The Best & Booziest Holiday Movie Is Billy Wilder’s ‘The Apartment’
This holiday season, add Billy Wilder’s “The Apartment” to your must-watch list.
Take It’s a Wonderful Life, the most yuletide film of them all, whose character Mary Bailey (Donna Reed) is as sweet and lovely as vermouth in a Manhattan. And yet nary a drink is poured in the course of the film. Just one lone bottle of Champagne is bought by Bailey for an anniversary celebration with her husband George (James Stewart), which remains unopened. But that’s more than you’ll find in Miracle on 34th Street, even though the plot relies on an intoxicated Santa creating trouble at Macy’s—his firing opens the way for Kris Kringle.
So it comes as a relief to find that one Christmas classic has something to say about drinks. Billy Wilder’s Academy Award-winning The Apartment is not only a favorite of other filmmakers—from Wes Anderson to Cameron Crowe—but it’s also a perfect holiday movie, set neatly between early December and New Year’s Eve.
C.C. “Bud” Baxter (Jack Lemmon) would be a completely anonymous figure at the big Manhattan insurance company where he works had he not started lending out his Upper West Side apartment to his bosses for their extra-marital affairs. This might have helped his career, but it does very little for his self-esteem. In an early scene, Baxter has to linger on the street while his manager, Al Kirkeby (David Lewis), is up in his apartment, trying to get his mistress to leaves. She won’t go until she has has one last martini, which she has to pour for herself from the pitcher. (Kirkeby is not exactly the chivalrous type.)
Later on, the same Kirkeby, planning his future rendez-vous, asks Baxter to buy more drinks—vodka and vermouth to be precise. At this point, it seems clear that in Wilder’s melancholy tale of loneliness and heartbreak, alcohol means one thing: affairs! When Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine), the delightful elevator girl whom Baxter secretly loves, sees the big boss, Jeff Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray), who wants to rekindle their liaison, the first clue of their previous dalliance is that he has already ordered her usual: a frozen daiquiri.
But there’s quite another role for drinks in The Apartment, and that’s where the Christmas spirit really kicks in. The centerpiece of the film is an incredibly intense holiday party at the office (think Mad Men). When not dancing or French kissing, people are sipping from paper cups—what they’re drinking is not specified, but it is quite the truth serum. Miss Olsen (Edie Adams), Sheldrake’s secretary, spills the beans to Kubelik about all the other girls the boss has romanced over the year.
Oblivious to Kubelik’s heartbreak, Baxter announces merrily that he has already had three drinks, and asks her opinion of his new hat, a way to show—ever so timidly—his love for her. That’s when Kubelik passes him her pocket mirror, which he has already seen in his own apartment, thus revealing to him that she is having an affair with Sheldrake… Crushed, Baxter leaves by himself and finishes the night at a dive bar, his heart broken and his puppy-dog eyes bigger than ever.
From that moment on, drinks in the movie change meaning. They go from signaling manipulation or squalid, semi-transactional relationships to representing the opposite: festive and fun, the promise of a true romantic relationship. After the Christmas party, Kubelik meets Sheldrake at Baxter’s apartment and, understanding there’s nothing to expect from him, overdoses on sleeping pills. Baxter saves her life and she stays for a few days. One night, he cooks spaghetti—famously using a tennis racket in lieu of a strainer—and puts out on the table a pitcher of martinis and a bottle of Champagne.
That night, the Champagne remains unopened (Kubelik’s brother-in-law cuts the potentially romantic, candle-lit dinner short) but the movie’s famous ending centers around the bottle.
As Wilder told Cameron Crowe in their 1999 book of interviews, Conversations with Billy Wilder, “it’s New Year’s Eve. Mr. Fred MacMurray, by this time, is divorced. He’s popped the question to Shirley MacLaine, finally, finally, finally. Then when the lights go on, she’s gone. Now she’s running to the apartment. And we know that could be the ending, right? He could be standing in the window and wave at her, or he opens the door and she kisses him. We didn’t want to have that ending; that kiss ending. We had that good idea of, she’s running, and now she hears a shot. And now, we don’t know yet, but she thinks, ‘My God, he wanted to commit suicide on account of another girl, but maybe this time he’s not gonna hit his knee!’ So she hurries up much more, and she gets to his door, and she knocks. He opens it and he’s got the bottle of Champagne foaming over, which it always does when you shake it. So, ‘Oh God, thank God, but still no kiss.’’’
So it’s the bottle of Champagne, in the end, that brings the two lovers together. What we fear to be a gunshot is actually the popping sound of the new year and good news: a new couple is born, let’s rejoice.
Or, as Billy Wilder and his legendary co-writer I. A. L. Diamond so unforgettably put it: “Shut up and Deal.”