Shirley MacLaine on Shooting The Apartment (1960)


Billy Wilder & Shirley MacLaine on the set of The Apartment (1960)

“We started filming The Apartment with twenty-nine pages of script and Jack Lemmon and I had no idea how the film would end and neither did Billy Wilder, the director. So he just watched our relationship to see how the chemistry would evolve. Everything was evolving. At the time I was hanging with Frank and Dean, learning how to play Gin Rummy (That’s why the Gin game is in The Apartment). Billy Wilder was such a fabulous writer/director that the studio just financed the film without knowing what he would do, but they did know his reputation of creating great films and the studios knew their investment was secure. Billy could do a film on the phone book and studios and actors would stand in line to be part of the project.

The Apartment was great… a wonderful shoot and it was one of the first pictures where we mixed comedy and drama together. And many of the people at the screening seemed confused as to whether it was comedy or drama. I remember Marilyn Monroe was at the screening. She had no makeup on and was wrapped up in a mink coat. In her low whispery voice she said… “The picture is a wonderful examination of the corporate world.” My mouth flew open! She got it!

Jack Lemmon was terrific and such a nice guy. And Jack was a pro in every theatrical sense of the word. Billy was in love with Jack’s talent. The chemistry between the two was a joy to watch. In fact it was such a wonderful experience that I would come to the set on my days off just to observe two masters at work. Billy would have Jack do ten, twelve, seventeen takes of a scene to just watch him improve each scene. But in the process of this character development Billy couldn’t decide whether to let Jack just be brilliant or whether to control him.

We shot the film at United Artists which is where I made a string of hits including Irma la Douce (1963) and The Children’s Hour (1961). One day we were at lunch in the commissary and I was depressed about something. Billy and Jack were at my table, when I blurted out, “Why do people have to be in love with people anyway?” “That’s it! That’s it!” Billy yelled. He got up from the table and went back to the set and rebuilt it with that commissary scene.

Billy Wilder would never shoot a master shot. We never had a rehearsal with a master shot. So we never knew what we were actually doing. For a close up he would say, “Be upset.” If you asked, “Why am I upset Billy?” he would say “Because that’s what I want”.

In the scene from The Apartment, where Jack socks the guy… the brother, to get the shock on my face he cracked a 2 x 4 piece of wood, which startled me and gave Billy the shot he wanted.

Working with Billy was like one long ten-week lesson… and apparently it paid off for me, because I received my second Academy Award nomination, for Best Actress of 1960. I lost to Elizabeth Taylor for Butterfield 8, but The Apartment won best picture.

Working with Jack was “magic time”. His staring power was more and more evident as his career grew. He has left us a legacy of supreme humor, drama and talent, which we will be forever grateful. His genius was so riveting that even today I can close my eyes and be reminded yet again that he is the master of magic himself and a real friend throughout all time.”

Shirley MacLaine in her own words on shooting The Apartment. To read more about Shirley and her films visit her website @ ShirleyMacLaine.com.

This is my very small non-contribution to the Billy Wilder Blog-A-Thon being hosted at Filmscreed. I love Billy Wilder and I would have put something more substantial together if I had more time, but I just learned about it today and wanted to spread the word. The Apartment (1960) is one of my favorite comedies from the 1960s and arguably one of the best dark comedies ever made.

Billy Wilder wrote some amazing scripts and made a lot of great films. Besides The Apartment, my personal favorite Wilder films are Double Indemnity (1944), Sunset Blvd. (1950), Stalag 17 (1953), The Seven Year Itch (1955), Some Like It Hot (1959), Irma la Douce (1963) and The Fortune Cookie (1966). I personally think Wilder did comedy better then drama, but I really wish he would have made more noir films.

I look forward to reading all the contributions to the Billy Wilder Blog-A-Thon!

5 thoughts on “Shirley MacLaine on Shooting The Apartment (1960)

  1. Maya says:

    Kimberly: Thanks for taking the time to replicate McClaine’s comments on filming “The Apartment.” Her perspective is fantastic. She’s one of my favorite performers and I’ve seen her live several times. Your replication of her comments makes me want to see “The Apartment” again to refresh my appreciation.

  2. cinebeats says:

    I’m glad you enjoyed reading Shirley’s thoughts in making the apartment Maya! I really like her too and The Apartment is a great comedy.

  3. Turbo Ferbo says:

    “The Apartment” has long been on my personal Top 10 List of all-time favorites, and so it comes as a bit of a shock to learn how the principals involved were “winging it” for much of the shoot. The film features what I consider a textbook lesson in what a great screenplay is, with jokes that continually feed on one another. The scene in which Jack looks into that cracked mirror is one of my favorite scenes in screen history, and he pulls it off so brilliantly! But isn’t Shirley a little mixed up when she says that Jack hits the brother-in-law in the face; it’s the other way around, right? Anyway, thanks, Kimberly, for bringing this interview to my attention.

  4. Martin says:

    Hello,
    can you tell me, where you have found this statement about “The Apartment”? A book of Shirley? A biography? I need a source citation, so that I can look it up. Thank you very much!
    Best regards
    Martin

  5. kim says:

    I just found your blog and see you havent written in a year. Please do. I would like to hear more of what you have say…

Comments are closed.