THE APARTMENT (1960) revisited

June 20, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. This is the latest addition to my “revisited” series where I re-watch and then write about (not a review) a genuine classic movie. It’s been 60 years on this one, so please expect spoilers with no spoiler alerts. Appearing on most every legitimate list of greatest cinematic comedies, director Billy Wilder’s film actually defies categorization and is a terrific blend of comedy-romance-drama and commentary on societal gender roles of that era. Mr. Wilder co-wrote the razor-sharp script with I.A.L. “Iz” Diamond. The two were collaborators off and on for 15 years, including what many consider to be the best comedy of all-time, as well as one of Marilyn Monroe’s finest films, SOME LIKE IT HOT (1959).

Jack Lemmon stars as CC “Bud” Baxter, a clerk at Consolidated Life, a New York insurance company with 31,259 employees. Baxter is but a minor cog in the conglomerate wheel, save for one thing: he allows upper management to use his apartment for their extramarital affairs. He doesn’t much like the arrangement, but lacks the backbone to stand up to them – especially since they dangle the carrot of promotion. Although the neighbors think he is a womanizing Lothario, Baxter’s life is void of companionship. He’s on the outside (of his own apartment) while others are living it up. Elevator Operator Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine) has caught Baxter’s eye, yet while she is courteous and friendly, she politely deflects his flirtations.

When that promotion finally comes through, Baxter finds himself with yet another executive requiring use of the apartment. Jeff Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray) is the Human Resources Manager, and his demands lead to a most disheartening discovery. Baxter is crushed when a broken compact mirror and the office Christmas party allow him to figure out that Mr. Sheldrake is having an affair with Ms. Kubelik, and he himself has been providing the place.

 There are so many terrific scenes and performances, it’s not practical to go through each and every one. The early interactions between Baxter and Kubelik are quite fun – he’s so eager, and she’s so careful not to wound his pride. Kubelik and Sheldrake in the booth at the Chinese Restaurant is quite remarkable, and Baxter’s neighbors (Jack Kruschen and Naomi Stevens) are especially effective as the doctor and his quick-to-judge wife. Sheldrake’s secretary, Miss Olsen (Edie Adams), is a standout in her Christmas Party scene with Ms. Kubelik, and watching Baxter and Mrs. MacDougall (Hope Holiday) drunkenly dance the holiday hours away is comedic genius, although nothing can top Baxter deftly wielding a tennis racquet (wooden frame, of course) to strain pasta.

The film earned 10 Oscar nominations, and won in 5 categories: Best Picture, Best Director (Wilder), Best Screenplay (Wilder and Diamond), Best Art/Set Direction (Alexandre Trauner, Edward G Boyle), and Best Film Editing (Daniel Mandell, who also won Oscars for THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES, 1946, and THE PRIDE OF THE YANKEES, 1942, and who also started in showbiz as an acrobat for The Flying Mandells in Ringling Brothers Circus). The film’s other nominees were Best Actor (Lemmon, a 2-time Oscar winner for MISTER ROBERTS, 1955, and SAVE THE TIGER, 1973), Best Actress (MacLaine, Oscar winner for TERMS OF ENDEARMENT, 1983), Best Supporting Actor (Kruschen), Best Cinematographer (Joseph LaShelle, and Oscar winner for LAURA, 1944), and Best Sound (Gordon Sawyer). Somehow Adolph Deutsch’s film score got nominated for a Grammy, but not for an Oscar. He did win 3 other Oscars for ANNIE GET YOUR GUN (1950), SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS (1954), and OKLAHOMA! (1955).

Writer-director Billy Wilder is truly one of cinema’s giants. In his career, he was nominated for 21 Oscars, winning 6 (THE LOST WEEKEND 1945, SUNSET BLVD 1951). This film was released one year after SOME LIKE IT HOT (1959), a film that often tops the list of best all-time comedies. That film and this one, are also in the battle for best final line: “Nobody’s perfect” vs “Shut up and deal”. Wilder admitted that his idea for THE APARTMENT came from one scene in BRIEF ENCOUNTER, the excellent 1945 film from director David Lean, adapted from Noel Coward’s play.

Jack Lemmon’s “Bud” Baxter is just one of many memorable characters throughout his stellar career that featured 8 Oscar nominations, 2 Oscars, and roles in comedy and drama. He was a close friend of comedian Ernie Kovacs who was married to Edie Adams (Miss Olsen in this movie), and had a remarkable comedy partnership (10 movies) with Walter Matthau, the best known of which is THE ODD COUPLE (1968).  Lemmon appeared in 7 Billy Wilder movies, and was the first actor to win Oscars for both Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor.

Shirley MacLaine was only 25 years old when she starred as Fran Kubelik. Like Mr. Lemmon, her (6) Oscar nominations were spread across four decades (50’s, 60’s, 70’s, 80’s), finally winning for TERMS OF ENDEARMENT (1983). In real life she is Warren Beatty’s big sister, although they’ve never appeared in the same film. Ms. MacLaine is renowned as a film actress, stage performer, dancer, author (multiple books), and of course, New Age guru. She’s now 86 years old and still working.

Fred MacMurray plays the scoundrel Jeff Sheldrake. Mr. MacMurray is best known for his 12 seasons and 380 episodes as the most patient father on “My Three Sons”. His career spanned fifty years (1929-1978), and he made his mark as a serious actor in such films as the ultimate film noir classic DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944) and THE CAINE MUTINY (1954). He sprinkled in some westerns, before shifting to comedy in the first Disney live action film THE SHAGGY DOG (1959), and then family fare like THE ABSENT MINDED PROFESSOR (1961) and SON OF FLUBBER (1963). He was certainly an underrated, though never out-of-work actor. On an interesting side note, when he was age 22, he played saxophone in a band that featured Bing Crosby as the lead singer.

 Edie Adams plays Miss Olsen, secretary to MacMurray’s Sheldrake. Her screen time here is limited, but her role is crucial to the story and well-crafted by Ms. Adams. She was the wife of early TV comedy legend Ernie Kovacs, who died in a car accident in 1962 at age 42. Ms. Adams put together a multi-faceted career including time as a nightclub singer, and actress on TV, stage, and film. She is still remembered for her iconic cigar commercials:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y7EbLIdE88Q

Baxter’s neighbors are played by Jack Kruschen as the understanding Dr. Dreyfuss and Naomi Stevens as the more direct Mrs. Dreyfuss. Mr. Kruschen’s 48 year career covered more than 220 credits in TV and film. Ms. Stevens is remembered for her role in VALLEY OF THE DOLLS (1967) and a recurring role on “The Doris Day Show”. She passed away (age 92) just a couple of months before her 70th wedding anniversary.

Joyce Jameson plays “the blond” Marilyn Monroe lookalike. She is best known for her roles in Roger Corman horror films, and for a recurring role as bombshell Skippy on “The Andy Griffith Show.” Another link to that classic TV series comes from Hal Smith, who dons the Santa Claus costume in the bar. You might recall Mr. Smith as Otis, the town drunk in Mayberry. He was also the voice of Owl in numerous “Winnie the Pooh” cartoons and movies. Hope Holiday plays Mrs. MacDougall, Baxter’s dance partner on Christmas Eve. Ms. Holiday was known as “the voice”, and made frequent appearances in Billy Wilder films.

In addition to MacMurray’s Sheldrake, the other four managers to take advantage of Baxter and his apartment were played by David Lewis (a recurring role as the Warden on “Batman” TV series), Willard Waterman (well-known character actor in radio, TV, film), David White (Larry Tate on “Bewitched”), and Ray Walston. Mr. Walston had many memorable roles including teacher Joe Dobisch in FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH (1982), JJ Singleton in THE STING (1973), co-starring with Bill Bixby in “My Favorite Martian”, and as Judge Henry Bone in “Picket Fences.” He’s yet another in the cast whose career lasted nearly 50 years.

The film’s lasting impact comes courtesy of the fun and energy and comedy on the surface, supported by a sadness lurking underneath. It offers a brilliant balance between lightness and serious social issues, and provides quite a statement of the times. A glance at the era shows us what a typical office environment was like. Women were subjected to endless harassment and unsolicited offers from the men in charge. They either had to find a way to deal with it, or quit and find another job – one where they’d likely face the same culture. Still, despite the sadness, the film does offer a bit of hope … plus some truly classic lines (including that last one). Girl with the “wrong guy” is common theme in movies and literature (and life), but “that’s the way it crumbles, cookie-wise.” And the next time you are debating with friends over a list of Christmas movies, don’t forget Billy Wilder’s THE APARTMENT. Hey, if DIE HARD qualifies, this one surely must!

watch the trailer:


THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY (2013)

December 15, 2013

mitty1 Greetings again from the darkness. Sometimes the line between reality and fantasy is blurred. In the moment, daydreams can feel like real life. Such is the existence of Walter Mitty, the milquetoast main character of James Thurber’s 1939 “New Yorker” short story. This is no remake of Danny Kaye’s 1947 movie, and thank goodness for that … no one wants to see Ben Stiller singing and dancing. Mr. Stiller not only takes on the role of the zoned out Mitty, but he also directs.

mitty4 Walter is a quiet, photo lab geek at Life Magazine, the long time publication that is closing its doors. Of course, in real life, those doors closed years ago, but the magazine name makes for the perfect contradiction to Mitty’s humdrum existence. The transition team is in place led by the snide, bearded corporate presence of Adam Scott. Photographer extraordinaire Sean O’Connell (played by Sean Penn) has delivered the perfect shot for the final cover. Only one problem: Walter has misplaced the negative (yes, O’Connell still shoots on FILM).

This gaffe leads Walter to cross paths with a co-worker played by Kristen Wiig, whom he has secretly admired both across the office and by staring at her eHarmony profile online. Their investigative work leads Walter on the first real journey of his life. He even breaks free of the family stranglehold of his mom (Shirley MacLaine) and sister (Kathryn Hahn) and gets a pep talk and well timed boost from Patton Oswalt.

mitty2 Walter’s expedition leads him to Greenland, Iceland, the Himalayas, and Afghanistan by way of Yemen. He also encounters a wild helicopter pilot and ride, sharks, an erupting volcano, drinking beer from giant glass boots, a sad and aggressive Karoke singer, and takes an accelerated ride via skateboard. Rather than changing Walter, these experiences just bring out a lust for life that was previously only flashed through his periods of fantasy zone outs.

The acting is very strong in this one, and that comes from a guy who is not much of a Stiller fan. His beaten down demeanor and stone-faced expressions are spot on for the Mitty role. Ms. MacLaine, Ms. Hahn, Mr. Oswalt and Mr. Scott all add very nice comedic touches and Sean Penn captures the rugged fearlessness of a world weary photographer who recognizes the depth within Mitty.

If you are a fan of Thurber’s short story then you must know artistic license is taken to turn it in to full length feature. Screenwriter Steven Conrad provides Life magazine as a foundation, and sends Walter to some of the most beautiful places on earth during the journey. He even gives us a “poetry falcon” (my first) and a curious parody of “Benjamin Button” (a bit out of place). Cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh delivers these locations to us in stunning fashion. The film is beautiful to look, and thanks to the score from Theodore Shapiro, it’s complimented by well fitting music.

This is one of those crowd-pleasing movies filled with sentimentality and charm. Critics will bash it, but most of us can relate to the underdog lead and his delusions of grandeur.

**NOTE: the opening and closing credits are works of art in their own right … so be seated early and hang around a few extra minutes.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are looking for a feel good, slightly quirky movie for the grown-ups over the holidays

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are expecting the next Citizen Kane (in other words, many critics are going to bash it despite it being a crowd pleaser).

watch the trailer:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kGWO2w0H2V8

 


BERNIE (2012)

May 24, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. It’s 1997 in Carthage and a shocking discovery hits smack dab in the middle of town square. That’s rural east Texas where everyone knows everything about everyone. Well almost everything and almost everyone. A year later, Skip Hollandsworth wrote an article for Texas Monthly about the fascinating, too-strange-to-believe story that shook this community. Now, 16 years after the murder, Hollandsworth co-wrote a screenplay with director Richard Linklater and they present a visual representation that allows us to wrap our heads around the events.

Linklater is always an interesting filmmaker. His resume includes Dazed and Confused, and School of Rock. Here he re-teams with Jack Black, who stars at Bernie Tiede, the nicest man in Carthage. You need not take my word for it. Linklater interviews several actual Carthage residents who swear Bernie was the sweetest, most generous man they ever met. Some even state they will never believe he committed the murder … despite his confession. Whatever you think of Mr. Black as an actor, his performance here is unlike any of his previous work. He is somehow subtle and believable while playing a real life over-the-top assistant funeral home director. His walk, speech pattern, mannerisms, interests and singing style tell us all we need know about Bernie Tiede.

The basic story is that Bernie befriends the wealthiest, wickedest widow in town. They become very close as friends, travel partners and even live together. Bernie gains Marjorie Nugent’s trust and is eventually in charge of her finances and written in as her sole beneficiary. What makes this odd? Well, Bernie is 38. Marjorie (played by Shirley MacLaine) is 81. Oh, and he is gay. This odd arrangement somehow is accepted in this community for one reason … he is just so a nice man! He truly is nice. Right up until the point where he’s not so nice.

 This is one of those movies where the links are stronger than the chain. Black’s performance is stellar and worth the price of admission. Equally entertaining are the “interviews” with the local townspeople. And adding intrigue to all of that is the best ever supporting performance from Matthew McConaughey as local DA, Danny Buck Davidson. Those three elements make this oddball movie a sight to behold. There is humor to make us laugh and oddity to raise eyebrows.

The downside is that the docudrama approach actually takes away from what should have been the key aspects of the story. More screen time watching the relationship between Bernie and Marjorie could have proved enlightening. Instead, the development is reduced to snapshots of vacations and a snippet of a couples massage. The dark elements are only hinted at until the shock of the deed.  The filmmakers choose not to dwell on the “other” side of Bernie, and instead play along with the locals version of the nicest man in town.

Movies based on truth are all the more enticing when the characters are themselves quite interesting and different. That’s certainly the case with Bernie Tiede, Danny Buck Davidson, and the locals in Carthage. For a taste of small town East Texas living and dying, questionable morals, battles between legalities and religion, and the hypocrisy and clouded judgment that occurs when a nice guy gets dirty … this is as good as it gets.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: black comedy immersed in real life tragedy is your thing OR you don’t want to miss a wonderfully odd and touching performance from Jack Black (and lots of hymnal singing)

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you don’t apprecaite a murderer being portrayed as a nice guy – even if that’s the TRUE part of the story!

Watch the trailer:


VALENTINE’S DAY (2010)

February 13, 2010

 (2-12-10) Greetings again from the darkness. Really no need to offer commentary on the story. If you have seen the preview (how could you have missed it?), you know it’s a major chick flick with a long list of Hollywood celebrities who come together and display the trials and tribulations that we have come to celebrate as Valentine’s Day – surely a concoction born of greeting card companies, florists and confectioneries.

For most of the movie, one song kept popping in my head – Marilyn Manson’s “The Beautiful People”. I have never seen so many beautiful people in one film. As you have noticed, the word “actor” has purposefully been avoided – celebrities and beautiful people are a more accurate description of what director Garry Marshall has delivered.

Thankfully, he tossed in Hector Elizonda, Shirley Maclaine and George Lopez or the movie might have done for plastic surgery what Urban Cowboy did for C&W dancing. On top of the beauty, we are subjected to an endless stream of downright SKINNY people! Everyone has noticed Taylor Swift is rail thin, but she doesn’t even stand out here. Jessica Biel, who once had a real-life body, looks cadaverous. Even her character exists on candy and treadmills. Throw in Ashton Kutcher, Topher Grace, Jennifer Garner and Jessica Alba, and one can make the argument that the cost for this cast was offset by the lack of necessity for an on-set lunch buffet.

Look, I realize this is just a chick flick comedy that is designed to poke a bit of fun at our need to love and be loved … or rather just not be alone. But a touch of reality could have helped. Raise your hand if you believe Julia Roberts might be miscast as the soldier returning home on leave from the front lines of war. Or that a brilliant doctor (Patrick Dempsey) might be a little more careful in covering his tracks of indiscretion? Or that Anne Hathaway couldn’t find a slightly more rewarding way to earn a living than her “phone entertainer” job?

Couldn’t help but notice the Pretty Woman connections with Garry Marshall, Julia Roberts, Hector Elizando and Larry Miller. Ms. Roberts even gets in a funny little jab over the closing credits. Some attempt was made to interconnect the multiple story lines and I do appreciate the struggle to show intimacy in the mess of Los Angeles … just too many obvious skits and stereotypes to make this anything more than a half-hearted effort by all involved.  And by “all”, I am including the 10-12 other “stars” that I have not named here.