As film school students, you’ll most definitely be bombarded with lists of classic films you’re required to watch and analyze. But often, it’s not easy to understand why a certain film was/is so revolutionary. This week’s article is on Billy Wilder’s comedy-drama The Apartment and I hope it helps you understand why this film joined the ranks of classics.
Commercial & critical success
Besides earning $25 million as gross profit, The Apartment won 5 Academy Awards of which Billy Wilder received three for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Writing (together with I.A.L. Diamond). Also, two Academy Awards were given for Best Editing and Best Art Direction/Set Decoration.
Fun fact: In order to make the set appear like a huge insurance office with long rows of desks behind one another, the desks and people were physically smaller the further back they were in the frame. Children were sitting in the back rows.
Wilder managed to effectively address the topic of adultery and infidelity while still managing to adhere to the existing Hays Code, a set of industry moral guidelines film producers had to abide by. The guidelines determined whether a film had acceptable or unacceptable content for the public.
Due to the controversial themes, the film received a wave of both applause and criticism. Wilder’s skillful discussion of infidelity was revolutionary. The Apartment therefore signifies the transition between the censored films and the new Hollywood of boundless tolerance.
The Apartment was released in 1960, the year believed to mark the beginning of the golden era of the United States. The general public carried pride in the post-war, economic boom and the fact that Wilder commented on and exposed the immorality was a bold step.
David Gritten worded it well when he mentioned in his review, “it was as if Wilder had located the dark heart of corporate America before anyone else noticed it.” And he uses humor and satire excellently, making any seeming benefits to adultery lose all its glamour.
Shirley MacLaine’s character of Miss Kubelik was progressive in the way it didn’t fit into the then common portrayal of women being the damsels in distress. Miss Kubelik is a confident, realistic woman who’s got the gift of the gab.
Her depiction was very modern for the time. She is an independent woman who is strong, but also a bit of a romantic misfit. The protagonist, C.C. Baxter, is also a romantic misfit and he stands in stark contrast to his overconfident superiors and philanderers.
The reason this film is timeless, can also be attributed to exploration of the likely dangers of life in corporate organisations. C.C Baxter, the protagonist, is presented with a choice: he can either follow in the footsteps of his superiors and live a life of deceit in his pursuit of promotions and paychecks, or, he can follow the advice of his neighbour and “become a Mensch”, a man of honesty and integrity.
Grow up, Baxter,” the doctor tells CC. “Be a mensch. You know what that means? A human being.”
The audience is faced with a similar question. Is anything worth sacrificing integrity and true love for? Is the world around us shaping us, or are we shaping the atmosphere around us? How do we treat moral choices presented to us? Are we fixated on conforming to societal pressures?
Are we sacrificing our humanness in order to be a soulless creature produced by the corporate machine?
An article from the Huffingtonpost claims The Apartment teaches the lesson of how to become a Mensch better than almost any film around.
Unique about The Apartment is Billy Wilder’s knowledge and understanding of humanity with all its weaknesses and strengths. His well-rounded worldview enables the timeless relevance.
Take note of this if you’re a film school student and/or writer. The more you understand the human condition and have a well-established and well-rounded worldview, the more effective you will be in affecting the audience. But please be motivated by a desire to edify and challenge your audience for the good instead of stupefying them.
Even though this classic is in my opinion not difficult to love, I hope this clarified its applause and gave you even more reasons to love The Apartment. May it help you in your journey as you learn how to make movies.