Today’s topic: painful comedy. It’s a thing, I swear. How can I back it up? Billy Wilder’s best picture from 1960, The Apartment. Labeled as a comedy, the story of C.C. Baxter, an insurance worker who lends his apartment to his own superiors and their special ladies, in order to get a highly anticipated promotion became an instant hit at the box office and a classic of the genre. Wilder is known for being the ”nephew” of such comedic geniuses like Chaplin or Keaton, however the gags and awkward situations are not what he should be remembered for. The writer-director was much more than that. He had a lot to say and his voice resonated through such diverse works such as Sunset Boulevard, Ace in the Hole, Some Like it Hot, Double Indemnity and Sabrina.
All of his films were a social commentary, be it the story of a screenwriter trying to help out an aging silent film star or the story of a journalist taking advantage of a man trapped inside a mine for his own never ending fame. Some Like it Hot was met with a lot of insecurity, and the audiences weren’t sure if Wilder made that film just for comedic purposes or something deeper than that. Well, the answer could be found a year later, in the massive hit that was The Apartment, starring Jack Lemmon and at the time a fairly unknown Shirley MacLaine. That’s when Wilder hit the public with the unexpected: a comedy that is also a gut wrenching tragedy about the modern way of living and…loving. A tale so revolutionary and so complex that the viewers even to this day don’t know whether to laugh or to cry when the credits start to roll.
Wilder creates the character of C.C. Baxter (Charles Clifford Baxter), also known as Bud, as one of the most loveable yet pathetic characters in cinematic history. Yet why does he remain dear in our minds after the viewing of this picture? Because most of us can relate to Bud. He’s elegant, well mannered, kind and simple, but he’s also naive and ingenuous, used by the higher power, the greedy superiors who we all know exist. They use his apartment for extramarital affairs, promising the poor man a highly desired promotion. That’s one of Wilder’s main points: sometimes it’s not your work ethic and your effort that make you who you are. This was a whole new concept for the people used to the hardworking 40’s and conservative 50’s. The 60’s were considered a new era, a sudden explosion in the way people lived, thought and worked.
The idea of leading a double life, in this case cheating on your wife with your secretary or simply a girl you met in a bar, was met with great shock. How could a well respected insurance businessmen have a dirty affair and have no one notice it? Bud Baxter, in Wilder’s mind, was the typical, gentle, obedient worker, one of the most common characters in today’s world. Bud, in fact, represents the generation of people who don’t have anything valuable in their lives, no family, no lover, no memories; a new generation of people with nothing to lose. The best example is Baxter’s apartment: a few pieces of furniture, the television that airs only westerns and commercials, a record player and that’s about it. What does he eat? Pre-cooked chicken with no taste. That’s the new way of living. After hours and hours amongst his co-workers, typing figures on the computer, Bud comes to an empty apartment with only a comfortable bed waiting for him.
The only person he really cares about and falls for is Fran, or for him, the true gentleman he is, Miss Kubelik. She’s a sweet elevator girl, another example of a modern character: she found her way into a big insurance company, yet where does she end up? An elevator. The true American dream. “Oh, the irony!” screams Wilder’s screenplay. However, even an elevator girl can be the mistress of the main executive of the company, Jeff Sheldrake. The powerful meets the poor. And then again, Wilder underlines the new generation’s soft heart and innocence by forcing the character of Fran to take sleeping pills, in order to commit suicide because of her broken dreams. Feelings shouldn’t exist in the world we live in today. Everybody has a career. Everybody wants a career. Everybody runs after a career. There is no time for true love, sentimentality and empathy. What the hell is true love? A loving husband? A loving wife? In Wilder’s movie, a Christmas family photo is enough.
We laugh at Lemmon’s great sense of humour and ability to create something out of nothing, like his classic gestures and movements while using a nose spray in front of his boss. We also laugh at the crackling dialogue between Miss Kubelik and Bud in the elevator. However, we also feel for the both of them. We feel hurt because of their innocence and they way they are treated by the higher laws. In some way, they’re both lost on a foreign island.
But Wilder, known for getting to the point, says: “Shut up and deal”.