The Diane Arbus Christmas Spectacular

Original Poster.

Original Poster.


“The Apartment” (Mirish Company, 1960) tells the story of one C.C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon), a low-level accountant at a large, Manhattan-based insurance company, and the tribulations that beset him in consequence of the unethical means by which he expects to secure an unearned promotion to an executive position at the firm. Baxter’s problems all began about a year earlier, when he lent his flat to a company big shot for a few hours — a favor, just this once, no questions asked. After that, things quickly spun out of control. When we first meet him, he’s got four philandering executives using his conveniently-located apartment for their extra-marital romps; they bully him out of his place at all hours of the night, drink up his liquor, wolf down his snacks, disturb the neighbors, leave his apartment in a mess, and sometimes forget to return his key when, lust-spent, they drag off home to their nagging wives.

Perhaps the easiest thing for me to do is to start by mentioning the things I like about the picture. Most of all, I like the late-fifties/early-sixties atmosphere, which is thanks to a combination of location shooting and stylish production design. I like the clothes and Edie Adams’ white cat-eye glasses. I like Adolph Deutsch’s score — I especially like the main theme, which was not written by Deutsch, but by Charles Williams. The tune is called “Jealous Lover,” and was written for a British picture from 1950 called “Naughty Arlette” (which featured a very young Petula Clark). I like Edie Adams as the big boss’ trouble-making secretary and I like Fred MacMurray as the rat bastard, Mr Sheldrake. MacMurray was always best when he played villains, perhaps because he was a bit of a bastard in real life. Billy Wilder told Cameron Crowe a funny and revealing story about MacMurray: in one scene, Sheldrake flips a quarter to the guy who has just finished shining his shoes. Wilder shot take after take, but MacMurray couldn’t manage to flip the quarter properly. Wilder said, “Fred, why don’t you use a bigger coin? It’s easier. A fifty cent piece . . .” MacMurray bristled. “Fifty cents?! I would never give him fifty cents! I cannot play this scene!”

I like the picture’s last line and the way that Shirley MacLaine says it. I don’t buy it for a second, but I like it.

As for the picture as a whole, well, it won a lot of awards at the time (including the Academy Award for Best Picture), and continues to be taken seriously by a lot of people. But it’s not a good picture: it’s crummy and false. Its cynicism is lazy and scattershot; Wilder’s version of corporate America isn’t nearly accurate enough to be accepted as social criticism, and it’s not funny enough to be enjoyed as satire. The story is populated by an assortment of philanderers, bullies, liars, creeps, drunks, louts, louses, cheapskates, neurotics, loud-mouths, chippies, whores, venomous bitches, and one cartoon Jewish doctor/philosopher/mensch and his cartoon Jewish wife/busybody/moralist. The most sympathetic character in it, Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine), tries to commit suicide in a stranger’s apartment by swallowing a bottle of sleeping pills she found in his medicine cabinet. And she does it on Christmas Eve. Misery at Christmas: the lazy pessimist’s favorite cheap trick.

Like most of Wilder’s screenplays, this one (co-written by I.A.L. (Izzy) Diamond) teems with smart-alecky one-liners. It’s Weltschmerz expressed in wise-cracks, the nightmare world of Diane Arbus as told by Neil (“Doc”) Simon. (Simon wrote the book for the Broadway musical adaptation, “Promises, Promises.”) Evidently, we’re supposed to be amused by Baxter’s sordid predicament, and by the parade of burly-que vignettes that depict the messy unseemliness of middle-aged licentiousness. The men in this picture are paunchy, balding, craggy-faced drunks and their raddled mistresses are Diane Arbus grotesques. Everybody (except Baxter) is a swinger, and nobody (including Baxter) is having any fun. Early on, there’s a brief moment when horrible, elfin Ray Walston barrels through Lemmon’s front door, tie askew and nose aglow, with a pair of stingers in each hand, and a blowsy blonde (a mean-spirited parody of Marilyn Monroe) tottering along in his wake. As soon as they slam the door behind them, we hear cackles of drunken laughter. That’s the one and only moment of sexual pleasure in the entire picture, and they’ve still got their clothes on — they’re unspeakable, but at least they sound happy. For the rest of the picture, “lust in action” is depicted as being thoroughly unpleasant, frustrating, expensive, irritating, humiliating and monumentally boring. The goatish executives never stop bullying and cajoling the women they’re with, and the painted sluts never stop quarreling and bellyaching except when they’re swilling down their next cocktail. “The Apartment” suggests that infidelity is as disagreeable, passionless and unerotic as marriage is. Wilder’s main theme amounts to a cynical joke: no matter how hard the philanderer tries to avoid it, he is doomed to wind up with a mistress who’s exactly like the stupid bitch he married, only the mistress is bound to be noisier and carry a bigger rolling pin. And what, in Wilder’s view, makes women agree to have sex with these bumptious satyrs who treat them with such contempt? They’re in it for the open bar and the bibelots. Besides, they’re tramps, so they don’t have feelings we need to worry about. Except for Shirley MacLaine, who sports a boy’s haircut, all the women in this picture are gin-soaked floozies: heavily painted, beefy, raucous, brainless and over forty. (MacLaine is the only one in the cast who’s under thirty.)

Wilder goes to considerable pains to establish a documentary feel — voice-overs, long lists of statistics, elements of the procedural genre — but then presents a situation that is utterly preposterous. Baxter’s monthly rent comes to eighty dollars a month; he has four highly-paid executives borrowing his apartment every week — and often more than once a week. Yet we’re asked to believe that the four big shots, all of whom Baxter could easily blackmail, have never considered pooling twenty bucks a month on a timeshare. I mean, really. It’s too idiotic, ya dig?

The corporate structure also defies belief. We’re told that Mr Sheldrake is the head of the firm, but then we learn that he’s the Head of Personnel, which is not the top position in a corporate structure, it’s not even close. Then Sheldrake bribes Baxter with a promotion: he’s now Sheldrake’s second-in-command. But Baxter’s education and professional experience have nothing to do with Personnel: he’s an accountant. It’s complete madness.

And another strain on our credulity: one of the executive philanderers and his mistress show up at Baxter’s place on Christmas Day. Baxter refuses to vacate (he’s taking care of Fran Kubelik after her failed suicide attempt), but the big shot won’t go away until he sees that Baxter’s not alone, whereupon he nudges him in the ribs — one rouĂ© to another — and leaves without protest. We’re supposed to believe that this son of a bitch took a break from his wife and children on Christmas Day in order to have a quickie with his mistress? What planet are we on? The nonsense doesn’t stop here, but I will.

Much as I like the look of the art direction, the furnishings in Baxter’s apartment strike me as all wrong: everything is much too interesting and first rate for him. When did he purchase those amazing, enormous, matching Tiffany lampshades? When “The Apartment” was made, Tiffany lampshades had been out of fashion for a long while and were ridiculously under-priced. But I still can’t believe a nebbish like Baxter would go out of his way to buy such ostentatiously beautiful lampshades. The chairs and bedroom furniture in Baxter’s place are all matching Thonet bentwood; they’re also quite beautiful, elegant and I think much too good for him. Actually, all of his furniture was owned by Billy Wilder, who wanted to photograph them. There’s one small goof in the set decoration that does appeal to me, however, for reasons of nostalgia: Baxter has a can of MJB Coffee in his kitchen. MJB Coffee has never been sold on the East Coast. I still remember a television advertisement for MJB Coffee that I often saw when I was growing up in Seattle: it featured a sort of Arabian Nights pied piper, who played an exotic woodwind while he led a large group of followers from the East Coast to the West, because MJB Coffee was only available on the West Coast. When I see the can of MJB on Baxter’s kitchen shelf, I know it’s wrong, but it brings back fond memories of childhood.

One of the best-remembered details in the story is Baxter’s using his tennis racquet to strain spaghetti. In the last scene, while Baxter is packing up his belongings (he’s planning to relocate), he picks up the racquet, which still has one strand of spaghetti stuck to it, left over from a meal we saw him prepare a week earlier. When he picks it off, it is inexplicably (and impossibly) limp. A tiny mistake, of course, but it’s meaningful because it’s no accident: Wilder had to demand that the errant strand be made limp (who knows why?). He wanted a limp strand; it doesn’t fit the facts, but it suits his purpose, so the strand is limp. I see it as a metaphor for (and symptomatic of) all the other lazy impossibilities that have preceded it.

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