81 Days With Oscar And Me

Every Academy Award-Winning Movie, Back to Back, Starting With the First

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Apartment, The

September 21st, 2009 · No Comments · 1960, Apartment, Billy Wilder, Black and White, Comedy, Inciting Incident, Jack Lemmon, M-G-M Studios, Mid-Point, Original Screenplay, Panavision (Widescreen), Plot Point I, Plot Point II, Screenplay Structure, Shirley MacLaine, Swearing

The Apartment Ah, Billy Wilder. After the length, depth, and heaviness of Ben-Hur a good Billy Wilder film is just what the doctor ordered.

As nuts as I am about Gene Kelly, I’m equally as passionate about Billy Wilder, a writer/director I’ve come to respect above all others.

Hallmarks of a Billy Wilder film include incredibly clever writing, memorable characters, terrific acting, and a story worth watching repeatedly.

I anticipate The Apartment, the Best Picture winner for 1960, will be no exception.

And it wasn’t. Another first-rate movie.

The only thing The Apartment has in common with the previous movies is that it was shot in widescreen. It’s not color. It’s not (gasp!) an adaptation. It’s an original (gasp!) idea from the minds of Billy Wilder and his screenwriting partner I.A.L. Diamond.

I watched The Apartment with a note pad and pen at my side. I wanted to see if this movie is structured in three acts, with clearly discernible points along the way that conform to traditional screenplay structure.

I saw.

The movie opens with voiceover narration from the protagonist, C.C. “Bud” Baxter (Jack Lemmon) who provides myriad information about New York City and his life (he works for an insurance firm, on the 19th floor, been with the company for three years and 10 months, and his take home pay is $94.70 a week).

All of that is, of course, exposition – the dreaded “e” word – that most screenwriters worry about. Exposition is necessary to impart information to the audience. But it’s supposed to be dramatized and buried within natural conversations so that it doesn’t sound odd, forced, or intentionally expositional.

Here, in the hands of Wilder and Diamond, the exposition is right out in the open. It is clearly exposition. It crams so many details into the telling that it’s impossible to remember them all. And it’s exceptionally entertaining. If you’re going to write exposition, write it like this. Give the words to a narrator like Jack Lemmon and make it part of the movie in a delightful way.

A movie’s Inciting Incident, or – to use Hitchcock’s word, the “MacGuffin” – is the thing, the event, the object that happens to the protagonist or because of the protagonist that sets the story in motion. It is the reason for the movie’s existence. It is the thing that a lead character seeks to find, that causes him to run, that is the source of conflict. It is a movie’s raison d’etre.

In The Apartment, the Inciting Incident is the statement made by C.C. Baxter between 3:04 and 3:30 in the film:

You see, I have this little problem. With my apartment. I live in the West Sixties, just half a block from Central Park. My rent is $85 a month. It used to be $80 until last July when Mrs. Leiberman, the landlady, put in a second-hand air conditioning unit. It’s a real nice apartment. Nothing fancy. But kind of cozy. Just right for a bachelor. The only problem is I can’t always get in when I want to.

CUT TO: The interior of C.C.’s apartment. A couple dress and get ready to leave as he waits outside, in the cold, for them to depart.

The Apartment, therefore, is about Baxter’s apartment, which he loans out to executives in his office building to use for trysts. He does this hoping his assistance with their affairs will let him climb the corporate ladder.

Plot Point I is the, er, point in a movie when the plot thickens and spins off in a direction hot on the heels of the unspoken question from the audience, “I wonder what’s going to happen now?”

The scene that sets up Plot Point I in this movie takes place in the office of the big boss, Jeff D. Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray). Sheldrake has called Baxter into his office. Baxter thinks it’s to praise him for his work and recommend a promotion. Sheldrake has an ulterior motive and sets up Plot Point I (at about the 26:50 mark) with this question: “Just what is it that makes you so popular?”

What “it” is is Baxter’s apartment key and the use of his apartment for trysts.

After a bit of patter, Sheldrake offers (at about the 30-minute mark) Baxter tickets to see The Music Man on Broadway that evening. But there’s a catch.

Sheldrake: Look, Baxter, I’m not just giving you these tickets. I want to swap them.
Baxter: Swap them? For what?

After one of those ah-ha moments, Baxter realizes his boss wants the key to his apartment.

At the 31:44-minute mark, Sheldrake says, “Now, remember, Baxter this going to be our little secret.

There is is. The payoff to Plot Point I. The audience is now wondering, “What happens next, especially now that the boss is in on things?”

The next major turning point in a movie is the Mid Point, which occurs midway (duh!) through a movie. It adds a spin and piques the audience’s interest. Act II is long, the longest act of a movie. So it needs something about half way through to keep the audience hanging on.

The Mid Point of The Apartment – a 125-minute movie – should occur around the 62-minute mark.

And, what do you know – it does.

Sixty-one minutes and 38 seconds into the movie, Fran (Shirley MacLaine) spots a bottle of sleeping pills and decides to kill herself. Sixty-six minutes into the film, Baxter discovers her unconscious on his bed.

A better Mid Point I can’t imagine. Now the audience is wondering, “What happens next? Will Fran fall in love with Baxter? Will she die? Will this get the louse Sheldrake in trouble?”

The next major turning point in a movie is Plot Point II, which occurs in The Apartment at the 112-minute mark. Baxter marches into Sheldrake’s office to tell him he’s going to take Fran off his hands and that he’s in love with her.

Baxter: Mr. Sheldrake. I’ve got good news for you.
Sheldrake: And I’ve got good new for you, Baxter. All your troubles are over.
Baxter: Sir?
Sheldrake: I know how worried you were about Miss Kubelik. Well, stop worrying. I’m going to take her off your hands.
Baxter: You’re going to take her off my hands?
Sheldrake: That’s right, Baxter. I’ve moved out of the house. I’m going to be staying in town, at the athletic club.
Baxter: You’ve left your wife.

This exchange of dialogue (which only lasts about a minute), changes the course of the movie once more. “Oh-oh. Now what? the audience thinks. “Now that Sheldrake left his wife, what will happen to Baxter and his love for Miss Kubelik?”

I briefly considered the scene, just a few minutes later – when Sheldrake asks for Baxter’s apartment key so he could take Fran there – to be Plot Point II. After all, Baxter refuses (because of his love for Fran) and then, under pressure from his boss, quits his job. That’s a major turning point. But I realized that Baxter refuses because of what happened earlier. Prior to the scene in which Baxter marched into Sheldrake’s office to profess his love for Miss Kubelik, Baxter might have (and did) go along with Sheldrake’s tryst with Fran. But as soon as Sheldrake told Baxter that he’s going to take Miss Kubelik off his hands, that changes Baxter’s opinion of the situation. And that causes him to refuse Sheldrake’s request for the apartment key.

The smallest act in the three-act structure is Act III. In this case, the movie has just a little over 10 minutes to wrap up.

And it does. Beautifully.

But with a director/writer like Billy Wilder, and a cast like this, how could it be otherwise:

Jack Lemmon (1925-2001)…………………………C.C. Baxter

Shirley MacLaine (1934- )………………………….Fran Kubelik

Fred MacMurray (1908-1991)…………………….Jeff D. Sheldrake

Ray Walston (1914-2001)………………………….Joe Dobisch

Jack Kruschen (1922-2002)……………………….Dr. Dreyfuss

David Lewis (1916-2000)………………………….Al Kirkeby

Hope Holiday (1938- )……………………………..Mrs. Margie MacDougall

David White (1916-1990)…………………………Mr. Eichelberger

Edie Adams (1927-2008)…………………………Miss Olsen

There are two swear words in The Apartment. I point them out not because I’m a prude. But because this is only the third Oscar-winning movie to contain swearing of any kind. And the first to contain two swear words. At the one hour, twenty-five minute mark Fran tells Baxter “He doesn’t give a damn about me” (referring to Sheldrake). Then, at the one hour fifty-minute mark, Fran tells Baxter (who has just been punched by her brother in law), “Oh you fool. You damn fool.”

The Apartment is an outstanding movie. But, it’s a Billy Wilder movie. So what else could it be?


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