Welp. Moving sucks. I am still not completely unpacked, I do not have a television and it was only yesterday that I found the box where my coffee maker was stashed. Prior to this I hadn’t changed apartments in 15 years and so this was a massive upheaval that left me shell-shocked, and I’m just now starting to come out of my daze.
Something that helped immediately after the fact was a quick trip to visit my family on Cape Cod (it cut into unpacking time, but I think it was a wise tradeoff). I got to catch up with some aunts and uncles and cousins, played doting aunt myself, and let my parents baby me a bit. Fittingly enough, one habit my parents and I have picked up for when I visit is a movie night – and this time, I suggested something from The List, jumping ahead a little bit to 1960’s The Apartment; something which they’d both already seen, but were happy to watch again.
I did know generally what happens already. Jack Lemmon stars as “C.C. Baxter”, a quiet clerk at a New York insurance office. Baxter is a bit of a milquetoast, but he has something going for him – a small and private apartment on an out-of-the-way street. It’s a perfect spot for quick trysts – or at least, that’s what Baxter’s superiors all tell him, pressuring him to let them use his place as the arena for their various extramarital affairs. They’ve all promised to help him get a promotion in exchange, but things are slow in coming – and Baxter is starting to chafe a bit, as he’s finally started summoning the courage to ask out Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine), a pretty elevator operator in the office.
Baxter’s luck turns a bit when his four “tenants” finally press his case with the personnel director Jeff Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray), urging him to take on Baxter as one of his direct associates. Sheldrake accepts – but quietly tells Baxter he’s figured out that such glowing reviews were “paid for” by the use of his apartment. Instead of firing Baxter, though, Sheldrake wants in on the deal himself, effective that night. He offers the reluctant Baxter a pair of Broadway tickets to sweeten the deal, and Baxter finally accepts – it’d be the perfect excuse to ask out Fran. And Fran happily accepts; only she says she already has plans to have a drink with another guy first, and promises to meet Baxter at the theater later. ….What Fran doesn’t tell him, though, is that the other guy is Sheldrake, who’s been stringing her along for months now with unresolved promises that he’s going to leave his wife for her. Fran falls for Sheldrake’s smooth talk yet again, leaving Baxter stood up and heading to Baxter’s apartment with Sheldrake.
For a few weeks, Sheldrake continues to hook up with Fran in Baxter’s place – unbeknownst to Baxter – until the company Christmas party, where Sheldrake’s secretary (Edie Adams) – herself once wooed by Sheldrake – gives Fran a bit of a come-to-Jesus warning about him. Fran drags Sheldrake off to confront him in Baxter’s apartment – but Baxter sees them leave together, and heads off to drown his sorrows at a local bar. He hits on another patron and invites her back to his place, but when they arrive, they find an unconscious Fran; her confrontation went so badly that she downed a whole bottle of sleeping pills she found in Baxter’s bathroom.
Enlisting the help of a neighbor, Baxter saves Fran from immediate danger, and then stays home to look after her for a couple days while she recovers. Fran’s wounded heart is soothed by Baxter’s kindness and empathy, and she’s charmed that instead of wanting to hook up, all he wants is to play gin rummy and cook spaghetti together. But before long another one of Baxter’s “tenants” drops by for his regular Wednesday hookup and discovers Fran there, with Baxter. Rumors start to fly in the office, Sheldrake bribes Baxter with a promotion – on the condition that he leave Fran to Sheldrake – and both Fran and Baxter find they each have a choice to make.
I’d told my parents that I wanted to have a bit of a quick chat about their reactions to the film after seeing it again – and I was kind of surprised that the one and only thing they wanted to talk about was the sexism. Mom remarked on the “Me Too stuff” almost as soon as we were done with the film, talking about how icky and exploitative it was. Dad agreed it was icky, and wondered aloud “how often that kind of stuff happened in real life?” I suggested that if it was driving the plot of a Billy Wilder comedy, it was probably considered routine enough that Wilder knew he could get away with it being a plot device without his audience getting distracted. “Yeah, that’s probably true,” Dad said.
“It’s crazy, though,” I said, “because at the same time I really like the chemistry between Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine. They do a great job.”
“They do,” Mom said. “And Fred MacMurray too. Although he wasn’t playing that great a guy.”
“I guess you’re right, and they thought they could get away with that story,” Dad said again.
I swear I am not making that up. My parents – two people in their 70s, both of whom had seen The Apartment during its original run and enjoyed it – forwent any discussion of any other element of the film and talked solely about their distaste for the sexual politics. I did make that one attempt to nudge things towards the film itself – but I found that I also was preoccupied by the sexual politics as well. Not that it’s all I noticed – there’s the famous moment where Baxter is attempting to drain spaghetti in a tennis racket, singing Italian gibberish as he works, and another sequence where a last-minute schedule change touches off a complicated scramble on Baxter’s part as he negotiates different reservation times with his various tenants. Lemmon handles both moments perfectly. And he does have some fantastic chemistry with Shirley MacLaine.
But these days the premise of the film was just….oogy, to the point that it overshadowed all else. I’m starting to wonder what other upcoming films I may hold at arms’ length now.