In 1959, Billy Wilder (The Lost Weekend, Sunset Blvd., Stalag 17) directed the funniest film in history, Some Like It Hot, about violent gang activity, misogyny, and the dangers of toxic masculinity. The next year, he made another very funny movie about another topic that doesn’t easily lend itself to comedy, sexual harassment in the workplace. His male characters in Some Like It Hot are like the creepy but harmless old men that stare at young women too long, but his male characters in The Apartment are the entitled predators who use and abuse women out of power to boost their grandiose self-image (think Harvey Weinstein, Roy Moore, or Donald Trump). Fred McMurray plays the most powerful man in the office and the most dangerous to the women who work for him, giving one of the greatest, most sinister villainous performances of all time.
The Apartment was made more than 50 years before the #metoo movement, long before anybody talked seriously about workplace harassment. It was a societal norm that was rarely questioned, but Billy Wilder took a wildly innovative approach to making this movie that would begin discussion about workplace ethics and be extremely entertaining at the same time. If he would have made the abused woman the lead character, it wouldn’t have the impact in 1960 that did, so he creates a labyrinth of corruption and deception all surrounding the key to a male, submissive employee’s apartment. C.C. Baxter (Jack Lemon) is the victim that we see all the workplace sexual harassment through. He’s promised raises and promotions by higher-ups if he’ll let them use his apartment for their extra-marital affairs. He never really agrees but sees his job on the line if he doesn’t let them have their way. No never mean no for these creeps, and that’s not just true as far as women and sex are concerned, but no doesn’t mean no for Baxter and the use of his apartment either.
Once Fred McMurray’s character, Jeff Sheldrake, begins to develop, so does the romance between Baxter and and Sheldrake’s current victim, Fran Kubelik. They meet daily on the elevator she works on, always referring to each other as Mr. Baxter and Miss Kubelik even after their romance develops. It’s not just a result of their workplace relationship but its a symbol for their genuine respect for each other and for people in general, something that doesn’t seem to exist anywhere beyond these two characters in their place of business. They share respect for each other and for the abuse they both face at the hands of Sheldrake. They share something unique to them in that office. Each of them is a “mensch.”
When Baxter’s neighbor thinks that Baxter is responsible for all that he hears going on in Baxter’s apartment, he tells him to start being a “mensch,” a human being. This line is the heartbeat of every second of the movie. As Billy Wilder shows us the devastation of workplace sexual harassment, he shows us the dehumanizing nature of such abuse. Yet at the same time he introduces us to two people who, though subject to that dehumanization, are able to recover and regain what had been stolen of their humanity through respect and love, through being a “mensch.”
It’s remarkable to notice how much love Billy Wilder had for his female characters. In Some Like It Hot, Sugar (Marylin Monroe) talked about how she always got “the fuzzy end of the lollypop”, but because of the genuine changes Tony Curtis’ character made in his treatment of women, we’re sure that in the end she didn’t get the fuzzy end of the lollypop. For Miss Kubelik, we know she just wants to find someone who will treat her well. We know that Baxter is that person but also that she needs time to recover before entering a relationship that can be healthy. So when Baxter tells her he loves her during a game of gin rummy, and she responds hilariously by saying, “shut up and deal,” it’s Billy Wilder’s brilliant way of saying they eventually lived happily ever after, but in a way shows the love he has for the character of Miss Kubelik without any of the triteness that usually comes from a happily ever after.