The 1950s proved to be an uneven decade of best picture winners. Maybe the 60s will ease off the over-the-top spectacle and get back to just great storytelling. Starting off with Billy Wilder’s The Apartment gives me hope.
Calvin Clifford (C. C.) “Bud” Baxter (Jack Lemmon) is a lonely office drone at a New York City insurance company. With modest hopes of climbing the corporate ladder he allows four company managers to take turns using his Upper West Side apartment as a venue for their extramarital affairs.
Bud has a fondness for Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine) one of the elevator operators in his office skyscraper. Little does he know that the big boss, Mr. Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray), is soon to become the fifth manager in the office seeking to use his apartment with Fran, his on-again/off-again mistress.
The first act does a more than adequate job setting up all our characters and this world they’re in. But when the film turns to the seconds act the brilliance really ramps up.
I had seen The Apartment before and remembered it being great. But I was so repeatedly wowed by this smart and unpredictable film. I love it when a film lays out its “setups” right before your very eyes but without ruining the payoff. The Apartment does it masterfully on several occasions.
The Apartment was the last black and white film to win best picture until 1993 (Schindler’s List). When Billy Wilder accepted the Oscar he commented how this was the result of the effort of the entire team and suggested the Oscar be split down the middle for the two “most valuable players” Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine. I can’t argue with that.
They are positively electric on screen. Lemmon gives such a complete performance. It’s all of the little things that he does to make C.C. Baxter such a complete character. Watching him strain spaghetti with a tennis racket is like watching Gene Kelly dance. Every move is perfect and yet it seems effortless.
MacLaine is so adorable you can’t help but fall for her quiet charm. Her scenes with MacMurray really demonstrate a depth that might have otherwise been missing in the hands of a lesser actress.
The two give absolutely killer performances that would earn them both Oscar nominations. It was her 2nd and his 3rd but both were Oscar regulars. She would rack up 5 best actress nominations in her career and he would tally 8 (1 supporting, 7 lead).
Coming into the night Jack already had one Oscar on his mantle* but neither would win that night. Jack won again in 1973 (Save the Tiger) but it would be more than 20 years before Shirley would take home gold for Terms of Endearment.
They were the beneficiaries of an amazing script. The dialogue comes out of the gate razor-sharp right from Jack Lemmon’s opening voice over. I put it right up there with some of the other great best screenplay winners. It’s not quite at All About Eve and Casablanca level but it’s definitely on par with scripts like On the Waterfront and It Happened One Night.
I’m at the point in The Oscar Project where I’m encountering more and more best picture winners that I’ve already seen at some point. But watching them in order is providing context that I never could have predicted.
Two films in particular stand out: Gone With the Wind and Gigi.
It was a big deal in Gone With the Wind (1939) when Rhett Butler didn’t “give a damn.” But in this script we are starting to see the language censors are loosening up.
“Get the hell out of here.” – C.C. Baxter
“Like hell you will!” – Sylvia
“He doesn’t give a damn about me.” – Fran Kubelik
“You damn fool.” – Fran Kubelik
Likewise, consider Gigi (1958) and the way it glamorizes cavorting, womanizing men and their promiscuous lifestyle. While The Apartment is a comedy, it lays bare the heartbreak of infidelity.
In both films a woman attempts suicide. In Gigi it’s a notch on the belt of the man who broke her heart. In The Apartment it’s a dark and devastating reality and although the film is technically a “comedy” the scene is played with zero comedic overtones.
On that April Oscar night in Santa Monica The Apartment won 5 awards including picture, director, and screenplay. The second big winner that night was mysteriously excluded from the best picture race. Spartacus.
Again, context has provided some insight as to why Spartacus didn’t get a seat at the table.
In 1959 Ben-Hur stormed onto the screen and dominated the box office and the Oscars. In 1960 even though Spartacus was the highest grossing film of the year the Academy obviously had moved on from “sword and sandal” epics.
In my opinion Spartacus is a better film than Ben-Hur. If you want to know just how highly I think of the Stanley Kubrick film read this.
My hypothesis is that it Spartacus had been released in 1959 and Ben-Hur in 1960 we’d be looking back with Spartacus as the best picture winner with 11 Oscars and Ben-Hur a highly regarded film.
As they say… timing is everything.
*Jack Lemmon won the best supporting actor Oscar in 1955 for Mister Roberts.