I often get asked what my favorite movie is. It’s a hard question to answer because, quite frankly, I feel like I have thousands of “favorites” and to choose just one seems like a disservice to all the other great works out there. But if I have to choose, the one movie I’ll select more often than not is Billy Wilder’s 1960 classic The Apartment. It won a slew of Academy Awards including Best Picture and, for once, the movie that deserved to win was the one honored. It’s influenced almost every (quality) romantic comedy that’s come since from Manhattan to When Harry Met Sally (check out the ending of The Apartment, then watch the ending of those two films and you’ll see what I mean). Everything about it works—in my opinion, The Apartment may be the most perfect film ever made. But it’s also a picture that would have had an added emotional resonance had the two lead characters been Asian American.
For those who haven’t seen The Apartment (and if you haven’t and profess to be a filmmaker, shame on you!), it’s the story of C.C. “Bud” Baxter (Jack Lemmon) who is an anonymous office drone at a big New York-based insurance company. No one would notice him except for the fact that he lives in a bachelor apartment that he loans out to mid-level executives who use it for their extra-marital trysts with their mistresses. When the head of his department, Mr. Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray), starts using Baxter’s apartment for his own trysts, Baxter moves up the corporate ladder as a reward. But all that changes when Baxter realizes that the woman he is secretly in love with, Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine), is Sheldrake’s mistress. And when she tries to commit suicide in his apartment after Sheldrake dumps her, Baxter has to pick up the pieces and make a difficult choice about how he wants to live his life.
Here’s a review by the New York Times’ A.O. Scott, which talks about the film and some of the reasons why it’s so brilliant:
Before I write about what the Asian American angle would bring to the film, let me quickly explain what I mean when I refer to this as the perfect movie. It’s the only movie I can think of where I can’t find one single word or frame of celluloid that is wasted. Starting with the brilliant script by Wilder and his long-time partner I.A.L. Diamond, the film is so expertly structured that there is absolutely nothing you could add or take away to make it better.
Take the scene below. Kubelik has just learned that Sheldrake has lied to him and that she isn’t the only woman in the office that he has had an affair with. Baxter doesn’t know Kubelik is his boss’ mistress yet, but finds out in the course of this scene. Now a lesser filmmaker such as myself would find some clichéd or clunky way to convey this information. Not Wilder. Earlier we saw Baxter return a compact with a cracked mirror to his boss that Sheldrake’s mistress (a.k.a. Kubelik) had left in Baxter’s apartment after a tryst between Kubelik and Sheldrake. Wilder brilliantly re-introduces the compact and the cracked mirror here to give us the exposition we need. It’s a powerful moment that requires zero dialogue. And Kubelik’s response to Baxter’s inquiry about the broken mirror is one of the most touching lines in all of cinema: “I like it that way. It makes me look the way I feel.” But check out the scene for yourself:
Now, what I’m asking you to imagine is if the lead roles of Baxter and Kubelik had been played by Asian Americans. Everyone else in the story is still Caucasian and not a single word in the script changes. Why do I think this would bring an extra emotional resonance?
I’m a big fan of genre films and always interested in how one might organically bring in an “Asian American” perspective to a Hollywood genre picture that hasn’t traditionally been open to that.
Take a film like 1998’s The Negotiator. It’s the story of a hostage negotiator for the Chicago police department who is falsely accused of a crime and must take hostages himself to prove his innocence. The film was written for Sylvester Stallone who is white. The role ended up being played by Samuel Jackson who is black. There’s nothing in the script that comments directly on race, but the conceit of the plot is that ALL of Jackson’s colleagues, who are mostly white, turn against him and immediately believe he’s guilty. No one in the film has to remind us Jackson is black, but that fact adds a fascinating subtext to the story of betrayal that would not have been present with Stallone or another Caucasian actor. And I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Jackson was only cast after F. Gary Gray, an African American director, was hired to helm the picture.
I think The Apartment would work in a similar way because there are elements built into the story that are very “Asian American” already. As A.O. Scott explains in the clip above, this film is about a man who goes from being a meek wimp to someone who takes control of his own life and does the right thing. I’ve recommended this film to many of my Asian American male friends and most of them tell me how much they identified with the character of Baxter. He is a man who is trampled on, taken advantage of, emasculated and otherwise ignored—this is, in many ways, how our society has looked upon the Asian male.
Kubelik, on the other hand, is the desirable but unattainable woman whom all the men in the office hit on and want to have an affair with. In the context of the work environment of the film, she is the mysterious, exotic other. This is how our society often looks upon Asian women. The fact that she would be lusted after by all these “powerful” white men (and end up as the mistress of the most powerful of these men) while the one guy who is actually good for her is the Asian American “dweeb” who is right under her nose, would be an interesting dynamic to explore. And even something like Kubelik’s suicide attempt would be infused with an added subtext knowing that Asian American females have higher rates of suicide.
Just that simple change in casting and the triangle that would create—Asian woman hooks up with powerful white guy who is bad for her while good Asian guy pines for her—would take nothing away from the wonderful film that is already there, but add a whole other layer that isn’t. And the classic ending of the film after Kubelik realizes that Baxter is the one she loves and runs back to him on New Year’s Eve–how awesome would it be to see two Asian faces playing a scene like this:
And wouldn’t it be something to simply see a Hollywood romantic comedy/drama with two Asian American leads experiencing the same trails and tribulations of love that we all go through in real life? Name me the last time we had that. Wouldn’t it be great to look up on the screen and see more than a cracked mirror distorting back an image that does nothing but make us look less than we feel?