The Apartment

The Apartment, United Artists, 1960. Starring Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine, Fred MacMurray. Directed by Billy Wilder. B&W, 125 minutes.

C. C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon), better known as Bud, spends his days as one of a sea of accountants for a major insurance firm. Bud also rents out his apartment by the hour to randy executives from his company looking for a private getaway, often leaving him alone in the office after hours.

He has a crush on one of the elevator operators, Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine), who’s on duty the day he’s called into the office of Jeff Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray), the head of personnel. Sheldrake makes it clear Bud is up for a promotion, but not solely because of his work. The key to his apartment is part of the deal as well.

When Bud learns that Sheldrake’s date is none other than Miss Kubelik, the entire setup goes sour. He’s faced with several realities he doesn’t want to deal with.

Jack Lemmon in The Apartment

Fred MacMurray, Jack Lemmon

Billy Wilder later said he saw in Lemmon “a lovable loser,” the kind of man who would allow himself to be exploited to get ahead in life. The basic tale had boundless possibilities, he said, including “this character and this theme…a solitary man who comes home at night and finds his bed still warm from the lovers.”

Wilder had worked with Lemmon the year before in Some Like it Hot, and was eager to work with him again. MacLaine was also his first—and really, only—choice for the role of Fran Kubelik. The rapport between Lemmon and MacLaine inspired much of the script. She later said, “there were only twenty-nine pages of script, maybe thirty-nine, that was all we had when we started. And then Billy and Izzie observed me and Jack together, and as they observed us they wrote the screenplay, as we were shooting.”

MacLaine was warm and disarming, playing a character that fits no stereotype. In contrast to her heartfelt portrayal, MacMurray strayed from his standard comedic role to a character that oozed sleaze. This was the second reprehensible part he played in a Wilder film—the first was in Double Indemnityand while he did an excellent job, audiences didn’t like it. Still, the overall popularity of the film didn’t suffer.

Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine in The Apartment

Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine

The Apartment won five Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Original Screenplay, the first two going to Billy Wilder and the third going to Wilder and his co-writer, I.A.L. Diamond. Lemmon, Maclaine and MacMurray were all nominated for Oscars.

This is an engaging film about a sordid subject, made charming by its two stars. It’s a story that’s as topical today (in its own offbeat way) as it was when it was made, although the portrayal of male-female relationships is dated. Still, Lemmon and MacLaine are honest enough in their roles that they remain relevant, and The Apartment is a classic that has stood the test of time.