After the Nun’s Story, I continued to experience TCM’s 31 Days of Oscar by watching the 1960 best picture winner, The Apartment. The Apartment is unique among Oscar winners in that it’s one of the few comedies to win best picture. (Though, in all honesty, it would probably be more appropriate to call The Apartment a dramedy.) It was also, until the victory of The Artist, the last completely black-and-white film to win best picture.
(And, as long as we’re sharing trivia, it was also the first best picture winner to feature a character watching a previous best picture winner. At the start of the film, Jack Lemmon deals with insomnia by watching Grand Hotel.)
The Apartment tells the story of C.C. “Bud” Baxter (Jack Lemmon), an anonymous officer worker who is determined to climb the corporate ladder despite not being very good at his job. However, Baxter does have one advantage over his co-workers. He’s single and therefore, his apartment has become the place to go for corporate executives who need a place where they can safely cheat on their wives. Bud spends his day trying to coordinate who is going to be in his apartment and when. Meanwhile, he spends his nights exiled from his own home and wandering around New York. In fact, the only beneficial thing about this arrangement is that all of Bud’s supervisors have been giving him good evaluations in return for using his apartment. (Well, that and Bud’s neighbor, played by Jack Kruschen, is convinced, based on the thinness of the apartment walls, that Bud must be a great lover.)
When Bud finally does get his promotion, it’s only because the personnel director, Jeff D. Sheldrake (an amazingly sleazy Fred MacMurray), wants to use Bud’s apartment. Bud celebrates his promotion by finally working up the courage to ask out Fran (Shirley MacClaine), an elevator operator who works in the office. What Bud doesn’t realize is that Fran is also the woman who Sheldrake wants to bring to the apartment….
Fran is convinced that Sheldrake is going to leave his wife for her. What she doesn’t realize — and what Fred MacMurray’s performance makes disturbingly clear — is that Jeff Sheldrake is basically just a guy having a midlife crisis. He’s the type of middle-aged guy that every woman has had to deal with at some point, the guy who pulls up next to you in a red convertible and stares at you from behind his sunglasses, attempting his best to entice you into helping him relive the youth that he never had. When Fran eventually learns the truth about Sheldrake, it leads both to near tragedy and to Bud having to decide whether he wants to be a decent human being or if he wants to keep climbing the corporate ladder.
When one looks over a chronological list of all of the best picture winners, it’s a bit strange to see The Apartment listed in between Ben-Hur and West Side Story. As opposed to those two grandly produced and vibrantly colorful films, The Apartment is a rather low-key film, one that devotes far more time to characterization than to spectacle. And while both Ben-Hur and West Side Story are ultimately very idealistic films, The Apartment is about as cynical as a film can get. The Apartment may be a comedy but the laughs come from a place of profound sadness.
Because it’s more interested in people than in spectacle, The Apartment holds up better than many past best picture winners. We’ve all known someone like Bud. We’ve all had to deal with men like Sheldrake. And, in one way or another, we all know what it’s like to be someone like Fran. The Apartment remains a truly poignant and relevant film.