At the risk of sounding like my father reminiscing about the days of yore, our contemporary catalog of films relies heavily on visual delights. How can we render the audience completely incapable of a single valuable thought with this 10-minute shot of our lead in a bathing suit? How many times can the main couple make out before the viewer starts rolling their eyes like they’re watching two teens mack on the subway? How many explosions can we fit into two hours (Michael Bay…)? But believe it or not, there are films that can live without all that and stand on the merit of their writing, and if the Times Live Read taught us anything, it’s that Billy Wilder’s classic, genre defining romantic comedy The Apartment is one of those films.
The night of the performance, the pristine TimesCenter in the Manhattan headquarters of the New York Times buzzed with anticipation as the austere setup awaited an enlightening evening of entertainment. When Reitman appeared onstage to introduce his pet project and the actors who so graciously agreed to take this journey with him, the room erupted with clapping, everyone anxious to start the once-in-a-lifetime event. The concept of these Live Reads is not just that we filter our experience of the art of filmmaking down to just the words as they move from the page to our ears, but that the experience doesn’t make it out of the room to become a scrambled YouTube video 25 minutes after it ends. “Nothing is live anymore,” said Reitman. “But tonight, you have to be here in order to experience this.” And that’s exactly how it felt: A true, honest delivery of a script whose words still pack an emotional punch. It was, in a word, a moment.
Reitman’s perfect introduction segued into the actors entering one by one to sit in their unadorned middle school music room chairs, to exponentially increasing applause, so that by the time we’d passed Jason Sudekis, Gretta Gerwing and James Woods’ introductions, the crowd was practically ravenous with excitement as Stone and Rudd took the center seats as the couple we’d spend the next two hours rooting for.
Stone’s subdued crackle was infused into her take on the classic Shirley MacLaine heroine, elevator operator Fran Kubelik. Her adroit turn as Fran proves that while she’s still blooming, she’s solidly a member of the future classics club. Supporting player Sudeikis practically stole the show with his boyishly hyperactive portrayal of our hero Baxter’s skeevy coworker and all around dirtbag, Al Kirkeby. Gerwig, who was a last minute replacement for hot button actress/writer Lena Dunham, was Sudeikis’ perfect match as Sylvia, the Bronx floozie and telephone operator. Someone oughta learn to bottle her salty, old fashioned dame voice and put it in museum. And as the big bad wolf – the cheatin’, lyin’ romantic roadblock Mr. Sheldrake – Woods delivered the perfect scoundrel; he did so well he even earned a few stony glares from Stone’s Fran during scenes that didn’t even involve her character.
But of course, the man of the evening was Mr. Paul Rudd, whose delightful performance of the lovable mess that is The Apartment’s hero, C.C. Baxter, was so inspired I actually left the theater thinking, “They need to remake this movie so Paul Rudd can star in it.” While the actors stayed put for the most part (aside from one comical swoop in for a pantomime kiss between Stone and Woods when the scripts notes called for a kiss), Rudd was so ingrained in his one-night character that he couldn’t help but move around and add physical elements to his performance, even pulling up pant legs when Baxter tells a story about shooting himself in the leg. By 20 minutes in, the perpetually frazzled Mr. Baxter is clear as day for Rudd’s tie is slightly undone and his hair is a scrappy mess. His sweet, humble portrayal of the classic character was so genuine, so real, that by the climax of the story no visual or physical expressions were needed to drive the emotional close home. An auditorium filled with 200 people somehow felt as intimate as a cramped Upper East Side apartment.
Somehow on a plain stage, with no costumes, and only a few eerie stills of the film’s original set as context, the words from Wilder’s original script jumped up off the page and down our throats to make our hearts skip a beat. As Reitman told his faithful audience, “I have much more fun doing this that I do making movies.” And perhaps that’s because no matter how it gets dressed up on the big screen, and no matter how revolutionary or amazing that dressing is, in the end the magic all stems from the life-giving words on a simple page.
Follow Kelsea on Twitter @KelseaStahler.