Friday, April 24, 2015

Birthday Take: Shirley MacLaine in "The Apartment" (1960)

Left to right: Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine
Welcome to The Birthday Take, a column dedicated to celebrating Oscar nominees and winners' birthdays by paying tribute to the work that got them noticed. This isn't meant to be an exhaustive retrospective, but more of a highlight of one nominated work that makes them noteworthy. The column will run whenever there is a birthday and will hopefully give a dense exploration of the finest performances and techniques applied to film. So please join me as we blow out the candles and dig into the delicious substance.

The Facts

Recipient: Shirley MacLaine
Born: April 24, 1934 (81 years old)
Nomination: Best Actress - The Apartment (nominated) as Fran Kubelik

The Take

The Apartment is a film of unprecedented merit with the Academy for many reasons. For starters, it was a dark comedy that observed society through a very simple premise: an apartment. From there, it pinned Jack Lemmon as a man trying to make it at his office job by pleasing his boss by letting him use that apartment. From there, the rest is best experienced firsthand. However, there was something to the way that he smiled and felt vulnerable every step of the way. He was a figure who would become an archetype for the oppressed male who wanted to succeed at any cost. With his nuanced performance and various dark turns, director Billy Wilder returned to the Best Picture slot with gusto in ways that would unleash the then unknown 60's and a turning tide from conservative to more rebellious and open. The Apartment serves as the perfect middle ground. It was edgy but selective. 

Among the supporting players was Lemmon's love interest and co-worker played by Shirley MacLaine. It is a relationship started in a moment of desperation and slowly unveils to have a deeper and more personal connection with each other. For those expecting basic love story, think again. This story, much like the premise, has layers that are more commentary-based than breaking conventions. It was also a meta comedy that referenced previous best picture winners and felt of its time in the best way. It was a progressing society and thus called for a progressive woman. MacLaine fit the bill and with her charm introduced the downtrodden Lemmon to a world of wonder outside of the office.

The one interesting twist is that MacLaine doesn't start off as the happiest of people. As the elevator operator, she has a humdrum job and doesn't really have much fun. Meanwhile, Lemmon is smiling and trying to show everyone that he has a can do attitude. Her reservation makes her a different kind of oppressed. She is someone not familiar with privilege and thus doesn't exactly know how to have fun. In a way, the charm of this contemporary fairy tale is that these two belong to each other not only because of their work, but because their spirit has been trampled on way too much in favor of little gain. It is a story of economics disguised in a romance full of dark moments, clever wit and plenty of memorable moments. MacLaine's boyish haircut and dry delivery allows for her to have an authentic, confident feel over the film that keeps her from feeling like what is now commonly referred to as the manic pixie dream girl.

Maybe it's because of this lack of conventional nature that The Apartment has aged better than most contemporary Best Picture subjects like Ordinary People or Crash. It could also be that Wilder was several decades into his career and still producing an impressive amount of work. His films spoke of the society that we had as opposed to find ideal. There was tragedy mixed in with the triumph, but it was neither too sweet or saccharine. It was a film unlike most thanks to its leading duo who were an odd pair that when mixed with an odd metaphor lead to an odd dynamic that captured audiences. Many films like it have been made since, but few have withstood the test of time with quite the reverence of this somewhat simple picture with deep undertones.

This wouldn't be MacLaine's last time in the Best Picture seat. She would return and win her first time for Terms of Endearment over 20 years later. She has had a long and storied career that only continues to remain interesting with odd roles, most notably recently in Bernie. She may not be the glamorous 50's girl, but she represented something more modern and interesting in her fashion sense. She was confident without being overbearing about it. She knew how to play off of other actors and add vulnerability with a stare. She may have done more interesting work before or since, but with The Apartment, she introduced herself as an interesting force of nature that could turn a little office comedy into a time capsule of its era.

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