There are a surprising number of worthwhile New Year’s Eve-themed films to consider watching, should other more social-type plans fail to materialize for you. I’m no drinker, no party animal; subsequently, New Year’s Eve has always been something of a non-starter. Usually, I stay home and watch a movie or two. Or three. In doing so, I figure my odds on dealing with drunk drivers are infinitesimally small. I have chosen a few of my own personal favorites to recommend because in so doing I could justify re-watching them. I’ve even concocted some fuzzy holiday math for you. We’re celebrating the New Year, 2009. The Apartment ends on New Year’s Eve 1959 as does 1982’s Diner. So… if you don’t pay terribly close attention to my slightly fudged calculations, it’s fifty years. That’s practically a golden anniversary. After half a century of social upheaval, what’s really changed? More importantly, what film’s most worth revisiting for a truly happy start to your new year?
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Barry Levinson’s autobiographical valentine to Baltimore Bro-mance, Diner introduced an absolutely stellar ensemble cast, including Steve Guttenberg, Daniel Stern, Mickey Rourke, Kevin Bacon, Tim Daly, Paul Reiser, and Ellen Barkin. Five young men on the cusp of adulthood ease the pain of their imminent passage by clinging together and hanging out. All the character-revealing action (and there’s plenty) takes place over a holiday break between Christmas and New Year’s, 1959. The dialogue is brilliant and convincingly real; it has the easy improvisational feel of eavesdropping on conversation. The performances are uniformly excellent. Levinson had been writing for television and films for fifteen years before this, his big directing breakthrough. He subsequently returned to his Baltimore roots a few more times with Avalon, Tin Men, and Liberty Heights. It’s proven fertile creative ground for him and for his audience.
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The Defending Champion
Released in June 1960, Billy Wilder’s The Apartment was as modern and shocking a comedy as had ever hit mainstream America. Corporate culture was ripe for satire, and the new sexual mores and relative openness of the Kennedy years offered plenty of unexplored material. Jack Lemmon plays ambitious, amoral insurance statistician C.C. Baxter, who offers his city bachelor pad key to his higher-ups for extramarital trysts in exchange for career advancement. Shirley MacLaine portrays the irresistible Fran Kubelik, and the third side of a very awkward triangle features Fred MacMurray in one of his finest and smarmiest performances. With that crazy eyebrow and that absurdly smug dimpled smirk, it’s remarkable he didn’t play the heel more often. Romantic (and moral) complications ensue. Billy Wilder and I.A. Diamond provide one of the best ever final lines of dialogue (every bit as good as their previous year’s “Nobody’s perfect.”) If you have no idea what I’m talking about, stop reading this smackdown and rent Some Like It Hot right this minute. It’s required viewing for any film afficianado.
I recall the summer of 1960 hazily; however, I do remember every moment of one particular night. I spent it watching The Apartment from the backseat of our car where I was pretending to be asleep while my parents watched on the drive-In movie screen. (This incident presages both my obsession with film and my penchant for insomnia.) I knew The Apartment was an adult film, and while I was not quite seven years old, I was bound and determined to stay awake for the whole thing. Lord only knows what I made of it, but suffice it to say I found it intoxicatingly sophisticated and inspiring. I offer as evidence two clues that only hint at its influence: I wore my hair like Shirley MacLaine’s devastatingly adorable Fran Kubelik for the next eleven years of my life and bolted for Manhattan as soon as my post-college bank balance allowed. While I did not become an elevator operator like Fran, I plead the fifth on confessing the rest of the telling coincidences of our young adult lives. ‘Nough said.
Billy Wilder comedies go to some very dark places indeed; his film is at once a biting satire, a comedy, a romance, and a drama, and his balance never falters. He makes an endearing hero of the neurotic Baxter, a sympathetic heroine of the decidedly un-virginal Miss Kubelik, and even slimy Mr. Sheldrake never veers into caricature. This is a remarkable achievement; the film is chock full of surprises and unexpected turns. The Apartment is unfailingly intelligent, its screenplay still lean and ultra-modern. Its stylized production definitively captures essential early sixties Manhattan and manages never to look dated. Women have waded out of the secretarial pool, and elevator operators have gone the way of organ grinders, but office politics remain murky moral morasses and the satire still stings.
I‘ve been meaning watch Diner again since seeing Mickey Rourke’s comeback film The Wrestler. Twenty-six years in Mickey Rourke’s life must be dog years. The entire cast has gone on to (more or less) consistent acting careers, but for most, Diner holds up as some of the finest work on their resumes. Like The Apartment, Diner dramatically shifts tone; it captures a time and a place, a particular moment in particular lives that are so specific as to be universal. Women are something of a subspecies in Dinerworld; while it’s remarkable how much progress we’ve made in half a century, it’s telling to hear how men talk about us when we’re not around. I suspect that hasn’t changed much at all, and I appreciate and applaud Levinson‘s honesty in getting that on film. It’s a brilliant and altogether impressive directorial debut; casting the principals so perfectly is a major accomplishment. The lesser roles are populated with astonishingly good actors; there are no weak links, no compromises.
While Diner is a terrific and personal film, rich with period detail, original comedy, and idiosyncratic characters, I have to critically genuflect before Billy Wilder’s confection, The Apartment. It wears its oft-broken heart on its sleeve under a jacket and heavy overcoat. It’s cinematic perfection, a non-traditional romance meant for adults, populated with phoenixes rising from the ashes of their dashed hopes and diminishing dreams, just in time to celebrate the dawn of what promises to be another complicated era. As Fran says, “Shut up and deal.”