Sunday, January 14, 2018

Another Look at THE APARTMENT

To me, it's perfection.  Absolute perfection.  Billy Wilder's THE APARTMENT aired on a cable channel over the weekend and it was just the break I needed from the news of the day.  Good Lord, can you imagine how people in Hawaii must have freaked the hell out?  I prepared to watch THE APARTMENT when, earlier that same morning, some of us Americans thought that Trump could've been in a position like President Merkin Muffley in Stanley Kubrick's DR. STRANGELOVE.  Can you imagine him making that "Hello?....Hello, Dmitri?" phone call to the Governor of Hawaii?  Thank Heaven it was a false alarm.  Hawaii was not in danger of a nuclear missile attack.  A Billy Wilder classic took my mind off our Orange Mistake in the White House.
I watched THE APARTMENT Saturday morning and fell in love with it all over again.  I even felt tears of joy well up in my eyes at the famous "Shut up and deal" final line.
I gave Saturday's airing of THE APARTMENT my full attention.  I was not live tweeting it.  I was not on social media.  In giving it my full attention, I discovered something new that made me fall in love with Billy Wilder all over again.  I love the subtle yet powerful and accurate way he dealt with race in America.  He avoided the grand sweeping gesture -- like placing the action down South and showing KKK members in dastardly progress.  He showed those above the Mason-Dixon line slights, inequalities and insults that can be slipped into everyday life like an inter-office memo at work.  Look at his first teaming of Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau in 1966's THE FORTUNE COOKIE.  That is very much a Civil Rights era comedy, and a good one, often overlooked when film critics and enthusiasts write about the Wilder canon of classics.  A popular, well-paid, well-dressed and sophisticated NFL star, doing a favor for an injured white cameraman (Lemmon), picks up the injured party's arriving guest at the airport.  She assumes that he's not a dapper buddy doing a favor, but a chauffeur because he's black and driving.

What really stood out to me in my recent viewing of THE APARTMENT was the number of black people he incorporated into his look at corporate culture in New York City.  I loved it.  First of all, if you've read my previous posts and heard my podcasts, I do have a tendency to call up the sitcom FRIENDS as an example of a lack of racial diversity.  Nothing against that cast of fine actors.  But I lived in the downtown part of Manhattan where those friends lived.  The neighborhood does not lack for black, Latino, Asian and Middle Eastern faces just about every minute of the day and night.  When Carson Daly was the host of MTV's hugely popular TRL, you could walk through Times Square and see the loud crowds of black, brown and white teens eager to be selected to go into the building and be in the studio audience.  But a network sitcom about young hip adults in New York City showed all white faces.  In the 1990s.  We had more TV diversity in the 1970s with the Norman Lear sitcoms.  One of my dearest friends in life, the late Gail Joseph, was a top person in the NBC Publicity Department.  Gail was Jewish.  Gail took me out for a bite to eat and even she was perplexed at the uni-color of FRIENDS.  She'd lived in New York City for years.  I'd been to her apartment plenty of times.  She did not see the everyday racial diversity of New York City reflected in FRIENDS.

The lack of color, if you will, in SEINFELD caused me to lose interest in the sitcom early on.  I tried to give it a chance.  But when I saw the episode in which they thought having the characters accidentally set the flag of Puerto Rico on fire would be a big laugh-getter, that turned me off.  By the way, that particular episode got hundreds of calls from irate Latino viewers to the NBC switchboard.

Fast forward to the 21st Century and, for a year, I worked in the Screen Actors Guild Diversity Committee.  Our mission was to get more actors of color considered for even background work as extras.  There was a new ABC series getting a lot of advance promotion because it looked fabulous, festive and retro.  The show, about four pretty stewardesses in the early 1960s, was called PAN AM.  Because it was retro, we were interested to see if and how people of color would be worked into the show.  The series was set during the JFK administration.  There was no African American beauty among the four lovely stewardesses.  That was pretty much as expected. one of the first three episodes, there was scene in a very busy terminal in a New York airport.  We discussed this scene at SAG.  In the wide shot, with the hustle and bustle of early 1960s travelers, there were only four black actors in background parts.  There was a black couple with the woman in African garb, there was a black man in airport uniform carrying luggage for a white couple and another black man was shining shoes.  For in-flight scenes, you didn't see any black people as passengers.  The same applied for black actors on the sidewalks in the exterior scenes shot in Greenwich Village.  We had a problem with PAN AM, a show that premiered in the fall of 2011 and was cancelled within its first season.
Now look at Billy Wilder's THE APARTMENT, Oscar winner for Best Picture of 1960.  When first we see Jack Lemmon as C.C. Baxter as his desk in those rows of desks on an insurance company office floor that seems half the size of a football field, notice the number of black women in office attire delivering paperwork to desks.  At the big company Christmas party underway on C.C. Baxter's floor, notice the black women and men at the party in business attire.  Way more than the number of black people we saw in early episodes of ABC's PAN AM and way more than we see in those early years of FRIENDS as neighbors or coffee shop customers.

Black people work for the company in THE APARTMENT.  Black men are in the elevator, not as the elevator operators, but as shirt-and-tie wearing office employees going to or leaving work.  This is not to say that some stuffy old attitudes towards people of color don't exist within characters.
When Fran Kubelik has her first reunion drink with Mr. Sheldrake in the restaurant, notice that she walks into the restaurant and stops at the piano.  She smiles warmly at the Asian pianist.  He smiles very warmly back to her and plays what we come to know as the theme to THE APARTMENT.  She spots Mr. Sheldrake, the married men with whom she's had a soul-wounding affair, and sits down.  The Asian waiter is very happy to see her again.  "Nice to see you, lady," he says with a sincere smile.  He never looks at Mr. Sheldrake and Sheldrake doesn't look at him.  There is definite warmth and regard exchanged between Fran Kubelik and the two Asian men who work in the restaurant.  She even buys the album that the pianist recorded.  To Sheldrake, those two men are probably like generic domestics in his corporate executive mind.

Near the end of the movie, Sheldrake gets a shoe shine in his private office from a black male.  Sheldrake tips him a quarter or a half-dollar coin.  Sheldrake is highly-paid executive boss.  Did you ever see the 1953 musical, THE BAND WAGON, starring Fred Astaire?  Astaire plays a Hollywood actor who hasn't worked in a few years and has a meeting for a possible Broadway show.  In Times Square, he gets a shoe shine from a black man.  They connect like old buddies. Notice the faded Hollywood star tips the dude some folding money.

Those touches of Wilder's, his direction and use of actors, his visual subtleties give more texture to a scene.  They tells us more about how the characters relate to the world and how they relate within it.

From a heartbreaking, nearly tragic Christmas Eve, the spirit of Fran Kubelik will resurrect and light up at the end of New Year's Eve. She will start the New Year realizing that she is truly loved -- loved by the company co-worker who has Ella Fitzgerald albums in his record collection -- and who also walked out on Mr. Sheldrake.

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