Monday, June 15, 2015

Nothing But the Best: "The Apartment" (1960)

Welcome to the series Nothing But the Best in which I chronicle all of the Academy Award Best Picture winners as they celebrate their anniversaries. Instead of going in chronological order, this series will be presented on each film's anniversary and will feature personal opinions as well as facts regarding its legacy and behind the scenes information. The goal is to create an in depth essay for each film while looking not only how the medium progressed, but how the film is integral to pop culture. In some cases, it will be easy. Others not so much. Without further ado, let's start the show.

Background Information

The Apartment
Release Date: June 5, 1960
Director: Billy Wilder
Written By: Billy Wilder, I.A.L. Diamond
Starring: Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine, Fred MacMurray
Genre: Comedy, Drama, Romance
Running Time: 135 minutes

Oscar Wins: 5
-Best Picture
-Best Director (Billy Wilder)
-Best Original Screenplay
-Best Art Direction-Set Direction (Black and White)
-Best Film Editing

Oscar Nominations: 5
-Best Actor (Jack Lemmon)
-Best Actress (Shirley MacLaine)
-Best Supporting Actor (Jack Kruschen)
-Best Cinematography (Black and White)
-Best Sound

Other Best Picture Nominees

-Elmer Gantry
-Sons and Lovers
-The Alamo
-The Sundowners
And the winner is...

There hasn't been a filmmaker like Billy Wilder before or since. While there have been many with similarly dark and cynical looks at American culture, few were able to transcend the dourness and produce something far more interesting. Time and again, Wilder was up to the challenge, producing such thought provoking dramas as The Lost Weekend and Sunset Blvd. alongside funnier works like Some Like It Hot. However, the perfect intersection for his two aesthetics are best explored in the 1960's Best Picture winner The Apartment, whose win as a comedy remains unprecedented in an award usually dedicated to hard hitting dramas. Even then, The Apartment was more complicated than just funny jokes. It had heart and a dark side that reflected a changing tide not only in Best Picture winners, but in society as the story of one man who rented out his apartment to his boss for benefits became a metaphor about society.

The film was an idea that came to Wilder following a viewing of the David Lean film Brief Encounter (1945) that focused on British suburban life. Coming off of Some Like It Hot, co-writer I.A.L. Diamond was interested in working with Wilder again. It was Lean's focus on adultery that drew Wilder to the story, but couldn't make it in the 40's due to the Hays Code. With the changing ideals, the two set off to make the film. Unfortunately, there was truth in the details as Diamond based some of the story's darker moments on his experience. One of the writer's friends found that his girlfriend, upon breaking up, committed suicide in his bed. While there wouldn't be successful suicide in the film, it would be a specific plot device used to progress the romance between two characters.

Wilder was also economic when it came to shooting the film. With exception to two instances, Wilder was insistent that the actors perform the script verbatim. The famous elevator scene with Shirley MacLaine had to be done five times because she had missed a word. Likewise, the actress claims that the script was being written during the actual production with various plot points added as they went along. In one case, a gin rummy scene was allegedly added because MacLaine was learning how to play with her friends from The Rat Pack, of whom she was also filming Oceans 11 with at the time. Wilder also wouldn't let her see more than 40 pages of the script in order to keep her from knowing what happened next. 

Jack Lemmon was a returning actor because Wilder enjoyed working with him previously on Some Like It Hot. He made a point to also include a Marilyn Monroe-type character in The Apartment to express why he disliked working with her, specifically over needy demands. The studio initially wanted Groucho Marx to play Dr. Dreyfuss, but Wilder went with Jack Kruschen claiming that he wanted a performer with actual dramatic chops. He also considered Fred MacMurray stingy. In one scene, he was required to flip a coin, but kept failing. When suggested that he use a bigger one, MacMurray refused claiming that he wouldn't tip the opposing character 50 cents. The script writing was so stingy that Diamond and Wilder once argued for 20 minutes as to whether Lemmon should say the word yes twice.

Among the film's production highlights includes the famous office scene when we see a room full of hard working people. While there's an endless look to it, it was actually shot in a sound stage, so room was limited. To combat this, Wilder had taller men sit closer to the camera while dwarfs in increasingly smaller desks lined the space further away. The nasal spray used in the film was actually milk and was inspired after Lemmon found that the bottle could shoot really far. The famous Christmas scene was shot on December 23 and done on a first take. The weather was also so cold that Wilder supposedly would spray Lemmon with antifreeze. MacMurray initially refused to make the movie because of its controversial subject matter. Likewise, his fans would berate him following its release because of this.

Among the film's many achievements is a very meta one. It was the first Best Picture winner to reference other winners including Grand Hotel and Wilder's own The Lost Weekend. Until 1993 with Schindler's List, it remained the last black and white winner. It was also a huge influence on director Sam Mendes' American Beauty - which would win Best Picture in 1999. During his acceptance speech for Best Actor, Kevin Spacey dedicated the award to Lemmon's performance. The office scenes were also a huge influence on how Mendes designed various sets. 

The legacy of The Apartment is one that is more felt than recognized. Its gritty take on contemporary American culture began to bloom in the decade to follow as the New Hollywood movement began to rise. Neil Simon would create a musical with Burt Bacharach in 1968 based off of the film called Promises Promises. It has also been lampooned countless times and remains a popular reference from films like Eyes Wide Shut to TV series like Seinfeld. As previously mentioned, it was also an inspiration for a later Best Picture winner which in some ways was an update on a lot of the themes as explored through 90's suburban lifestyle. The film's success continues to be felt and it is consistently ranked among the best comedies and films in general not only by Wilder, but of the genre and era as well.

So while things have changed vastly since The Apartment came out 55 years ago, it still manages to leave a lasting impression. It was the perfect intersection for Wilder's cynical views of American culture and his heartfelt humor. While the production may have featured some anal attention to detail, many would argue that it was worth it. While there have been several films like it since, none are able to convey subject matter so dark in an accessible and artistic manner quite like Wilder or Diamond. It is both a time capsule of a bygone changing era and what cinema could be if it chose to be honest with itself. It wasn't unpleasant because it was dark. Instead, it was adult and fun in ways that most Best Picture winners of the era weren't. 

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