The Apartment – Billy Wilder
Fran and Bud spend the next two days swapping hard luck stories and playing gin rummy while she recovers enough strength to go home. Here Wilder mixes sentimentality and light-hearted buffoonery in a classic scene where Bud dexterously uses his tennis racquet to drain their spaghetti dinner.
In the meantime, Sheldrake fires Miss Olsen, who in turn informs Mrs. Sheldrake of his philandering habits. Sheldrake, who has been more concerned with preventing a scandal than in caring for Fran, rewards Bud with a promotion to Assistant Personnel Director and the key to the executive washroom. Though still willing to accept the rewards, Bud is no longer willing to play the game. He has fallen in love with Fran and is dismayed to hear that Sheldrake, who was thrown out by his wife, now intends to marry her—eventually, but not just yet.
On New Year’s Eve day, when Sheldrake asks for the apartment key, Bud symbolically renounces corporate success and becomes a mensch by giving Sheldrake the key to the executive washroom instead. That night at dinner Sheldrake recounts Bud’s inexplicable action to Fran, who realizes that Bud really loves her. Leaving Sheldrake sitting in the restaurant, she rushes off to Bud’s apartment, where they welcome in the New Year with a game of gin rummy.
The happy ending was met with surprise by some critics who did not feel that protagonists who transgressed sexually deserved to find happiness. But Wilder has created human beings, not stereotypes, and they are capable of developing some self-recognition and capacity for growth. The question the movie does not successfully answer is why five supposedly well-paid executives are so totally dependent upon using Bud’s rather dingy little flat.
The performances are universally good. Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine make an appealing couple, capable of evoking both tenderness and humor. Ultimately, however, it is Lemmon’s performance which gives the film the vitality to remain entertaining in the face of some pessimistic assessments of the human character.
The Apartment won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1960 and is one of the best achievements in Wilder’s illustrious career.