Thursday, July 26, 2018

Sheldrake & Trump / Baxter & Bush

~how Billy Wilder anticipated the #MeToo movement and that "Access Hollywood" tape
"What's so interesting about looking at movies again - you're different and they're different."
-Molly Haskell
Inevitably, I return to Billy Wilder's "The Apartment."

I celebrated it as "the film that defines me" when I introduced this site back in 2006 and have referenced it multiple times with each additional viewing - and with the recognition that I saw a slightly different movie each time. When it was new, in 1960, the film was praised for how masterfully Wilder combined equal measures of the bitter with the sweet, but as it seemingly morphed decade after decade, that balance played out.

With each passing year, its affable hero and lovelorn heroine have become a little less innocent - and much more complicit in their respective situations, losing the sympathetic appeal that made them so likeable in 1960. As a result, the movie itself has taken on a dramatic muscularity.

Suddenly, years on, it had a notable toughness.

And as it approaches its 60th anniversary, "The Apartment" has remained remarkably modern. All that's missing really are cell phones and laptops - and self-service elevators, of course. It could pass for a recent movie. Yes, modern - and pertinent.  During my most recent engagement with "The Apartment," two moments struck me with their relevance to today.

But, first, a little set-up: C.C. (Bud) Baxter (Jack Lemmon) is an ambitious puppy who works in the company's Premium Accounting Division (desk #861) of Consolidated Life of New York and who (1) "lends" his apartment to several of his superiors for their extramarital affairs and (2) has this crush on Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine), an elevator operator in the Consolidated building who is otherwise committed to an ill-fated affair with J.D. Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray), the (married) head of Consolidated personnel. Baxter is so delusional that he actually thinks he is in a relationship with Fran because they speak whenever he's in her elevator.

Anyway, Sheldrake finds out about Baxter's apartment and, in exchange for a big promotion, Baxter promises the boss exclusive use of it. The day Baxter moves into his new office, he is confronted by the executives who have been using the place - Dobitsch, Kirkeby, Eichelberger and Vanderhof - and who are unhappy about its unavailability, making veiled threats.

These subservient chimps are interrupted when the dominant ape, Sheldrake, appears. Clearing them out, he has the following, rather familiar conversation with a very unctuous, eager-to-please Baxter:

Sheldrake: Well, how does it feel to be an executive?

Baxter: Fine! And I want you to know that I'll work very hard to justify your confidence in me!

Sheldrake: Sure you will. (a short pause) Say, Baxter, about that apartment - now that you got a raise, don't you think we can afford a second key?

Baxter: Well, I guess so.

Sheldrake: You know my secretary - Miss Olsen...

Baxter: Oh, yes! Very attractive! Is she the lucky one?

Sheldrake: No, you don't understand. She's a busybody, always poking her nose into things - and with that key passing back and forth, why take chances?

Baxter: Yes, sir! You can't be too careful! (a pause) I have something here - I think it belong to you.   

Sheldrake: To me?

Bud hands Sheldrake a make-up compact.

Baxter: I mean - the young lady - whoever she may be. It was on the couch when I got home last night. The mirror is broken. It was broken when I found it.

Sheldrake: So it was. She threw it at me.

Baxter: Sir?

Sheldrake: You know how it is - sooner or later, they all give you a bad time.

Baxter: (acting like a big man himself) I know how it is!

Sheldrake: You see a girl a couple of times a week - just for laughs - and right away she thinks you're going to divorce your wife. I ask you, is that fair?

Baxter: No, sir! That's very unfair ... especially to your wife!

Sheldrake: Put me down for Thursday again.

Baxter: Roger! And I'll get that other key!

A few scenes later, during an office holiday party at Consolidated, Baxter invites Fran into his new office to model something - a black bowler hat called the Junior Executive. Not sure how he looks in it, Fran hands Baxter her compact so that he can see for himself. He looks surprised.

Fran: What is it?

Baxter: The mirror - it's broken.

Fran: I know. I like it this way. Makes me look the way I feel.

Baxter's phone rings, Fran leaves and then he also leaves, disappointed and disgruntled that she's Sheldrake's paramour. He ends up in a cheap bar with a pick-up who he takes home - where he finds Fran, passed out on his bed. Suddenly, Baxter - of all people - is self-righteous. The hypocrite starts talking gibberish about how it's "all over" between them:

Baxter: All right, Miss Kubelik - get up! It's past checking-out time, and the hotel management would appreciate it if you would get the hell out of here. (a pause) Look, Miss Kubelik, I used to like you - I used to like you a lot - but it's over between us!  So beat it!  O.U.T.!  Out!
I can't think of the number of times that I've watched these sequences and simply took them in stride - the "locker-room talk" between Sheldrake and Bud (much less graphic than the boasting Trump-Bush "Access Hollywood" incident but still offensive) and the way Sheldrake, your standard entitled bully and liar, steamrolls/threatens Miss Olsen (Edie Adams), his secretary and former mistress; Fran, a lowly elevator operator and current mistress; Bud, so desperate for recognition of any kind, and of course his wife.

I believe the current word of choice for his behavior is "inappropriate."

It would amazing if Billy Wilder and his co-writer A.I.L. Diamond were still with us to discuss the dynamics of their ever-relevant script and how their film has turned out to be so prescient - so much more than "bittersweet."

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(from top)

~The opening title card for "The Apartment"

~Fred MacMurray and Jack Lemmon in a scene from "The Apartment"
~photography: United Artists 1960©

~A mirror reflection of Lemmon; Shirley MacLaine, and Hope Holliday with Lemmon
~photography: United Artists 1960©

~a hypocritical Lemmon berating an unconscious MacLaine
~photography: United Artists 1960©


Kevin Barry said...

Was there ever a better visual expression of self-loathing and disappointment than Lemmon seeing his double-image in the cracked compact mirror? There are enough plot elements and emotional connections in that single shot to qualify it as a master class in story construction. (Wilder had a genius for this kind of thing, e.g., Holden catching his expensive watch chain on the door as he leaves Swanson's mansion). And nobody used my favorite format - black and white Panavision - more creatively than Wilder. Well, maybe Preminger.

joe baltake said...

Kevin- Great minds think alike. I also have a weakness for black-&-white wide-screen movies - and you're absolutely correct about Wilder's and Preminger's use of that very special visual format. I'd also add Woody Allen (for "Manhattan"), George Stevens ("The Diary of Anne Frank") and George Marshall ("The Gazebo"). And, yes, that cracked mirror which, as she puts it, says a lot about Fran's self-loathing, also serves as an apt comment on the conflicted Bud. -J

Reyna said...

Great re-take on a classic. Sadly, I think this would be true of so many old films which reflected their times. I remember hearing years ago that Fred MacMurray took lot of criticism for being in this movie, given his "Disney" persona, but I guess it showed his acting ability.

Charlotte said...

I've always felt that the only reason that Baxter and Miss Kubelik were acceptable is because they were played by Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine, two extremely likeable performers. Neither character is very admirable. He's a blatant suck-up and she wallows in self-pity. Normally, I wouldn't want to spend ten minutes with them but I've gladly spent two hours with Jack and Shirl - many times over.

Mike Schlesinger said...

All great choices, but IMHO, when it comes to B&W 'Scope, nobody beats the Japanese, especially Kaneto Shindo (e.g., ONIBABA, KURONEKO).

wwolfe said...

I always thought this was MacMurray's best performance. He definitely should have gotten at least a nomination for Best Supporting Actor.

joe baltake said...

Bill- I agree. MacMuarry was, by and large, an under-appreciated actor. As you may know, he took the role in "The Apartment" as a favor to Wilder, who had originally wanted Paul Douglas for the part and wrote it with him in mind. But Douglas died just before filming began and MacMuarry came in at the 11th hour and turned in a rather conflicted performance, just the right reading for the role of Sheldrake. It was a stark contrast to the TV series he was doing at the time, "My Three Sons," and the work he was currently doing at Disney, where he became a team player. Rumor has it that his family-oriented fans, who were not familiar with his earlier work, were none-too-happy with the character he played in "The Apartment." -J