Published July 23, 2008
**This summer, on eight successive Tuesday evenings, I am presenting a series called Isn’t It Romantic? Romance at the Movies, 1934-1989 at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington. (go to www.eppc.org/movies for details or to register to attend). The sixth film in the series was The Apartment (1960), by Billy Wilder, shown on July 22nd. Before the screening, I spoke as follows:
Up until now, all of the films we have seen in this series, except for The Shop Around the Corner, have imagined love and romance to some extent in terms of class. The rich and privileged are those whose lives we — or at least the movies — naturally think of when it comes to romance. This is partly for the reason that I mentioned last week in connection with An Affair to Remember, namely that, with any suitor less wealthy and socially prominent than the Prince, Cinderella would lose a lot of her fascination for us. The trajectory from despised step-sister to princess has the sort of magnificence that we have come to expect from romance, in movies as in fairy tales, and the image of earthly felicity that romance means to convey is at the least enhanced by the addition of wealth and status to love and at times almost seems to depend on it. Even in The Shop Around the Corner, as I pointed out last week, Alfred Kralik’s promotion to manager of the shop makes him a sort of discount-store version of a prince to Klara Novak’s Cinderella.
Another way to put this might be to say that romance tends to be and maybe even needs to be at least to some degree escapist and fantastical in order to produce its effect. We like to dream big when we dream, and romance is a kind of dream that all can share. But fantasy is always to some degree self-limiting, or at least it used to be. Nowadays, in the age of superheroes and computer-generated imagery and movies made primarily for pre-adolescent tastes, it may be a different story, but back in the1960s when the last great cinematic flowering took place, the fashion was to call romance’s bluff. A movie like An Affair to Remember with its technicolor elegance, its fascination with the lives of the rich and famous and an unmistakable tinge of sentimentality must have begun to look at least a little bit phony to audiences within a very short time after it came out in 1957. One way we can tell this is that it was only three years later when tonight’s movie, Billy Wilder’s The Apartment, was produced.
For The Apartment brings elegance, sophistication and sentimentality down to earth — and back to gritty black-and-white — with a bang. What I like about it, however, is that it is wry and skeptical and satirical without being cynical. It has a heart, and it believes in love even though it is aware of and unblinking about the sordidness and corruption out of which love often arises. You could say it is a mensch among movies even though, like its hero, it seems to start from quite a different place.
Remember the scene in Brief Encounter where Alec and Laura meet at the apartment of Alec’s friend and colleague, Stephen, in the latter’s absence? Supposedly, that scene planted the seed of The Apartment in Billy Wilder’s mind. He is said to have homed in, not on the lovers but on the guy whose apartment it was and his place, for good or ill, in the complex of illicit sexual behavior. He was, I guess, the sexual “forgotten man” and so made a natural appeal to Wilder’s interest in his own Everyman, C.C. Baxter, whom Jack Lemmon was a natural to play.
I doubt this story myself. Even if the apartment in Brief Encounter started Billy Wilder’s mental wheels turning, it was nothing like the one in The Apartment, nor was Stephen anything like C.C. Baxter. Lean’s apartment, as you may remember, was used without the owner’s knowledge or consent and, as he frankly tells Alec, to his considerable disappointment. Stephen is a man of high principles and unbending morality; Baxter is weak but ambitious and allows himself to be used by his superiors in order to ingratiate himself with them. He even protects them by taking on the infamy of their sexual misbehavior himself. In return they have nothing but contempt for him. In Brief Encounter, the shame is not that of the apartment owner but of the misbehaving lover — or rather the non-misbehaving lover, for in that movie there is no actual “affair” that takes place in Stephen’s apartment but just one brief kiss before the lovers are surprised by his return.
Moreover, the class element in The Apartment is completely different from the middle-class guilt and repression of Brief Encounter. As in The Shop Around the Corner, we’re back among the lower social strata with The Apartment. Baxter is a young man on the make but without any obvious moral or ethical standards of a sort to associate him with middle class values. His saving grace is that he is capable of shame, but there is no obvious struggle against conviction or principle to interfere with his playing the pander. Meanwhile, Shirley MacLaine’s Fran Kubelik may have persuaded herself that Fred MacMurray’s J.D. Sheldrake will divorce his wife for her, but to everybody else she obviously belongs to the class which economically and socially powerful men like Sheldrake think themselves entitled to exploit. The movie’s adding him to the quartet of philanderers who use Baxter’s apartment as a place to bring their floozies makes the point that they are all part of a culture of adultery and hypocrisy that Wilder and his screenwriter, I.A.L. “Izzy” Diamond, want us to see as an accepted part of suburbanite America in the 1950s.
Whether this is true or not — or as commonplace as it is here represented as being — is not so important, I think. It is always tempting to social revolutionaries to use the hypocrisy of those who don’t live up to the traditional ideal of marriage as a way of discrediting the whole institution. This they often describe in order to denigrate — using the name of a popular sitcom of the period — as the “Ozzie and Harriet” world of the post-war years. Stephanie Coontz has made a career out of crying écrasez l’infame to Ozzie and Harriet’s America. But this is not the purpose of Wilder and Diamond in The Apartment — unless you suppose that we are meant to think the hopeful romance between Shirley MacLaine and Jack Lemmon will ultimately issue in a marriage like Mr Sheldrake’s. The movie wouldn’t make sense unless we were expected to believe that romance and the happiness in love that it portends is still possible in a fallen and imperfect world.
Indeed, it could be argued that, without any of the Cinderella trappings and Baxter’s prince both out of a job and moving out of his apartment in the final scene, the romance of The Apartment is if anything more starry-eyed and unrealistic than any we have seen to date. Baxter and Miss Kubelik have only their love and the self-satisfaction of having turned a moral corner to keep them warm, but I doubt that many people have ever watched the ending of The Apartment and thought that it’s not enough.
Here we can begin to understand the importance of the counter-example provided for us by the next door neighbors, Dr Dreyfuss, played by Jack Kruschen, and his wife, Mildred (Naomi Stevens). Not only do they seem to be happily married themselves, but they set up, in Yiddish, the two poles by which the allegedly “Ivy League” WASP, Baxter, eventually learns to orient himself. He is introduced to us by the doctor as a nebbish — a pathetic, even contemptible person. An equivalent would be the schnook he twice hears himself described as by the people who are taking advantage of him. But the doctor also holds out to him the prospect of what he might be — that is, a mensch, a human being. In a way, the movie could be described as a contest
for C.C. Baxter’s soul between his better and worse demons, the one leading him to be a mensch, the other dragging him back towards nebbish
I can’t help wondering to what extent this association of hypocrisy and immorality with the dominant culture and of authenticity and decency with an ethnic identity is meant to be seen as significant. Wilder himself was a Viennese Jew who emigrated to America in the 1930s, and it would not be surprising if he associated Jewish culture with a standard of decency that the East Coast élites, at least, could learn from. There is an implied critique of the dominant white, Anglo-Saxon middle-class culture which, in the 20 years since Brief Encounter was set, seems to have made the transition from a hard-won if rather chilly decency and rectitude to a frank — or rather a non-frank and hypocritical — acceptance of male philandering, at least, as the way of the world. The worldliness and sophistication of An Affair to Remember seems at first to be a product of the same acceptance, which is what The Apartment is reacting against.
And yet the movies are not so different after all. The Apartment could even be seen as a re-run of An Affair to Remember but just down the social scale a little from it. Baxter and Miss Kubelik, like Nicky Ferrante and Terry McKay in the earlier movie both suffer from what we should call a lack of self-esteem as a result of behavior they are ashamed of. They hardly feel themselves entitled to romance until they find it with each other, so that the euphoria of the love-match itself seems almost less important than the sense of liberation from economic and social constraint that comes with it. Both couples feel that they have to do as they do to cling to their precarious position in the world until they realize that self-respect is both more important than money or social position and a prerequisite for true love.
This is the last of the movies in our series that I consider to be a true romance, and it is also, not coincidentally, the last in which love is always seen in a moral and in a social context, that is in relation to families and family formation, to social classes and social expectations — above all to marriage, which involves all of these things. Henceforth, romance (or whatever it is that succeeds it) will have only socially and morally free-floating “relationships” to work with. These will concern themselves primarily or even exclusively with the lovers themselves and their feelings in isolation from any social context which has the power to determine romantic outcomes — or even to influence them very much.
The post-sexual-revolution romance, of which we will see two examples in the next two weeks, therefore, becomes a little like free verse, which Robert Frost described as “playing tennis with the net down.” There’s no push-back from the culture or society around and therefore no real dramatic conflict. All crises and emotions become essentially trivial and banal when people have only themselves to please. From now on, the only bad things that can happen, the only conflicts that can produce dramatic tension are internal ones or those that come from being unloved by the one you love.
Interestingly, The Apartment looks forward to this post-1960s romantic landscape in the dialogue between Baxter and Fran Kubelik about suicide. He tried it too, he tells her, but only succeeded in wounding himself in the knee. He feels pretty silly about it now, especially as he was over the girl in three weeks. Love turned out to be no big deal, really. Plenty of other fish in the sea and all that sort of thing. This is the anti-romantic position which he is offering to her to make her feel better, but it is also a reminder that The Apartment is really much more about the end of the sad, nearly tragic romance between Fran and Sheldrake than it is the beginning of the hopefully happy one between Fran and Baxter. Indeed, the script deliberately turns its back on the latter with that famous last line: “Shut up and deal.”
By the way, for those who last week were inclined to be hard on Deborah Kerr’s Terry McKay for not telling Cary Grant about her accident, it might help to see her action in similar terms. She tried to reject the romantic view that there could only be one person destined for her, and for whom she was destined, in order to spare her beloved the burden that she would now represent to him and to free him to seek out another love who was whole. But, of course, by that very act of self-sacrifice, she reaffirmed for us, and ultimately for herself, the romantic ideal by demonstrating that no one else could love him more.
There’s nothing like this in The Apartment. Yet I think it still counts as a romance in the classic sense that the others we’ve seen this summer are. For all its realism and practicality about the underground sexual economy and its skepticism about the tragic or quasi-tragic view of romantic fatality, and even though it looks forward in some ways to the companionate and friendly model for so-called “relationships” that is just over the horizon, it has in common with the older romances the notion of love’s moral dimension. Like the lovers in The Philadelphia Story or An Affair to Remember, Fran and Baxter have to learn that it’s not enough to love each other; they also have to be worthy of each other. That final scene represents not just — maybe not even — an emotional fulfilment but a moral triumph, and that’s what still gives it the power to move us from the far side of the cultural gulf that now separates us from its world.
Next week, we’ll be on our own side, the post-sexual revolution side of that gulf, so I need to mention an important caveat for those of you who plan to stick with us to the bitter end. For, just in case you don’t know, along with old-fashioned romance, subtlety about sex disappeared from the movies after the end of the Hays Code in the 1960s — and for the same reason. As a result, our illustrative examples from the 1970s and 1980s of what often passes for romance but is really, I think, something else, will include scenes and language that many of you are likely to find inappropriate for children. Some of us may find them inappropriate for adults as well, but scientific and scholarly thoroughness demands that we view them in an unexpurgated and unbowdlerized form — and, therefore, that we might want to consider leaving the impressionable at home.