In “Worst Best Picture” we search every single Best Picture Oscar winner of all time from 1927 to present to uncover the worst of them all. Conventional wisdom says that 2005’s winner Crash is the worst winner in history. We won’t stop until we’ve tested every last one. Read the the first, our review of Crash, here. All posts should be considered to have a blanket “spoiler alert” on them. Today’s installment is the 1960 winner The Apartment. Is it better than Crash?
Comedies don’t win Best Picture. Seriously, look at the list. Scroll through the last 30 or so. The Hurt Locker. Schindler’s List. No Country for Old Men. I mean, Gladiator definitely is funny at times, but I wouldn’t say the people behind it were making a comedy.
That’s what makes The Apartment so strange. It’s a Jack Lemmon movie and it is very clearly just a “vehicle” for his comedy. He plays sick and stuffs Kleenex in every pocket he has. He frantically flips a Rolodex and uses the 1960s version of a phone tree. He does everything but full-on pratfall to sell how funny he is in the first half hour and it works, it works, it works.
You first recognize that there’s something special about this movie through Jack Lemmon himself. He’s playing C.C. Baxter, the put-upon drone at Company X. Baxter wants to get promoted on his merits, but he’s figured out that middle management would rather screw secretaries in his isolated apartment than look at his figures. Thus, the game is on.
Baxter doesn’t condone anyone’s illicit activities — the movie has a couple of obvious, untouched asides where he openly condemns adultery — but he wants this job and it’s hard to say no. He’s only rewarded once their boss catches wind and decides to use the company retreat for himself. The trouble (well, rest of the trouble)? The head honcho’s girl is the one Baxter is in love with. The boss won’t leave his wife for her and she won’t love Baxter because she’s torn up over the boss. What’s a guy to do?
There have only been two black-and-white movies to win Best Picture since The Apartment. There are only two in those more than five decades: Schindler’s List and The Artist. As the last true black-and-white Best Picture from the days where it wasn’t an aesthetic choice, you’d expect the movie to be dated. The comedy suffers more than the universal theme.
The tricky part about comedy is always that it becomes dated. That’s just the reality of the genre. At one point a character says, angrily, “Live now, pay later! Diners Club!” It’s pretty clearly a slogan of the time, but it solidifies The Apartment in 1960. One of the main characters is an elevator operator, but what locks the movie in another era is that weird Diners Club line and a handful of others like it.
Does that matter? No, not as much as it could. It’s easy to see how that line works in context. It’s easy to guess at what a shrieking woman ordering a Rum Collins in a terrible bar is supposed to represent. It’s simple enough to forgive these little steps away from what we know to enjoy the line “That’s the way it crumbles, cookie-wise.”
It’s a comedy, but it’s weirdly dour. Baxter takes it hard when he realizes that the cost of getting the promotion means he can’t be taken seriously at work, but no one takes anything harder than the poor elevator operator. After just about an hour of mostly comedy and setup, she downs some sleeping pills and tries to kill herself in Baxter’s apartment. It has to happen to drive the plot and the movie eventually does a good job of supporting this as a choice her love-muddled mind makes, but it’s such a sharp tonal shift.
Later in the movie Baxter tells the story of when he tried to kill himself with a gun because he was torn up about love, but he says he shot himself in the knee. He’s nursing someone who recently attempted suicide back to some semblance of health and he doesn’t know what to say. It’s the kind of real, sad gesture that we all hope we would make to try to help in some way. It’s not perfect, but it’s human.
The movie slowly works backwards from the suicide attempt to explain what makes the character tick, but it never really gets there. It’s easy to blame the 1960 release date on why Shirley MacLaine’s character doesn’t get any agency or reason to live outside of the powerful married man she loves, but a movie willing to deal with the reality of suicide this directly should be able to sustain a more rational and powerful female lead. The role earned MacLaine a Best Actress nomination and she absolutely plays it well, but it is hard to watch the movie in 2014 and not want to pull her into the future, where women in movies are allowed to matter. This movie needs the Bechdel test badly.
There are modern complaints to lob at the 1960 winner for Best Picture, but it’s a phenomenal movie. Jack Lemmon gives what I’d normally call a once-in-a-lifetime performance, but most people don’t get to have Jack Lemmon’s lifetime.
I really tried to find a way to compare this to Crash, but I just don’t see anything they have in common. The 1960 Best Picture The Apartment is about as respectful of women as the 2005 Best Picture Crash, I suppose. It’s just that one of them is a sad reminder of a “simpler” time and the other is from the 1960s.
The Best Part: Sick Jack Lemmon, clearly. Through the first 20 minutes of the film Jack Lemmon’s character is sick, designed to show the physical toll that not having his own apartment is having on him. His sick antics are the same as watching an experienced actor play a convincing drunk — but sick is harder. You feel pity for him and it sets up the entire movie. Bonus: It clearly draws the line of good and evil. Only good guys get colds.
The Worst Part: Tone, tone, tone! Of course Shirley MacLaine has to take the sleeping pills because otherwise this is the story of how bad things all work out for bad people. That’s no story, so she’s gotta try to go into that good night. The suicide attempt isn’t the problem, it’s how wacky the movie treats it. Honorable mention to MacLaine’s brother-in-law’s character, who seems like he was a “Greedo-shot-first” level of afterthought. He may as well be screaming “Why I oughta!” instead of delivering lines.
Is It Better or Worse than Crash? The Apartment is about if it is more important to care about work or about love, at the most basic level. The two are often difficult to balance (see: Mad Men, all culture forever, etc) but rarely are they so at odds. This is a movie about an age-old theme that manages to put an interesting spin on it. It’s relatable and unique. It feels real, even in the most slapsticky parts. Crash offers no one of any substance and is more needlessly morbid than a movie with a 45-minute suicide comedy arc. It would be tough, even if that were the assignment, to do that.
Image credit: IMDB