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Vivian Norris

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Why We Need Shirley MacLaine, and Billy Wilder's The Apartment More Now than Ever

Posted: 09/09/11 09:21 AM ET

She spoke about everything from her disciplined past as a dancer, to the importance of democracy, to corporations taking over our world (the film industry included). She spoke about freedom of expression, about sex, about the relationship between France the US and the founding fathers inspiring the French Revolution.

After two hours of watching Shirley MacLaine receive the highest accolade France bestows, the "legion d'honneur", and hearing her interviewed, I appreciated and respected this legendary actress, this lovely human being, this multi-talented fellow American more than ever before.

Whether she was joking about the rat pack being gay or Hitchcock's Cockney rhyming slang (and complete lack of directing actors) or past lives lived, she was always extremely straightforward and full of integrity. Perhaps the most honest comment she made was that her favorite roles were those in which she played "irascible bitches" (her word choice) in "Terms of Endearment" and "Steel Magnolias" because she felt she was playing herself. Her humanity and compassion for people, for those roles based on prostitutes, the down and out, the impoverished, seeps out of every pore as she speaks, as does her feminism. She is not an "irascible bitch" but an opinionated, strong, woman who was often ahead of her time, especially for the world of Hollywood where she has spent so many years of her (many) lives. This woman is most definitely a Mensch.

Shirley MacLaine was not only honored by France but also by the American film festival in Deauville this week and fifteen of her films are playing at the magnificent Frank O. Gehry designed Cinemateque francaise in Paris, which also hosts a museum and library.

The Minister of Culture, Frederic Mitterrand, gave a moving speech which belied his life as a film director, and his respect for this astounding actress. Miss MacLaine spoke before a screening of one of my favorite films by Billy Wilder, The Apartment, in which she co-stars with the wonderful Jack Lemmon. Everyone should go out and see this film again even if they think they know it well. It resonates now more than ever before, as we see how real human beings can either feed the corporate machines and become hollow amoral soulless creatures, or decide to truly live honest lives full of love. More than one well-known person has named this film as their favorite, including a few CEOs (who should watch it again). It teaches the lesson of how to become a Mensch better than almost any film around.

The two worlds in which Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine's characters, C.C. Baxter and Miss Kubelik, live are juxtaposed beautifully, comically, yet with an ever-present melancholy. The drab, ordinary building where Jack Lemmon's character lives in the infamous Apartment is full of wonderful, warm, big-hearted immigrants, a doctor, his caring wife who feeds and supports Miss Kubelik when she is down and out.

The Apartment is also a metaphor for the double lives lived by the successful executives in the huge insurance company in New York where Jack Lemmon works. The cold, concrete high-rise and lines of anonymous desks and streams of men and women coming and going from the corporation where Lemmon and MacLaine's characters work, could be so many cold, anonymous corporate realities in the world today. Miss Kubelik is an elevator operator, having failed the typing exam, and is a good girl, but one who has naively fallen for a Narcissistic all-American executive, wonderfully portrayed by Fred MacMurray, who believes his own game to such an extent that one wonders if he even has a heart at all. He is definitely NOT a Mensch.

This comedy-drama presents Lemmon's character with a moral choice to make if he wants to continue to climb the corporate ladder. This choice has nothing at all to do with his abilities as an accountant, and everything to do with whether or not he will play the game and become one of the "boys" with their cigars and cocktails and mistresses and double lives full of lies, deceit and mediocrity. From the corner tables in the dark corners of bars and restaurants down near Wall Street, far from the wives in Larchmont and White Plains, executives hit up young women like Maclaine's character again and again. The Mister Bigs of days past have not changed all that much, just ask any gal on a Saturday night alone or drinking Cosmos with her girlfriends, crying into her martini, and waiting for him to call when he takes Junior to his ball game.

Shirley MacLaine's character ends up in the Apartment because of her tumultuous affair with the executive, who is, of course, a married man, and comes close to taking her own life, attempts it indeed, once she realizes that she is just another gal, interchangeable, who has stupidly fallen for hollow promises of love and a happy ever after. C.C. Baxter, and his chastising yet compassionate neighbor (who also happens to be a doctor), save Miss Kubelik's life and nurse her back to health. Lemmon's character is a bachelor in need of a spaghetti strainer and Miss Kubelik is a young woman in need of him. She just doesn't know it yet. Ahhh, the dreams of the big city and those young men and women from Cincinnati, Boise, Biloxi...and once they arrive in Manhattan, they realize, those dreams can begin to seem like nightmares. And that, in order to get ahead, they often have to leave their souls, hearts and morals behind

But the Apartment itself also goes through a transformation, as do the two main characters. They have not sold out entirely, they just have to find the courage to say "No". C.C. says "No" to the hypocrisy of the executive dance, "No" to letting the higher-ups use him and use his Apartment, he decides in fact to take back and actually really live in his Apartment. Miss Kubelik says "No" to the lies and deceitful ways of her lover, and, symbolically, at the New Year, leaves the executive schmuck for good.

And where does the young couple, now gainfully unemployed, but very much falling in love end up? Happily playing gin rummy in The Apartment. Perhaps this morality tale will cheer up a few folks who are out of work in the big city...things could be worse, you could still be working for some schmuck, dating some jerk, serving the corporate beast. Better to be in love and in need of a spaghetti strainer. See the film. See it again. You won't be disappointed.

 

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