With the holidays just around the corner, everyone is doing their best to get into the Christmas spirit. What better way to do that than by putting on your favorite holiday movie? During these pandemic times, it’s difficult not to go for films that make us laugh and feel good, which we still should. But sometimes the movies that deal with tougher subjects are the ones that end up having a real positive impact on us. Most holiday films are already morality tales, some just go much deeper than others.
Billy Wilder’s The Apartment may not be widely known as a must-watch for the holiday season, but it certainly is revered as a classic. With the main events of the film taking place over Christmas Eve and Christmas, it is a prime candidate for being a go-to holiday movie. Released in 1960 and set in a wintery New York City, The Apartment follows C.C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon), an employee at an insurance company who is working his way up to the corporate level. One way he’s been gaining favor with the executives is by letting these men use his apartment as a place where they can bring women that they’re having flings with. Not a typical setup for a Christmas movie, surely, but that’s what makes it so refreshing. It feels ahead of its time in many respects, especially when it comes to the general melancholy that comes with living in a big city and the measures people take to make something of themselves.
Things are working as planned for Baxter until his boss, Mr. Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray), finds out what Baxter is up to. Instead of reprimanding him, Sheldrake decides he wants to use Baxter’s place as well for his affairs. Baxter obliges, landing himself a promotion. Despite Baxter’s behavior and lack of a backbone, it’s still hard not to like him. A lot of that falls to Lemmon’s genius as a performer. His natural charm makes it near impossible not to sympathize with him even though every hardship he faces is ultimately his fault. And that’s what makes the story itself so human. The protagonists are likable but imperfect, much like in real life.
With one great performer comes another in Shirley MacLaine as Fran Kubelik, an elevator operator at the same company that Baxter works for. Fran and Baxter have quite the chemistry in their first scene together, and it’s only the beginning of what we see of their friendship. As Baxter develops a crush on Fran, we see that Fran is hung up on a man who happens to be married. Things get complicated when Baxter finds out, on Christmas Eve Day, that the woman that Sheldrake has been bringing back to his apartment is, in fact, Fran. To rub salt in the wound, Sheldrake requests Baxter’s place for that night so he can take Fran there. Devastated, Baxter decides to get drunk at a bar by himself on Christmas Eve. This whole sequence is a treat, mostly thanks to Jack Lemmon’s wonderful drunk acting. It’s not too showy since the point is to display how miserable and alone he is, drowning his feelings with every martini he drinks.
The amount of alcohol consumed in The Apartment is substantial and it’s one of the several more mature themes explored in the film. To showcase a character spending Christmas by himself (and drinking heavily) is bold, especially for the 60s. While most movies try to promote the importance of family gatherings around the holidays, even if they are still fraught and filled with over-drinking, The Apartment dares to show what can happen when someone doesn’t have the opportunity to celebrate Christmas with anyone. And what’s more, there’s no connotation of shame or judgement. It’s matter of fact and fits perfectly within the story. It’s another example of how brilliantly relatable the movie is.
It’s time to shift focus from Baxter to Fran, since her story is the crux of the whole movie. The film alludes to Fran and Mr. Sheldrake’s previous affair that ended six months ago. However, Sheldrake convinces Fran to start seeing him again, telling her that he really does plan on divorcing his wife this time. Fran goes along with him until she finds out from Sheldrake’s secretary that he’s done the same thing to many women over the years, including her. This sends Fran into a state and she stands up to Sheldrake after they meet at Baxter’s place on Christmas Eve. Sheldrake brushes her off and heads home while Fran stays behind. While she’s fixing herself up in the bathroom, she sees a full bottle of sleeping pills. She takes a handful and falls asleep on Baxter’s bed.
Obviously, this part of the story is challenging and possibly triggering for some. Attempted suicide is a dark topic to tackle, especially in a comedy. The way that it’s handled in The Apartment might not sit well with everyone, but it is worth examining. It may not deal with it in the most delicate of ways, but it still feels like it serves the story and the characters. Shirley MacLaine is so brilliant in capturing Fran’s heartbreak, never making it feel melodramatic. With how visibly terrible she feels in the moment, it makes sense that she has the impulse to end her life. Luckily, Baxter finds her in time after he comes home with a woman he met at the bar.
Despite the heavy subject matter, I can’t help but admire the story choice to have Fran spend all of Christmas day recovering from her attempt with Baxter right by her side. The fact that it’s Christmas is really just incidental, and yet it still manages to capture the feeling of it. Not every Christmas is great for everyone, and it’s refreshing to see a film embrace that. While Fran is embarrassed by her actions, Baxter does his best to cheer her up, sharing his own experience with attempting suicide. Instead of painting Fran as weak for wanting to take her life, the film chooses to understand her pain, insinuating that having these thoughts is just part of the human condition. There’s a certain lightness to how the subject is handled, but it works in favor of the story and ultimately avoids being offensive.
As can be predicted, The Apartment ends with Fran choosing Baxter over Sheldrake, although it is refreshing that the final shot refrains from showing the two of them sharing a big ol’ smooch. It’s enough for the two of them to just be with each other that we don’t need an overly romantic ending. It’s the perfect conclusion to a film that chooses to explore themes that aren’t usually showcased in romantic comedies, especially ones set around Christmas. With how deep it was willing to go, it really felt like it did deserve its happy ending.
The fact that The Apartment ends well for the protagonists isn’t what makes it a perfect Christmas movie. Sure, it’s nice that it ends happily, but it’s the heavier and realistic elements of the story that make it great for some meaningful holiday reflection. With how hard life can be, especially right now, it’s better to face those hardships head on instead of trying to gloss over them with too many sappy Christmas films. It’s good to balance out the happy with the difficult, because ultimately that’s what life is, and The Apartment is a perfect representation of that balance.