Act naturally: Billy Wilder’s “The Apartment” at the Stanford Theatre

Star-wise, humor-wise and emotion-wise, there are few films that can match “The Apartment,” playing at the Stanford Theatre this Friday, Saturday and Sunday at 5:15 and 9:35 p.m.

Everything about Billy Wilder’s 1960 romantic comedy is so perfectly constructed — not a shot wasted, not a beat missed. Its tight-rope marriage of vulgar laughs and suicidal melancholia works better than it has any right to.

So what’s it about? We’ll let Wilder’s one-sentence summary speak for itself:

“This is about a young fellow [Jack Lemmon] who gets ahead in a big company by lending his apartment to executives for that grand old American folk ritual — the afternoon shack-up.”

Reportedly, those were the only words Shirley MacLaine needed to accept the part of Lemmon’s love interest. Wilder would also call it “a dirty fairy-tale about the price of success”: Lemmon has to do a lot of sucking-up to secure his high position at the firm. When his boss (Fred MacMurray) double-crosses him, will he still accept the American dream?

Acting-wise, this is one of the most elegant comedies in American moviedom. It is a film graced with endless moments for actors to jam within small, tightly-choreographed grooves: Jack squirts his nasal drips across the wide-screen, Shirley twirling an egg-roll with her pinky. Both noble losers. Each bit player chips away the hard-edged vision of New York as a cesspool for ad execs and proto-venture capitalists. From Jack Kruschen’s kindly Jewish doctor to Hope Holiday’s lonely souse…

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