Monday, February 03, 2020

encore! the film that defines me

"This film is alive!" Henry Miller once said, "And it speaks to me."

Movies have many voices. Some simply entertain us; others instruct. A few make us feel alive, and even fewer influence our behavior and decisions.

The ones that grip us in a personal way are the truly special movies in our lives. They have the awesome ability to get us to look inside ourselves and to pursue dreams that we otherwise might never consider.

Growing up, we all invariably have used film as a point of reference, a learning tool, an example. We would gulp down our One-a-Day vitamins, check our PF Flyers to make sure that they were double-knotted and then, almost routinely, make a beeline for the neighborhood Bijou where we would lose ourselves in make-believe, fantasies, daydreams and movies. Movies - the word itself sparkles with glitter.
Movies. The special ones stay with us forever. It takes little mental coaxing for me to remember those personal film arousals that have overwhelmed my life. And I've a suspicion that if I were to connect these movies - the way one connects dots - I'd come up with an image that looks, well, very much like me.

Which brings me to Billy Wilder's "The Apartment," my film. A reference to it recently by TCM's Ben Mankiewicz jogged my memory. Turns out, "The Apartment" is not exclusively mine. Ben invoked it when he referred to it in one of his introductions as the all-time favorite of his Turner Classic Movies colleague Alicia Malone.

Yes, great minds do think alike.

Not surprisingly, each of us could be charted by the movies that have guided us, movies we love. As a society, that chart would include such widespread titles as "Gone with the Wind" and "The Wizard of Oz," seminal movie experiences that continue to have an impact on the masses. No question about it.

Then, there is something like more personal, such as"The Apartment."

The beauty of movies of this kind is that they work on us more intimately, directly on our senses. They get us alone in the dark and then, while we're isolated and diverted and vulnerable, they whisper to us, subliminally instructing us in the ways of life. And, yes, sometimes they lie to us.

They may not always change our lives in conspicuous ways, inspiring us to pick up and move away, get married or have a baby (although some can). What the best of them do is to, quite simply, put us in contact with ourselves.
The movies that are special to us - and you know which ones are your favorites - knock us out with some truth or some indication of what can be. We never do quite get our balance back. We leave the theater feeling dazed, irritated, excited, exhilarated and eager to do something, anything.

In my case, movies are more than a profession or even an avocation. I will be frank: They have been my life, I dream about them, the way I do about people. They are my world and it's a wondrous place. But one has to be careful because when one lives in a world of movies, one risks living in a place that's close to, well, nowhere.

So, how did I end up in this place?
It started innocently enough. I used movies initially as an escape, then as a learning tool, looking for examples, for role models, for someone with whom I could connect.

Not easy. I'd sit there in awe of John Wayne, for example - with his cunning and macho prowess, such as when he rescued a teenage Natalie Wood in John Ford’s "The Searchers," knowing that I could never measure up. Never.

It' difficult to feel much kinship with the men I saw on screen, but I tried. The image of Wayne swooping down and scooping up Natalie Wood has a strong, masculine force that is anything but absurd to a little boy.

But then, I saw a movie that convinced me that, somehow, my life could be emotionally mixed up with movies. When I first saw it, Billy Wilder’s “The Apartment" created a longing so ardent that I thought my chest and head would implode.

It was the summer of 1960. I remember little else about that summer or that year, for that matter, except that I loved "The Apartment" and that I related to its star, Jack Lemmon, in the most complete, complicated way possible. A point of reference at last. A role model.

Hearing Ben Mankiewicz reference Alicia Malone compelled me to dig out this old essay, which originally was published August 2, 2006, my second piece for The Passionate Moviegoer. I remember having written that with such dubious assets as his slight build, sagging shoulders, slouching posture and wide-open face filled with basset-hound anxiety, Jack Lemmon filled me with wonder for someone who seemed so much like me - or so I liked to think.
Jack Lemmon was Mr. Joe Average, a guy like a lot of other guys, only with a quizzical alertness and high-strung energy. As Saturday Review aptly put it in its uncredited review of Richard Murphy’s “The Wackiest Ship in the Army” (1961), Lemmon was "the perfect personification of all harassed mankind - the outranked, outnumbered, out-manipulated little fellow with sound instincts and bad judgment. He is the one who is always taken advantage of. And if, in the end, he emerges triumphant, it's because of a basic decency rather than superior cunning or sudden inspiration."
Over the years, I've watched my 16mm print of "The Apartment" at least 50 times, and easily many more times on home entertainment, but I still remember the first time: I was with some Catholic-school friends, kids who tested their tonsils and tangled diction on the screen by shouting obscene words through their cupped hands. We told our parents that we'd be seeing "The Story of Ruth," a Biblical epic released the same summer as "The Apartment." (Blasphemy, I know.)

They goofed off, but I watched. “The Apartment” is the first film that I actually studied, reading between the lines and noting techniques. In my case, I couldn't get enough of  "The Story of Ruth." While my friends moved on, "The Story of Ruth" became my go-to movie that summer. It's like I had invented binge-watching.

I’ve seen a lot of films, and my list of favorites keeps changing, but “The Apartment” – the story of an ambitious office worker (Lemmon) who climbs the corporate ladder by “lending” his apartment to his philandering bosses before getting his priorities straight – has been resistant to any upward or downward revision in my mind. It's been a constant -  the test, I guess, of a truly great personal film.
Few movies, however, have the kind of impact on our lives that “The Apartment” has had on mine. But the infrequent great ones do come along from time to time, films that restore our belief in possibilities and that remain our points of reference throughout our lives.

These movies are like dreams that live on. Each movie, each celluloid dream, becomes a part of our mental scrapbooks. I know that I’ve lingered over movies and movie scenes the way some people reminisce over snapshots of that wonderful vacation in Cape Cod. “The Apartment,” for example, has been carried around inside me ever since that first viewing. It’s familiar and comforting, like an old easy chair that’s been lugged to each new place in which I’ve lived – to remind me of where I’ve been and where I will continue to go.
That movie is like a ribbon, a thread, that has run through my life and I can always go back to it. And, like me, throughout the years, it has evolved and changed. It hasn’t remained the same and, for some reason, I find that reassuring.

I still quote lines of the Billy Wilder-I.A.L. Diamond dialogue from the movie – such as David Lewis' casual shrug, “That’s the way it crumbles, cookie-wise,” or Lemmon's observation to his dream girl in the film, Shirley MacLaine, as they are about to enjoy a spaghetti dinner on Christmas day: “It’s a wonderful thing – dinner for two.” Shirley MacLaine. Yes, she was my dream, too.

Inevitably, I found myself discreetly consulting “The Apartment” as a way of getting through life. A situation would be confronted by speculating how C.C. Baxter, Lemmon’s character in the film, might handle it. I actually thought I’d grow up to be Jack Lemmon or, at least, C.C. Baxter.

Silly right? I was a kid.

Up until that time, I spent endless, sleepless nights as that kid wondering if I’d grow up to look like Jack Lemmon (I didn’t) or if I’d join the Navy the way he did in John Ford and Mervyn LeRoy's “Mr. Roberts” (again, I didn’t) or work for an insurance company the way he did in “The Apartment” (ditto) or if I’d marry MacLaine’s Fran Kubelik (no way). These were actual, recurring dreams. No exaggeration.

Of course, I wasn’t Jack Lemmon and my life that followed wasn’t at all like the one he lived in “The Apartment.” And with this, I realized that movies have the ability to hit us in more ways, and on more levels, than we can ever appreciate.

They are transporting and make us believe.

Ever since I first saw “The Apartment,” my life has been wrapped up, irrevocably, in movies, so much so that, for me, film has evolved into a pop psychology. Film became a part of something larger in my life. Movies and events in my world have tended to blend together.

Along the way, a kid no more, I learned to separate fantasy from reality, to realize that only a few of my movie-fed dreams will materialize. And I’ve also accepted the realization that many of these dreams may fall short of “the way it happens in the movies" - a harsh truth for the movie-loving kid who stayed with me far too long.

Notes in Passing:  No, the Navy no longer holds any glamour or allure for me, and neither do insurance companies (!). And I married someone far better than Fran Kubelik. But I have other, newer dreams, all of which, I’m sure, will also continue to come from movies.

My parents were not happy when they learned that in reality I had spent the summer of '60 watching Jack lend out his apartment to his bosses for sex.

A kid sinner.

 Regarding Comments: All comments are enthusiastically appreciated but are moderated before publication. Replies signed "unknown" or "anonymous" are not encouraged. Please sign any response with a name (real or fabricated) or initials.  Be advised that a "name" will be assigned to any accepted post signed "unknown" or "anonymous." Thank you. -J

* * * * *
(from top)
 ~Opening title card for "The Apartment"
~design: United Artists 1960©

  ~Turner Classic Movies host Alicia Malone
 ~photography: TCM 1960©

~Assorted still shots of Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine, Fred MacMurray, Hope Holliday and Billy Wilder in "The Apartment" (Publicity shot of Jack Lemmon as C.C. "Bud" Baxter in "The Apartment"; still shot of the office Christmas party, and Lemmon and director Billy Wilder, a "mutual admiration society" on the set)
~Photography: United Artists 1960©


The Kid In The Front Row said...

Wow -- this is a truly, truly fantastic blog about a perfect movie. You have articulated everything that is wonderful about The Apartment in a wonderful way. It's like you somehow managed to channel Wilder whilst penning this.

Alice said...

Love Lemmon, too. Blog looks good! Well done. All the best!

jeff said...

Hello! Jack would approve! Keep up the great work, Cheers!

Alex said...

I know the apartment is supposed to be at 59 West 67th St. but, there is no apartment that address.... That's the ABC headquarters... Was the actual apartment at that address???? Is it gone.... I live on the Upper West side, and talk about obsession... I come the streets off of Central Park West always in hopes of finding "the apartment"..... 120 West 80th seems to fit a lot of the criteria.... three side by side staircases leading up to an elevated first floor with bowed 2nd floor windows...... Help me..... in Manhattan.... as for my first seeing of the film the apartment.... I was on the Queen of Bermuda, a cruise ship heading for... you guessed it .... Bermuda.... My babysitter was too seasick and my parents were living it up... much like those at the accounting firm christmas party... so I wandered into the onboard movie theater and must have watched it 2 or three times..... not getting a lot of it.... I was 7 or 8 you see.... Anyway... that is part of the reason why I am so obsessed with this film..... and love all of Billy Wilder's films.....

E Currie said...

Great article Joe and a truly great movie.

Re the question posed by Alex, the exact location of the Apartment is 55 West 69th. Must confess I've been looking myself but this article
puts us all out of our misery. The elaborate staircase has gone but you can clearly see it's the one.

Interestingly, the bar scene was filmed just around the corner in the Emerald Inn.

Marc Powers said...

I am your first blogger groupie, Joe! For some reason, I never had the privilege of reading your column in LA. Having caught up with this remarkable piece, I am extremely impressed by your prose and insights.

Cal said...

Anonymous said...

We've been missing your reviews ever since you left the California. You were always the first critic I consulted, even after I moved away from Sac. I understand your decision to stop reviewing movies as a vocation and appreciated that you telecommunted for a while, but won't you consider reviewing the new movies you really appreciate on this blog?

Much thanks,

Cal Pacino

joe baltake said...

Cal! So glad you found me! Thanks for the generous words. -J-J

Donald Elmes said...

A most touching reminisence. This is the first time I've read your site. I will check it out regularly!

Paul Margulies said...

Funny, but Jack Lemmon has always had a different effect on me.

He reminds me of my father. (no mistake using present tense)

I got to know him, a bit, in NYC many years ago when he was starring in Tribute on Broadway and I was working at Sardi's, one of his watering holes. He'd also show up occasionally at Open Call, a piano bar near the theater where Tribute was playing.

One night in Sardi's, it was both Mr. Sardi's and my dad's birthday. Mr. Sardi got my dad on the phone and Jack wished him a happy birthday. Later, when he found out that my dad had passed from pancreatic cancer, he warned me not to see his film "Dad" where his character dies of the same disease because he knew that seeing him on screen would bring back the fresh memories of my dad's death.

A couple of years ago, The Apartment was screened in 70mm as part of the Widescreen Weekend festival in Bradford, England. I wept.

Bill Wolfe said...

This is a beautiful piece of writing, both the original and the new addition. Thanks for sharing.

I think my version of The Apartment would be A Hard Day's Night. Not surprisingly, I did not grow up to be John Lennon - or, more accurately, "John Lennon," since he would have been, and in fact was, the first person to say the movie's version of him wasn't really him. But how much joy I've gotten from Not Really John, and Not Really Paul, Not Really George, and Not Really Ringo! And how much those Not Really Beatles helped me become really me.

mike schlesinger said...

Exceptional piece, and some wonderful photos I'd never seen, especially the one with the three bowlers.

MY movie, of course, is well-known to all. ;-)

joe baltake said...

Mike! Me thinks the word "mad" fits the title. -J

walt said...

since Billy Wilder made ' The Apartment ', I now want his to make a movie called ' Home Owners '...he can call in the script from his grave

MGoetzeler said...

Joe, your writing is a dream to read. I like the apartment but have never felt connected to it like you have. My movie is Miracle on 34th St. the best version with Natalie Wood. I learned so much from that movie. About life, retail, believing in the unbelievable, and more. Silly I know, but it’s my movie. Thank you for always making me think about movies in different ways.

Ps I second the request to review current movies. I can’t tell you how many times I think: WDJT. What Does Joe Think when the movie is over.

Kevin Barry said...

Joe, your writing continues to shake the memories loose. I can still feel myself standing under the marquee of the Astor theatre in Manhattan waiting for the first showing of The Apartment on its opening day, staring up at the "key" in the film's logo. Across the street, workmen were putting the finishing touches to the huge wraparound corner billboard for Psycho at the DeMille Theatre, which would be opening the next day! That image is clearer to me than whatever I did yesterday.

j. novak said...

You have some serious groupies.

Joey said...

Holy smoke Joe. This is one for the ages. One to print out and savor to read over and over again. On this day when movies are supposed to be celebrated at the Oscars you put into words what our love for cinema is really all about. Your column speaks to all of us who live for next flicker of light to come on our screen. I would be lost without them. I'm glad you are putting it into words I cannot do. Thanks Joe

Joan said...

While you've written about "The Apartment" before, this one really digs deep and stirred thoughts of special moments for me. You managed to put into words what so many of us feel and clearly, what moved you. Another thing we agree on - you married way better! Thanks.