The Best Picture Project – The Apartment (1960)

Directed by Billy Wilder

Screenplay by Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond

Starring Jack Lemmon, Shirley Maclaine, Ray Walston and Fred MacMurray

There’s a terrible habit with the Academy to bestow awards on actors and filmmakers for the wrong film, making up for past slights or losses. Bette Davis took the award for Dangerous the year after she wasn’t even nominated for Of Human Bondage and lost as a write-in candidate.  Henry Fonda couldn’t win with Tom Joad or even get a nomination as Frank, in Once Upon a Time In The West, but could go home victorious for dreck like On Golden Pond.  Paul Newman couldn’t get love for Fast Eddie Felson until 20 years too late, with the lesser film The Color of Money.  Martin Scorcese could lose for four strong films that would be the crown-jewel of any other career  – Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Goodfellas and The Aviator – and yet win somehow he won Best Picture and Best Director for the good, yet lesser, The Departed.

The Apartment, and Billy Wilder, feels like it should rightfully be placed in this company because, compared to other films in Billy Wilder’s oeuvre that didn’t win Best Picture – specifically Double Indemnity, Sunset Boulevard and Some Like It HotThe Apartment feels like a pale shadow of those films.

The only problem with the theory? Billy Wilder didn’t need any make-up awards. He’d already won Best Director and Screenplay for The Lost Weekend, to which he later added a Screenplay Award for Sunset Boulevard, giving him, by 1950, three Academy Awards. Three Academy Awards is a great career haul, by any measure, and doesn’t smack of a career that needs a make-up Award, but when a director wins for a film that clearly feels like a lesser entry in his oeuvre, that’s just the way it is.

Lesser or not, the reality is that The Apartment was clearly the class of the Best Picture race of 1960. It’s biggest competition amongst it’s fellow nominees was either The Sundowners or Sons and Lovers, the only other films in the race that also rated a Best Director nom. Unfortunately, both are mostly forgettable films at this point with only the fact that Sons and Lovers was directed by the great cinematographer of the Black Narcissus, Jack Cardiff, to reccomend it.  Nevermind the fact that all the films in the race were truly overshadowed by the film that couldn’t rate a Best Picture nomination, Psycho.

That being said, The Apartment is actually a fairly daring choice for the Academy Awards, which have never been known to walk out on any limbs, artistically speaking. Telling the story of a workaday schlub trying to get ahead by loaning out his apartment to co-workers to carry on their affairs, only to one day find that the girl he’s secretly pined for, and lifted up as being pure in his eyes, is one of the other girls in one of these affairs, The Apartment is about as bleak as it can get. It might be one of the darker, more cynical films the Academy ever dropped Best Picture status on – what with multiple infidelities, workplace blackmail, sexual amorality and attempted suicide – and on the heels of such feel-good winners as Ben-Hur, Around the World in 80 Days and The Greatest Show on Earth it was a serious about face. Though the Academy would return to form and honor such ‘greats’ over the next decade as The Sound of Music, My Fair Lady and Oliver!, The Apartment feels, in some sense, like the first Best Picture winner of the 70s, a time when complicated – or downer – films came to prominence and ugly women could play Paul Newman’s love-interest.

But while the Academy sought fit to drop another three awards on Producer-Director-Screenwriter, Billy Wilder – bringing his career haul to six – and gave Lemmon his third nomination and MacLaine her second, the one player in the film I would have expected to receive a nomination in the Supporting Acting category – Fred MacMurray – was decidedly absent, making way for Jack Kruschen, who played Lemmon’s neighbor. In The Apartment MacMurray was never better – maybe Double Indemnity comes close – and it’s sad he never rated an Academy Award nomination.  But I guess those are the breaks when you become a Disney and TV star.

Notes/Trivia:

With his three wins on Oscar night Billy Wilder became the first man to win three Awards in a single night.  It has since been equalled by Marvin Hamlisch, James L. Brooks and James Cameron.

Ray Walston has a small part in this movie, as well as a small part in the recent entry, The Sting. Taking those two roles and adding in his villainous/humourous turn in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, I’m amazed that a man of his talents couldn’t have been a bigger star. However, in reading Truffaut/Hitchcock, it seems that to be a star you don’t really need to be a good actor. I suppose for Walston the fact that he was a good actor might have been the kiss of death to being a star.

The Apartment was one of the first movies on this list – along with Annie Hall – that I sat down and watched in one uninterrupted stretch. Normally I break them down – I do have other things to do in my life and devoting three to four hours to some of these movies is just impossible – but The Apartment was a one shot deal. I don’t know what it says about The Aaprtment that I made time to see it in one go, or what it says about Billy Wilder, but it was one of those few films I watched that actually felt like it breezed by and wasn’t a chore.

For the other winners and films left to see, click here.

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