Talk Cinema's Ron Falzone Discusses Billy Wilder's The Apartment

Here is a simple way to think of Billy Wilder’s 1960 film, The Apartment.  The year before, Wilder made Some Like It Hot.  This well-loved farce was also a sweeping rewrite of the rules of the romantic comedy.  Among other things, it took the form into the realm of behavioral commentary. The detonator for this was the final line.  With Osgood’s response to Jerry’s announcement that he is a man (“Nobody’s perfect”) the reverberation pushed everyone to consider what the movie was really about:  gender roles and the intersections of the opposing sexes. 

If Some Like It Hot was the detonator, The Apartment was the explosion.  With it, the romantic comedy split and a new subgenre was formed:  The comedy of romance.

The distinction is more than semantic.  The traditional romantic comedy is about inevitability.  We know the couple will get together.  Our pleasure comes from the ways in which their final clinch will be delayed by circumstances, complications, and their inevitable poor lines of communication.  The comedy of romance is interested less in the couple getting together – they may, they may not – and more in examining the human act of romance and the inevitable emotional costs of the pursuit.  Recent movies like (500) Days of Summer, Up in the Air and just about anything by Woody Allen, Alexander Payne or Noah Baumbach attest to this interest in exploration over inevitability.  All of these and more are the descendants of The Apartment.

Certainly, an argument can made that earlier romantic comedies occasionally tackled social issues.  Preston Sturges’ The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek is a brilliantly pointed satire about the fractures in traditional morality brought about by war.  Movies like this, though, used romance as a plot point.  Any real examination of the act of romance in the context of the commentary was purely coincidental.  Even in great comedies like The Awful Truth and His Girl Friday, the characters were still expected to conform to specific genre-imposed norms and the stories had to end with a clinch. 

The Apartment was a radical departure.  Here, if any similar norms are present they are there to be subverted.  Bud (Jack Lemmon) isn’t your typical romcom hero.  There is no suavity to this nebbish who is sympathetic but traffics in moral twilight.  The only cleverness he seems able to muster is built around his desire to get ahead.  The object of his affections, Fran (Shirley MacLaine), is an emotionally damaged young woman at the far end of an affair with a married man, self-destructive and in threat of being consumed by self-loathing.

The irritant in this relationship is J.D. Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray), in many ways the most loathsome character in the annals of romantic comedy.  This man is a villain, not because he wants to break up the couple, but because he controls their destiny without even stopping to note this fact.  Sheldrake has the love and work lives of both Fran and Bud in his grasp.  And he clearly doesn’t give a damn in either case.

There is a strongly satirical element to The Apartment, but it is weighted differently than we had seen before.  In earlier romcoms, when satire was present, the romance was merely a device within that story (again, The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek).  In The Apartment, its satire of corporate life is there to both explain and motivate the relationship between Bud and Fran. Their story is not an adjunct to one about the predatory nature of business nor is that nature an adjunct to a cute romance.  The business world is the cancer that eats away at the possibility of their happiness, and Fran and Bud must find a way to keep from being consumed by it. 

The fact that Wilder and writing partner I.A.L. Diamond can process all of this within the bounds of a comedy is quite a feat.  They do this is by placing the humor around Fran and Bud rather than having it come from them.  These are not characters who crack jokes or pratfall for a laugh.  This work is left to the supporting characters and the way they move the scenes around the two leads.  When Bud’s apartment is invaded by a colleague looking for a place to shack up with his mistress, the humor comes from the invader.  The invaded, Bud, plays the moment seriously.

The most extraordinary example of this comes when Bud picks up the drunken Margie MacDougal on Christmas Eve.  He plays straight man to her wonderfully off-kilter monologue about Castro and a husband caught doping a race horse.  This is the comic highpoint of the film, but, as it is playing out, Wilder has the audacity to crosscut the scene with Fran attempting suicide in Bud’s apartment.  It is a jolting tonal shift that shepherds the movie from the broader comedy of the first half to the more human comedy of the second.

Wilder loved to play with ambiguity and he uses the closing line of The Apartment in much the same way as he did in Some Like It Hot: as a detonator to explode our thinking about what came before.  At the fade-out, Bud tells Fran that he loves her.  She smiles, hands him a deck of cards and simply says “Shut up and deal.”  It is precisely the point to which their individual character arcs have led them.  But what exactly is this moment?

Consider this: Wilder was far too acute an observer of human behavior to think that all that two lonely people need is to find each other and all will be right.  Not going with the expected and more conventionally satisfying return of Fran’s “I love you” is clearly a deliberate choice.  In going this way, Wilder asks us to consider the future of this couple.  Fran may be Bud’s Miss Right, but he may only be her Mr. Right Now.  The ending accepts the fact that Fran is far too complicated a character to button down with so simple a resolution.

For years, I’ve started lectures on screenwriting with the line, “Everything I know about screenwriting I learned from The Apartment.  Unlike a classic Wilder ending, I intend no irony here.