Love Actually isn’t in love with anyone except itself: it’s like watching a practiced lounge lizard go through his repertoire. That’s why Bill Nighy’s wrinkly old rocker steals the picture: although he’s just about the only member of the dramatis personae not actively looking for love, in a forest of over-mannered love scenes Nighy lurches through the movie with a cheerful indifference that makes his the only really honest character.
What I mainly remember as the years go by is the power imbalance: Almost every one of the alleged romances on which the film lingers is between a powerful man and his underling – Rickman and his sexpot secretary, Hugh Grant and the lowliest staffer, Colin Firth and his housekeeper. Even at the time, Curtis’s view seemed a weirdly narrow view of human relations. With the benefit of hindsight, I checked to see whether Love Actually was one of Harvey Weinstein’s masterpieces, but he was apparently busy with more obvious chick-flick Oscar bait that Christmas. In the Me-Too era we now know that beloved network anchormen have under-desk buttons to lock you in their offices, that PBS hosts think 25-year old interns at meetings enjoy seeing penises three times their age, that fashionable Manhattan restaurants have rape rooms, and that, when you clear out the sex fiends from NPR, there isn’t a lot left on the schedule.
In the old days, successful men did marry their secretaries and housemaids, but not so much now, at least in America, when power-lawyers and political consultants contract intermarriage like medieval ducal houses. So I thought I’d round things out with a Christmas picture about sex and power in the workplace from an era with very different cultural mores (although certain aspects of the scene remain entirely unchanged over six decades: “everybody knew”). It was made by the ultimate Hollywood cynic Billy Wilder, but he’s a piker compared to Richard Curtis. I’m not the biggest Billy Wilder fan, nor the biggest Jack Lemmon fan, nor Shirley MacLaine fan. But all three did some of their best work here. By the way, I am a huge Fred MacMurray fan and he is terrific in this.
The Apartment is a sad but true urban Christmas fable: there’s no snow, just flu all month long; the office-party booze makes everyone mean and sour; the only sighting of le Père Noel is an aggressive off-duty department-store Santa chugging it down at a midtown bar; and the Christmas Eve climax is an attempted suicide. But that’s what I love about The Apartment: its Wilderian cynicism is redeemed by one of the sweetest Christmas Day scenes in any movie. In his review of Rodgers & Hart’s amoral Pal Joey, Brooks Atkinson wrote: “How can you draw sweet water from a foul well?” Well, The Apartment pulls it off, wonderfully.
This man can write.