How Shirley MacLaine Inspired The Apartment's Famous Final Line

One key to being a great artist is learning how to listen to other people. The more you are willing to listen to the experiences of others, whether it be stories of their hardships or just a weird thing that happened to them that morning, the more you flesh out of the tapestry of your artistic creations. For filmmakers, this means creating greater depth in your characters and unexpected developments in your stories. If you only wrote from your own perspective and used your own experiences, every single one of your films would be exactly the same, which is not the most thrilling career to leave behind. Absorbing the lives of others enriches your own imagination and deepens your humanity. 

Academy Award winning writer-director Billy Wilder was one of these great listeners. He knew how to internalize the stories of other people and interpret them through his own work to create some of cinema's greatest works.

Arguably (argued by me, personally), his crowning achievement is his 1960 dramedy "The Apartment." The story of corporate lackey C.C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon) lending his apartment to the company's executives so they can have a place to sleep with their mistresses simultaneously skewers the patriarchal system of corporate America and depicts an incredibly sweet, yet enormously complex love story between Baxter and elevator operator Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine). It manages a tonal balance of melodrama, screwball comedy, and biting satire that almost no other film has been able to crack. It is a lightning-in-a-bottle movie.

Billy Wilder and his co-wrtier I.A.L. Diamond did not invent every moment in "The Apartment" out of whole cloth for the Oscar-winning screenplay, though. They knew how to listen to things people told them and integrate those concepts into the script. One story they heard during the production of the film not only ended up in the film to create some nice character business for Baxter and Kubelik, but it actually determined the emotional punch of the film's final scene, including the perfect final line of "Shut up and deal." That story came from their leading lady, Shirley MacLaine.

How do you play gin?

In Billy Wilder's later years, he became acquainted with "Jerry Maguire" writer-director Cameron Crowe, who had long been a big fan of Wilder's work since his teenage years. In 1999, Crowe even published a book of interviews he conducted with Wilder, simply called "Conversations with Wilder." In one of his talks with the Hollywood legend, Wilder recounted how one of the most famous elements of "The Apartment" was engineered in the middle of production — the gin game between C.C. Baxter and Fran Kubelik. Crowe writes in a piece for The Guardian:

"[W]hen MacLaine shared the trials of learning how to play gin, lessons she was then getting from [Frank] Sinatra and the Rat Pack, Wilder and Diamond wrote that into the script too. And so was born the gin game between Lemmon and MacLaine that continues throughout 'The Apartment.'"

Wilder had to reconstruct the whole set in order to reshoot a scene to add in a game of gin. The conversation between the two is a rather sullen one. Shirley MacLaine's Fran has just attempted suicide the previous evening, and she bemoans her unluckiness with men, as she has been in an affair with the company's head honcho. "Why do people have to fall in love with other people anyway?" (another MacLaine invention) is the key line. Adding in this game of gin, which Lemmon's Baxter instigates, operates as the perfect counterpoint to the dour words being spoken. He is trying his best to keep things lively and upbeat, and what better way to do that than play a fun game of cards? Without the game, that scene plays at a lower level, and coming off the long sequence of Baxter and his next door neighbor/doctor (Jack Kruschen) trying to keep her alive, you need a tonal variance instead of simply wading in the depression.

Shut up and deal

Being the clever and astute storytellers they are, Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond do not just leave that scene and move on. Oh, no. That scene then has a ripple effect throughout the picture that leads to the film's final seconds. After C.C. Baxter professes his deep love and affection for Fran Kubelik, MacLaine gets to deliver one of the greatest final lines in the history of cinema, "Shut up and deal." She hands him the deck of cards they had previously used for their gin game, and through that moment, we know these two lonely souls have found each other. Fran Kubelik has been using clever witticisms throughout the "The Apartment" to conceal her true emotional side, and "Shut up and deal" is the perfect double entendre for the moment. Truly, the film could not end any other way, and that line could not have existed without Wilder and Diamond not only listening to Shirley MacLaine on the set of the film, but knowing exactly how to utilize that story for entertainment and storytelling purposes.

Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond were incredibly precise in what they wanted out of their actors, particularly when it came to actors being word perfect. Crowe writes:

"Every word mattered. (Diamond stood nearby, policing the exact delivery of each line.) Sometimes [MacLaine] would take a relieved breath after completing a long speech, only to find she'd left out an "and" or a "then". The takes continued until the dialogue was perfect."

Even through their perfectionism, they knew when to take inspirations from others. They did not just crank out a draft of a screenplay, think themselves geniuses, and move on. They could adapt and incorporate ideas from anyone to best tell their story. Without Shirley MacLaine, who knows if the emotional climax of "The Apartment" would have even been possible? And without that climax, is it still one of the greatest films ever made? Probably not. That's why if you are an artist, you need to listen to others. Maybe they have something to say to make your art even greater than you thought it could be.