Wednesday, February 5, 2014


For me, The Apartment is one of those films that conjured up an overgrown reaction, forcing me to weed out my snap judgments toward the film in order to be left with a more deeply rooted conclusion. At first, The Apartment felt like one of those celebrated Best Picture winners that I just couldn’t party down with. I couldn’t. I wouldn’t. Tonally, it felt like a misfire; like some incongruent, slightly trashy fairytale that wields a lot of effort into gussying itself up as this sweet rom-com. I found this distracting because I feel like the film endeavored to make me laugh at a situation that ultimately wasn’t funny. Sure, there are a few moments here and there that are amusing enough old sport. But those amusements aside, The Apartment felt mainly like a stocking stuffed with dark, corrupt and even tragic elements that left me looking around to wonder if I was the only one in the room who didn’t think this film is really all that tender and comedic.

Given the fact that my reaction to The Apartment was seemingly the one boo among the sea of applause this film has garnered over the decades, I decided to put my thoughts in a holding tank and circle back to it during visiting hours. Not that I’m afraid to go against the grain of popular opinion old sport. It’s not that at all. Instead, my reservation was more about taking a cautious course of action in order to avoid being dismissive of something that perhaps merited a little more analysis. Eventually, I found that my initial reaction didn’t hold up after some more time and consideration, leaving me to appreciate this film and some of the deeper themes that it explored. 

Directed by the wildly adept Billy Wilder, The Apartment became his eighth and final nomination in the category of Best Director, which he eventually went on to win, marking his second Oscar touchdown for directing achievement along with The Lost Weekend, a full 15 years earlier. The marquee tenants of The Apartment also include a young Jack Lemmon, an even younger Shirley MacLaine and Fred MacMurray, playing so against type that I’m sure it made Mickey Mouse almost hurl a Cadillac. The film hauled in an astonishing 10 Academy Award nominations, eventually renting out victories in the categories of Best Art Direction, Best Editing, Best Original Screenplay, Best Director and Best Picture for 1961. It was the last black-and-white film to win the Academy’s top prize, until Schindler’s List owned the big night 32 years later. Also of note, Kevin Spacey has said in interviews that he based his character in American Beauty on Lemmon’s performance in The Apartment. In his acceptance speech for Best Actor in American Beauty, Spacey dedicated his win to Lemmon, saying he was “the man who inspired my performance. A man who has been my friend and my mentor and, since my father died, a little bit like my father…. Wherever you are, thank you, thank you, thank you.” 

The Apartment centers on C.C. Baxter, a lonely, but eager worker bee in a giant New York insurance hive with aspirations to buzz to the top the corporate ladder. In order to hasten the ascension process, Baxter enters into a deal, of sorts, with a cadre of scumbag company managers, lending them the use of his Upper West Side apartment for their night-owl infidelities in exchange for their recommendations of Baxter to the top brass for a promotion. Eventually, the glowing reviews end up in the hands of Jeff Sheldrake, director of personnel, who calls Baxter into his office to confront him with the knowledge that he knows the cause of ignition driving his colleagues’ enthusiasm. Instead of frowning upon such office corruption, Sheldrake wants in on the action, agreeing to promote Baxter for the exclusive rights to use his apartment for his own extra marital ring-a-ding-ding.

In the midst of tiptoeing through his corporate climbing scheme, Baxter manages to siphon off enough time to make lighthearted attempts at winning the attention of Fran Kubelik, a slightly sassy elevator operator working in his same building. She finally agrees to a date with Baxter to go and see The Music Man on Broadway, first telling him that she has to meet a former flame for a quick drink. The old flame turns out to be none other than Baxter’s new boss, Jeff Sheldrake, who manipulates Fran into believing that he practically has the divorce papers all drawn up and ready for Mrs. Sheldrake to sign. For weeks, Fran sort of dodges Baxter, buying into Sheldrake’s ever-growing promises, until his secretary drunkenly spews out the truth to Fran that Sheldrake is just dangling the pledge of divorce in front of her, with the intent to eventually pull back once he is through with her. Angry and upset with herself for being so foolish, Fran confronts Sheldrake at Baxter’s apartment, before he leaves for the evening to be with his family on Christmas Eve. Alone and despaired, Fran makes an attempt on her life by choking down an overdose of jagged little sleeping pills.

Later that same evening, Baxter is shocked to discover Fran lights out on his bed, sending him frantically to enlist the help of a physician living next door. Eventually Fran recovers, recounting to Baxter the whole muddled yarn of her turbulent and foolish affair with Sheldrake. Ashamed and disgusted with his boss for manipulating someone he cares so deeply about, Baxter impulsively quits his job. Upon hearing this news, Fran tenders her resignation from her relationship with Sheldrake, arriving at Baxter’s apartment in time to stop him from moving out. 

One aspect of my reaction to The Apartment that has remained constant is the terrific performances of its three leads. Jack Lemmon is aces when it comes to playing the “every man” type of guy that audiences instinctively find themselves rooting for. The Apartment is perhaps the best example of Lemmon’s career that illustrates his ability to bring an effortless and controlled goofy sensibility to a role. But a big part of Lemmon’s true talent went beyond just being silly for the sake of drumming up some yuks. He had this uncanny ability to nimbly walk the line of being funny without being laughed at. As a result, he produced a genuine sweetness and likability that elicited sympathy for his characters. With him, it felt like there was always something more meaningful and more complex in the composition to the roles he inhabited. 

The Apartment created the perfect scenario for Lemmon in allowing his particular set of strengths to shine through. As C.C. Baxter, Lemmon brought the perfect blend of tenderness and naiveté to the part of playing a guy who essentially gets in way over his head in pursuit of a promotion. More often than not, Baxter is continually mishandling his affairs, landing him in situations of being stood up out in the rain or with multiple superiors at work breathing down his neck. It’s a delight to watch Lemmon trudge home through the rain with a slumped posture or try and push back against his superiors before caving in to their demands. He navigates these scenes in such amusingly adorkable fashion that you can’t help but simultaneously crack a smile and feel bad for the guy as he continually fumbles the ball. 

Apart from Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine also delivers the goods as Fran Kubelik, a romantically confused elevator operator continually finding the realities of her own love life shuffling up and down. As a result of her bad judgments regarding her affair with a married man, Fran has fallen toward the cusp of not believing in love anymore. Despite Fran’s congealing jadedness toward romance, MacLaine manages to prevent her from coming off as some bitter shrew stuffed with clichés, instead creating a sympathetic and charming gal who just needs to do a little growing up. Given Fran’s recent acquaintances with some of life’s harsh realities, MacLaine plays a slightly brassy, more serious counterpart to Lemmon’s goofiness, generating a sweet and innocent chemistry that hasn’t lost any of its appeal all these years later. For anyone who is a Shirley MacLaine fan, it’s worth watching The Apartment to see her play a softer, pixie-cute character before her career took a turn into her apparent specialty of playing harder-edged, more cynical women (Ousier, I’m looking in your direction). 

But for my money, Fred MacMurray is The Apartment’s most memorable tenant. I grew up watching him in all of those old Disney films like The Shaggy Dog, The Absent-Minded Professor and The Happiest Millionaire. (Hell, I still enjoy watching those movies even now that I’m into my thirties.) Maybe it’s because he always played such likable characters, but for me, Fred MacMurray is one of the most affable actors of all time. I think his talents as an actor are heavily underrated. He was so adept at steering his characters away from becoming caricatures of cantankerous old father types. Instead, he managed to bring humor, insecurities, strengths, weaknesses and other dimensions to characters that might otherwise have become wobbly creations in the hands of lesser talent. I grant you that MacMurray rarely strayed from playing a certain type of character, which makes his performance in The Apartment so salient.

To anyone who has seen Double Indemnity, the fact that MacMurray could pull off a darker, more deviant role like Jeff Sheldrake shouldn’t come as a surprise. And yet old sport, I’m here to tell you that it still retained a certain shock to see MacMurray so effortlessly slip into the skin of this manipulative and adulterous scumbag. All of that likability from his tenure with Disney seemingly goes up in smoke after his first scene with Shirley MacLaine where he is obviously stringing her along with a rat pack of lies about leaving his wife and kids for her. But the real kicker is when he threatens to fire Jack Lemmon after he initially refuses to loan him the use of his apartment for any further rendezvous. MacMurray is so calm and pointed in his unreasonable abuse of power during the scene, leaving you absolutely no choice but to feel riled up. It really is just a great, modern villain of the most despicable sort because at the end of the day his villainy is so miniscule and nuanced in the grand scheme of things that in reality he’ll probably go on stepping all over the little people until he retires. I think the main reason MacMurray is so effective in this light, at generating such disdain and hatred, is that he has built an entire career on playing the good guy. As a result, it feels like some sort of a betrayal of trust to see him turn completely around and reveal that he’s not that innocent.
As I mentioned in the opening paragraphs, my initial negative reaction stemmed from the strange tonal dissonance created by the film. On the one hand, the relationship between Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine positions the film to be firmly planted on rom-com soil. But I didn’t buy this definition of the film at all. It felt like a salesperson trying to sell me an item that is obviously something else entirely different from the sale pitch. In this context, it seemed like Billy Wilder was trying to sell me a bill of rom-com goods when in fact it was more in step with a sad-toned, murky dramedy with suicide, corruption, deceit and adultery; elements that don’t necessarily scream romantic comedy. But in reconsidering the events of the story, I came to realize that the mixed message presentation was exactly spot-on in how this story should be delivered. Essentially, the film evolves from being a light-hearted comedy with some dark stains on it. As the film progresses, those stains spread to overtake the light-hearted elements of the narrative to create a situation of confusion. But by the time the final credits roll, moral clarity has bleached away most of the blots, leaving a sense of lucidity as to the direction of the film and its characters.

What does that all mean, exactly? Taken from Baxter’s perspective, this tonal evolution is best explained by tracing his own personal growth as an individual which illustrates how certain experiences can reshuffle an individual’s list of priorities. In the beginning, Baxter is so focused on getting that promotion that he is completely oblivious to the fact that he has become an accessory to some pretty bad behavior that has ramifications in the real world, particularly on his own character. It isn’t until Fran’s attempted suicide is laid at his feet does he realize the despicable nature of the crowd he now has a membership in. At this point, the darkness has edged out the light and he has a difficult time seeing his way forward. Now that he has the job he plotted and schemed for, he is disappointed to discover that it wasn’t worth the price of selling out, leaving him in a confusing state of mind. Ultimately, his self-sacrifice for Fran’s sake is what ushers in his regained sense of sure footing in moving forward. 

Ultimately, this final redemption is what made the film redeeming for me. Admittedly, my strongest reaction against The Apartment is that it felt like it was making light of adultery, which I straight up don’t like. But in unpacking the story a little more, I came to the conclusion that the film is touching upon deeper themes of blind ambition and office greed, illustrating what happens when an individual allows them to seep deeply into their consciousness. One effect is that one’s moral compass begins to spin in every direction, which, when that happens, turns anyone into a master of justification. I think this is why the film initially treats adultery like it ain’t no thang but a chicken wang because Baxter has fastened on the moral blinders in pursuit of his promotion. Fortunately, for his sake, Baxter is able to pull himself back from the brink before his integrity is swallowed up for good by the corporate monster.

Favorite Line: 

Jeff Sheldrake:
Ya know, you see a girl a couple of times a week, just for laughs, and right away they think you're gonna divorce your wife. Now I ask you, is that fair?
C.C. Baxter:  No, sir, it's very unfair... Especially to your wife.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

BEN-HUR - 1959

Ben-Hur is nothing if not a colossal example of stirring, magnificent pageantry. It’s that rare achievement where all the elements of film combine to create a thundering spectacle that is truly unforgettable. It’s one of those feats that raise the standard of filmmaking to such cinematic heights that few films have been able to sustain a comparison to it without being swallowed up by the shadow of its accomplishment. The signature chariot race alone is a sequence few filmmakers could conceive, let alone actually pull off, even in this time of advanced technology. But perhaps its greatest triumph is that the intimate human drama and complex, internal struggle of its central character is never trampled underneath the visually epic constituents of the film’s enormous narrative. After watching Ben-Hur, it’s no wonder that Hollywood endeavors to produce so few Biblical epics these days. In my opinion, it is one of the most difficult genres to successfully navigate, particularly because producing success in this arena takes faith, understanding and respect for religious-themed subject matter, accoutrements which Hollywood has since long ago discarded. Although I might be heating up a plate of crow in saying that, as 2014 is shaping up to be a year when Biblical epics are poised to make a resurrected comeback, with big screen adaptations of the stories of Noah, Exodus and Jesus all set for wide release. Whether or not these efforts fail or flourish, it should be interesting to see Tinseltown’s treatment of the Old and New Testament over the next several months.

Directed by the fearless William Wyler, and starring the indomitable Charlton Heston, Ben-Hur dominated the 1959 Academy Awards with 12 nominations, taking home a record-setting 11 statuettes, including Best Picture. The only other films to match Ben-Hur’s Oscar haul are Titanic and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. The one category the failed to realize Oscar gold was for Best Adapted Screenplay, which critics have attributed to controversy over the film’s writing credit, which, if true, is completely ridiculous. Pish posh on who actually wrote the thing?! The only point that counts is that it was an incredible screenplay that should have been honored regardless of who ended up taking home the bald guy that evening. 

Set in the year 26 A.D. during the Roman Empire’s occupation of Jerusalem and the surrounding region, the film centers on Judah Ben-Hur, a wealthy prince and merchant. Judah enjoys a relatively peaceful existence until his childhood friend Messala returns to Jerusalem as a commander in the Roman army. Anxious to please his superiors, Messala immediately implores Judah to give up the names of those Jews who criticize the Roman Empire. His devotion to his people and faith cause Judah to refuse Messala’s request. Angry with his old friend, Messala later seizes upon a public misunderstanding as an excuse to cast Judah and his family into prison, committing Judah to a miserable existence as a galley slave.

 Through a series of fortunate events, Judah is able to save the life of the Roman Consul Quintus Arrius amidst the chaos of battle with a fleet of Macedonian ships. The Romans prevail in victory, resulting in Quintus receiving credit for the campaign’s success. Grateful to Judah, Quintus adopts him as his son and secures his freedom from slavery. Free from the shackles of his sentence, Judah eventually returns home where he is given word that his mother and sister have died in prison during his absence. Stung with hatred and seething with an electrified vengeance in the wake of this terrible news, Judah straight away seeks out Messala. As a side note, in the scene where Judah first confronts Messala, who is stunned to see him return, it would have been awesome in an over-the-top sort of way if Judah had turned to the camera and grisly said, as only Charlton Heston can, “Ben-Hur’s back, bitch.” I guess that route was deemed a little too irreverent, so instead, the story has Judah and Messala settle their fates in a thunderous chariot race that leaves the latter mortally wounded. 

Before his wounds can carry off his spirit to the Great Beyond, Messala tells Judah that his mother and sister are indeed alive (sort of), dwelling in the Valley of the Lepers. Shocked by the news, Judah, grabbing the biggest bottle of hand sanitizer that he can find, goes off in search of his leper family, eventually reuniting with them under bittersweet circumstances. While trudging along in the wilderness of his anger over the injustices suffered by his loved ones, Judah comes to witness the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, whom he hears preach about forgiveness while hanging on the cross. The words bring comfort to Judah’s heart, allowing him to finally forgive the grievances brought against him and his family and to move forward in peace.

 It’s no great insight to point out that everything associated with the Ben-Hur was ordered on a supremely grand scale. The film’s running time is 212 minutes. The score is the longest in cinematic history, requiring it to be spread across three LP records when it was initially released for commercial purchase. Women in the Piedmont region of Italy donated 400 pounds of hair to be used for wigs. The number of costumes swelled to 100,000 different sets of attire, with the production of an additional 1,000 suits of armor. The glorious chariot race scene used a set that was constructed over 18 acres, using 1,500 hundred extras on any given day of shooting. Upon completion of principal photography, over 1 million feet of film had been used to capture the story of Ben-Hur, making it one of the most monumental artistic achievements in the history of the world.

But when you can step back from the sheer size and depth of the production, what is truly amazing about Ben-Hur is that the human drama and the inner conflict are never eclipsed by the weighty spectacle. I think this is due to the film’s exploration and illustration of the profound ideas rooted in forgiveness, particularly in the face of engulfing injustice. This gives the film a strong pulse that feels personal and real because everyone at some point in their mortality is confronted with the decision of whether or not to show forgiveness. In having to navigate the emotionally tumultuous journey that can be presented in reaching a point where anger and vengeance are swapped out in favor of forgiveness, Charlton Heston delivers a performance that feels credibly dignified, tormented, aggressive and wounded. With the one-two punch of playing both Moses and Judah, Heston’s talents seem specifically engineered for these types of Biblical epics. He soars, where lesser actors would easily plummet. He brings such a level of passion and earnestness to the character of Judah that his suffering and joy feel unquestionably authentic and true. In this light, it can rightfully be said that it’s Heston’s talent and strength that lift the film into the leagues of greatness. The narrative revolves entirely around the trials and tribulations endured by Judah, and Heston fearlessly tackles all of the elements with confidence and zeal. So many films have proven the fact that spectacle and thrills aren’t worth a damn unless they have real characters and conflict to breathe life into them. Heston not only gave life to Judah, and thus the entire film, but he completely electrified it with an energy that still resonates more than 50 years later.

The other component that makes this a powerful and compelling film is the portrayal of certain moments in the life of Jesus Christ, his ministry and earthly mission, particularly the Crucifixion. The enactment is done with an undeniable sense of reverence, but the act itself unfolds with the nature of a dark political deed done to extinguish any flicker of peace or hope of freedom from the Roman Empire’s bondage. It's emotional and affecting as a stand-alone event within in the film. But it also lends gravity to Ben-Hur's central theme of forgiveness: Jesus Christ set the ultimate example by expressing forgiveness towards the Roman’s for their deeds against him while he was hanging on the cross. On that note, perhaps the overarching reason that Ben-Hur is an untouchable film that is likely to never be matched by any future Hollywood production is that it contains some of the greatest events and most enduring truths in the history of mankind, which transcends awards, entertainment value and time, making the film forever resonant.  

Favorite Line: The film has several great lines that offer great insight into the true nature of life. But I thought the final lines spoken by Judah and Esther, his love interest, to be the most poignant. 

Judah: Almost at the moment He died, I heard Him say, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do." 
Esther: Even then?
Judah: Even then. And I felt His voice take the sword out of my hand.