are rich as well. Wilder’s direction, combined with Joseph LaShelle’s cinematography, create a seamy yet emotion-drenched world where unlikely couplings can take place, and power dynamics can eventually be disrupted.
Redeeming Qualities and Moments:
- Jack Lemmon as C.C. Baxter (nominated as one of the Best Actors of the Year in Alternate Oscars)
- Shirley MacLaine as Fran Kubelik
- Fine supporting performances
- Joseph LaShelle’s b&w cinematography
Yes, as a fine and deserving Oscar winner. Listed as a film with Historical Importance in the back of Peary’s book.
(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)