MGM has released a special edition of director Billy Wilder's landmark comedy/drama The Apartment which won the Oscar for Best Picture in 1960. The film has long been considered one of the great romances in screen history, but it ruffled a lot of feathers among both critics and the more prudish members of the film-going public at the time of its release because of its frank depiction of predatory sex practices in big business. Prior to The Apartment, studio fare stuck rather closely to the antiquated rules of the dreaded Production Code that insured any story dealing with illicit romance would be watered down. With this film, however, Wilder pushed the envelope and presented the dirty little secrets from the world of big business - in this case, Wall Street executives who consider themselves the epitome of devoted family men even while they are carrying on sordid trysts with their female employees. The film evokes an era in which women were relegated to glorified secretarial jobs and whose modest careers often hung on how receptive they were to the overtures of the aging lotharios they worked for. Jack Lemmon plays an ambitious young junior executive who willingly lends his bachelor pad apartment to corporate executives so they can indulge in their daily "quickies" in between their three-Martini business lunches. He later finds that this Faustian deal comes at a cost to his own self-respect and love life. The film's honest depiction of the sexual aspect of office politics turned off many people at the time - undoubtedly including millions of housewives who preferred not to be reminded of the antics "dad" might have been up to when he went off to work every day.
Like most Wilder productions, the film is impeccably cast and was a breakthrough for Jack Lemmon, who proved he could enact pathos as skillfully as he could slapstick comedy. The movie also boosted Shirley MacLaine's career into orbit. She plays the non-descript elevator operator in Lemmon's workplace who is carrying on an affair with his boss, swarmy Fred MacMurray. If the role were cast today, a bombshell actress would undoubtedly be cast. However, it is precisely because MacLaine was more pixie than sexpot that the true genius of casting her remains apparent even today. She looks like someone who would be an "elevator girl" and the sensitivity and heartache that she brings to the role still impresses. Perhaps the most surprising element of the film is MacMurray's terrific performance. The picture of family values, MacMurray was already a popular star of Disney films and My Three Sons - which is precisely why Wilder wanted to show that if you scratch beneath the surface of such an image, a much harsher portrait often emerges. MacMurray's excellent work is the centerpiece of the the superb performances of Lemmon and MacLaine that bookend his character.
The special edition DVD provides an interesting audio commentary by film historian Bruce Block as well as two original documentaries. Inside The Apartment provides fascinating insights into the making of the film from an impressive array of commentators including Shirley MacLaine, Robert Osborne, Wilder friend and co-writer I.A.L. Diamond's son Paul, Chris Lemmon, son of Jack Lemmon, producer Walter Mirisch, film critic Molly Haskell, Wilder biographers and even character actor Johnny Seven, who describes how a faux punch to Lemmon on screen ended up almost knocking him out. The documentary fittingly pays tribute to the gigantic, amazing set Wilder had created on the MGM lot for the film in order to provide an Orwellian feel for modern Wall Street that made the average worker look like a small cog in an enormous wheel. The other documentary, Magic Time: The Art of Jack Lemmon provides comments from some of the same people, but depends primarily on the sentimental recollections of Chris Lemmon, who clearly idolizes his famous father. Rather surprisingly, there is no original trailer or still gallery but plenty of rare shots are included in the documentaries.
This is one Apartment you should buy, not rent. In order to do so, click here to order from the Cinema Retro Amazon Movie Store. -Lee Pfeiffer
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