Genre filmmaking is a precise art, and yes, that includes the much-maligned romantic comedy. A number of intangibles all have to click together to make the whole thing work: the chemistry of the leads, the effectiveness of the meet-cute, the difficulty of the obstacles facing the relationship, the triumph of their reunion. There is a rhythm to all this, and the best romantic comedies have it: the based-on-reality poignancy of The Big Sick, the raunchiness of Always Be My Maybe, the confident charm of Just Wright, the amusing eroticism of When Harry Met Sally. And the formula they all so satisfyingly master can be traced back to 1960’s The Apartment, the Billy Wilder classic that dared to mock the soulless grind of the corporate world, made clear the often-gendered power imbalance of infidelity, and remains one of the few rom-coms to be lauded by the Academy of Motion Pictures and Sciences.
One of the most commanding figures of Hollywood’s early days, Wilder’s filmography is, frankly, astonishing. During the 1950s alone, he directed four films that have since landed in the National Film Registry—Sunset Boulevard, Ace in the Hole, Sabrina, and Some Like It Hot—and others that are instantly recognizable for myriad reasons. (If you’ve ever felt any thirst toward that iconic image of Marilyn Monroe standing on a subway grate with the hem of her white dress blowing up around her, you can thank Wilder’s The Seven Year Itch.) It was undoubtedly those decades of experience that allowed for Wilder’s easy confidence in helming The Apartment, with its deliciously sharp script, pointed criticism of capitalist ambition, and blatantly wacky antics—miscommunications, missed connections, and mistaken identities. And in Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine, Wilder found performers adept and skilled enough to capture the contrasting vibrancy and melancholy their characters required.
Set in New York City, as many of Wilder’s movies were, The Apartment lets Lemmon’s C. C. Baxter introduce himself through first-person narration. He works for Consolidated Life, one of the top five insurance companies in the city, and he prefers to go by “Bud,” but most everyone at work calls him by the slightly condescending “Buddy boy”—his coworkers on the 19th floor, where he sits at Desk No. 861, and the various executives for whom Bud provides an essential service. Nearly every night of the week, Bud hides the key to his 67th Street apartment under his welcome mat, leaves his building, and opens his home up to various Consolidated Life higher-ups for their philandering use. Random strangers they meet at bars. Secretaries and switchboard operators from work. And never, ever their wives.
Does this complicity to such relentless infidelity bother Bud? It at least inconveniences him—he sleeps on a park bench overnight, catching a wicked cold. His landlady is getting suspicious about all the comings and goings, and his neighbors, specifically his next-door neighbor Dr. Dreyfuss (Jack Kruschen), are convinced that he’s an immoral womanizer. Dr. Dreyfuss, who hears energetic noises through the walls nearly every night and sees Bud taking out bins of empty liquor bottles nearly every week, is brusque in his advice: “Slow down, kid!” And at work, it takes Bud a flurry of phone calls to rearrange the executives’ nightly schedule when one of them demands an emergency date.
But the bosses promise they’ll repay Bud with a promotion, and to this oath at least, they’re faithful. When one of the head honchos at Consolidated Life, Jeff D. Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray), calls Bud into his office, it’s to elevate him from the insurance agent pool to his new position as a second administrative assistant. From one of hundreds, Bud is now one of the few. And all Mr. Sheldrake wants in return, he tells Bud, is the key to his apartment. That won’t be a problem, will it?
Wilder is relentless in his crafting of Consolidated Life as the sort of place that is blandly unremarkable on its face and corruptively hedonistic at its core; fans of Mad Men will recognize the mid-century office culture. The replaceability of Consolidated Life workers and the objectification of its female employees is captured in MacLaine’s Fran Kubelik, an elevator operator who greets Bud each morning with a smile and a flower in her lapel, and who is used to dodging men’s hands on her ass—but never Bud’s. Instead, Bud comes alive in their interactions, Lemmon’s endlessly elastic face splitting into a genuine smile, and we see in these moments how much he performs for the executives, how much he demeans himself for Mr. Sheldrake. He’s heard the men who use his apartment call him a “schnook” and a “kid,” he’s heard them threaten to fire him if he doesn’t comply. There’s no honor among thieves, and what are these men doing but using their status to steal space and time and dignity from someone who, knowing what their retribution will be, can’t say no?
Toward Fran, though, Bud feels no such resentment. On his own, Bud is a whirlwind of nonchalance. In his untidy home, he throws a used match on the floor after he’s done lighting his oven and tosses a magazine aside after he’s done reading it; at work, he flings used facial tissues off his desk. He’s a busy man, intent on climbing the corporate ladder begrudgingly offered to him in exchange for his discretion, but he can’t hide his disdain for the very quid pro quo system that keeps him employed. On his couch, flipping through TV channels to watch while eating a frozen dinner, Lemmon’s pliant mug transforms entirely from one of benign delight to unreserved irritation at the “But first, a word from our sponsor” message that precludes the movie he wants to watch. When the program offers up another “But first, a word from our alternate sponsor” immediately afterward, he turns the TV off in disgust. Bud is tired of waiting for his life to start, and he’s increasingly tired of Consolidated Life, too.
How Bud and Fran’s paths intertwine, and the way these two twentysomethings are held in thrall by the power and status of Mr. Sheldrake, takes The Apartment on a journey that is intermittently quite dark but ultimately less cynical than Wilder’s other work. There is sincerity throughout The Apartment, provided mostly by Lemmon’s fundamentally principled Bud and MacLaine’s openhearted Fern, to balance a shocking-for-its-time subplot that tried to imagine how a desperate young woman might react when her married lover essentially calls her a prostitute after months of treating her like one. Notice that the romantic comedies that have followed in The Apartment’s footsteps haven’t mimicked those exact subplots, the sorrow and resentment of which are legitimate for The Apartment but have since been abandoned by the increasingly zany, lighthearted genre. What has been endlessly copied, though, is the wry despondency of MacLaine’s performance. The deadpan way she mocks how others view her: “That’s me, the happy idiot,” she replies to her lover, who is frustrated that she’s no longer “such a good sport, such fun to be with.” The little laugh she uses to interrupt herself when she asks through tears, “How could I be so stupid? When you’re in love with a married man, you shouldn’t wear mascara!” Unlike so many films of the time, The Apartment focuses on Fran’s pain in a way that is motivated by concern for her well-being, not an obsession with her downfall, and MacLaine was rightfully nominated for a Best Actress Oscar, alongside Lemmon for Best Actor and Kruschen for Best Supporting Actor. (Wilder collected three Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay; overall, the film received 10 nominations and also won for Best Art Direction and Best Film Editing.)
“Some people take, and some people get took,” Bud says, and The Apartment never wavers in condemning the former and aligning itself with the latter. Its argument that love isn’t a transaction, but a partnership, would help build the blueprint for the romantic comedy as it evolved. The heart of The Apartment is in Bud straining spaghetti using a tennis racket, to Fran’s delight, or in Fran’s knowing smile when Bud professes his love exuberantly and repeatedly; those relationship dynamics play out time and time again in Annie Hall, in Bridget Jones’ Diary, and in The Best Man, as well as in teen-focused romantic comedies like Drumline or 10 Things I Hate About You. “The old payola won’t work anymore,” Bud says when he walks out of Consolidated Life for good, and the brilliance of The Apartment was in how it built something new.