I’ve decided I don’t really feel like doing a sum-up post for the 1950s. Too much on my mind right now with school and work and extracurriculars and did I mention the homework? I just don’t have the brainpower to come up with a slightly interesting post about a decade of Best Picture films that were plenty good, I guess, but not really my favorites. The fact that I’m having trouble remembering all of them speaks volumes.
So on to the 1960s!
The Apartment (Best Picture, 1960)
I do love Jack Lemmon. He is a perfect example of a man who I would describe as comfortable-looking, rather than strikingly handsome. He’s got a roundish, earnest face, and a general air of being a relatively harmless nice guy. In THE APARTMENT (directed by the legendary Billy Wilder), Lemmon ends up opposite a very young Shirley MacLaine, and I must say Lemmon turns in a mesmerizing and convincing performance.
Lemmon plays C.C. Baxter (called “Bud” or “Buddy” by most of his colleagues), a hardworking but unremarkable employee of a massive insurance firm in New York. Some months before the film begins, he accidentally fell into the way of lending his apartment, a few hours at a time, to his philandering superiors in the firm and their mistresses. Over the course of the film, this service to his bosses gains Baxter several promotions.
Baxter has a massive crush on one of the elevator operators, Fran Kubelik (MacLaine), and it takes him a while to realize that the new high-up boss using his apartment is taking Fran there. This high-up, Mr. Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray), is stringing Fran along with vague promises of divorcing his wife. After a drunken office holiday party in which Fran hears the whole list of previous dalliances from Mr. Sheldrake’s tipsy secretary, Fran goes through Baxter’s medicine cabinet and takes an overdose of sleeping pills. Baxter arrives home in the nick of time and, with the assistance of a neighbor who happens to be a doctor, saves Fran’s life.
Of course the film ends with Fran realizing that Sheldrake is a jerk and that Baxter is truly fond of her. This film is tricksy, though. At first you feel all comforted by the ending, thinking yes, it’s a happy ending. They’ll build a life together – she’s found a nice (single) guy who really values her, and he’s got his heart’s desire.
But if you stop and think about it further, there’s no indication that she actually has feelings for Baxter stronger than the mild friendship they had before, made complicated by his saving her life and trying to protect her virtue by pretending to outsiders that he was the villain, rather than Sheldrake. Is the moral of the story that a mild friendship makes a better foundation for a relationship than passion or romantic attraction? Is it saying that the woman should find a nice guy who loves her, even if she doesn’t care about him the same way? The film ends with him making a declaration, and her response is to smile at him and tell him to shut up and deal the cards so they can finish their gin rummy game.
Perhaps I’m over-thinking. But it IS an ambiguous ending.
West Side Story (Best Picture, 1961)
Oog, I am not a fan of tragedies. I realize that Shakespeare’s great tragedies – King Lear, Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, and Othello – are supposed to be some of the greatest plays ever written. And from a literary analysis point of view, I can see their point. But from a personal point of view, I want to be entertained. I want the story to end happily because I want to believe for a few hours that that’s how life works. I want the bad guys to get their comeuppance and I want the good ones to get their rightful rewards. It’s a childish way of looking at things, I’ve been told, but I’m in favor of using fiction as a means of escaping from real life.
WEST SIDE STORY is a musical based on Romeo and Juliet, if the Capulets and Montagues had been rival gangs in inner-city New York. The Sharks and the Jets fight over territory, ostensibly, but there’s a larger statement on immigration and immigrant populations that’s very un-subtly present in pretty much every interaction.I think I can count on my readers to have a basic idea of what goes on in Romeo and Juliet, so I won’t go into a lengthy plot description.
I can’t help but wonder what it would be like to have the Sharks actually played by Puerto Rican actors and actresses. George Chakiris did a very good job as Bernardo, but the man’s Greek, not Puerto Rican. A while back, a musical called RAGTIME came out, and its casting requires a third of the cast to be white, a third to be black, and a third to be of mixed ethnicities. The story revolves around the interactions between the three communities of established Caucasians (both rich and poor), African-Americans from the poor areas of Harlem and similar neighborhoods, and recent immigrants, mostly from Eastern and Southern Europe. WEST SIDE STORY is so much a story about immigration, and about the recurrent, hateful contradiction of the American story: no matter how recently our ancestors came to America from another country, we are still prone to look on the newest wave of immigrants as outsiders taking over our established way of life.
Towards the end of the film, Maria lets out a diatribe about hate and how hate is what killed Riff, Bernardo, and Tony. Natalie Wood is at her emotionally-raw, high-strung best in this scene. Passionate and shaking with grief and rage, she hits at the heart of the story far more bluntly than Shakespeare had any of his characters do.
I may not seek out tragedies, but WEST SIDE STORY ought to be required viewing, along with a reminder that we were all immigrants at some point.
Up Next: Lawrence of Arabia (Best Picture, 1962) and Tom Jones (Best Picture, 1963)