The Apartment won three Oscars for Billy Wilder as producer, director, and co-screenwriter. It is hard to recall a film so honored that is also so cynical (spoiler alert: in spite of its over-the-top romantic ending) or so lacking in visual elegance—both of which are typically valid criticisms of Wilder’s work. The Motion Picture Academy could have recognized the genius of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho that year, or even sprawling epics like Otto Preminger’s Exodus or Elia Kazan’s Wild River, but The Apartment seemed to have touched a contemporary, and possibly raw, nerve.
Like the New Wave directors in France at the time, Wilder allows himself a few in-jokes: evoking his earlier Oscar-winning The Lost Weekend; poking fun at Marilyn Monroe (star of his recent The Seven Year Itch and Some Like It Hot), whom he had come to dislike and who is embodied here by a look-alike/impersonator (Joyce Jameson); and mocking television’s destruction of classic movies (Grand Hotel, Stagecoach) with crappy reception and endless commercials. As always, Wilder presents all this with a subversive edginess.
Bertrand Tavernier, the French director of The Clockmaker and ‘Round Midnight, succeeded the Godard/Truffaut/Chabrol/Rivette/Rohmer generation at Cahiers du Cinéma. He said recently: “The auteur theory is still working, but it has been caricatured. It was saying that within the best films of a director…you have an author…where he really had a chance of expressing his ideas. But the notion then came that the people working round him are less important. This is a mistake! This is a mistake!” Wilder is a particularly good example for making Tavernier’s point. Romanian-born I. A. L. Diamond began writing (or co-writing) Wilder’s films with Love in the Afternoon, and from that point they collaborated on all of them (with the lone exception of 1957’s Witness for the Prosecution) until the end of their respective careers. Diamond, almost a generation younger than Wilder, shared the director’s cynical subversiveness, and it is hard to find a director/writer duo as compatible in Hollywood history, except possibly for Josef von Sternberg and Jules Furthman—or Charles Chaplin and himself.
In The Apartment, Fred MacMurray’s unsympathetic character is the head of a gigantic insurance company. Paul Douglas, originally cast in the role, died, and one can’t resist the idea that Wilder thought of MacMurray because he had played a shady insurance man in the director’s excellent melodrama Double Indemnity (1944). Wilder would also use Shirley MacLaine again in Irma La Douce. Jack Lemmon, of course, was a Wilder regular. It can be argued that, with The Apartment, Lemmon’s lightweight comedy persona began a progression into the serious actor of Days of Wine and Roses, Save the Tiger (for which he won an Oscar), and That’s Life. (Of course, he would still be hysterically funny in Blake Edwards’s The Great Race, Gene Saks’s The Odd Couple, and Wilder’s The Fortune Cookie and Avanti!).
Some years ago, I contemplated doing a book on directors born (like Wilder) in or near Vienna, of which there were a disproportionate number. Most of them were Jewish, and they lent to the American cinema both genius and a diaspora-based questioning of conventional Anglo-Saxon values and sexual mores. In the silent era, the films of Erich von Stroheim (who would later star in Wilder’s Five Graves to Cairo and Sunset Boulevard) not-so-subtly hinted at a kinkiness that the likes of a Sarah Palin or Michele Bachmann would have called “anti-American.” In the 1930s, the Viennese-born Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich minced no images. In my monograph on Dietrich, I point out that in The Scarlet Empress, the route to her tryst (as Catherine the Great) with John Lodge, as photographed by Sternberg, is overlaid with the shadow of a statue of Satan, the director’s ironic comment on what must be going through the audience’s minds. In another scene, Sternberg focuses his camera and Marlene’s gaze on Gavin Gordon’s groin, as Dietrich informs him that she’s heard a lot about him “from the ladies.” (For this I was reprimanded, by the late Sternberg biographer Herman G. Weinberg, for having a dirty mind—a charge leveled at Wilder by several critics after The Apartment.) Viennese lawyer Otto Preminger opened up all the floodgates to debauchery in Hollywood by using the word “pregnant” in The Moon Is Blue in 1953, the same year he appeared as the Nazi commandant of Wilder’s laugh-producing POW camp in Stalag 17.
Wilder himself, trained as he was at Berliner Ernst Lubitsch’s knee, had continually raised eyebrows and hackles before The Apartment—most notably in Sunset Boulevard, with Gloria Swanson’s romantic mishegoss with William Holden, Stroheim (her ex-director, ex-husband, live-in butler), and even, possibly, her deceased chimp. After Some Like It Hot, with its cross-dressing and sexual ambiguity, The Apartment, coming at the end of the supposedly sedate and wholesome Eisenhower-era, was the next logical step. Lemmon had turned his domicile into what his landlady termed a “honky-tonky,” where extramarital sex was the norm. The Hollywood ship had sailed, and Billy Wilder was at the dock to see it off. All that was left was for President Kennedy to turn the White House into a honky-tonky, which included (according to Steven Bach, my late friend and distinguished Dietrich biographer) Marlene in a before-lunch quickie.