Favorite Characters, Part III: Anatomy of a Mensch (And a Bonus Entrant or Three)

When it comes to film, I don’t have many definitive favorite characters. In fact, I only have one, and that’s C.C. Baxter, as played by Jack Lemmon in the Billy Wilder classic The Apartment.

I don’t think Wilder, who produced, directed, and co-wrote, and his co-writer I.A.L. Diamond could’ve come up with a better protagonist than C.C. By and large, the pencil pusher at an insurance company is a rather unremarkable man, without clear cut interests or motives other than moving up the corporate ladder. To speed himself along, he rents out his apartment to upper-level executives carrying on affairs with their secretaries and other anonymous women. It’s only when he finds out that one of the executives, Mr. Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray), is cheating on his wife with the object of C.C.’s affection, elevator operator Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine), that C.C. reexamines the arrangements he’s made.

As C.C. is written, anyone can relate to him. All he wants is to do well for himself and keep quiet about how he does it. But when he realizes he wants something more than that, he’s forced to make a tough decision. Does he allow Sheldrake to keep a hold on Fran, or does he do what his neighbor (Jack Kruschen) has been urging him to do and be a mensch?

Because Wilder and Diamond’s work is fairly simple, it gives Lemmon a chance to shine and bring an almost aggressively vulnerable quality to his performance. And that he does. C.C. is a sympathetic character, and as a viewer, all you want him to do is assert himself. Every time he doesn’t, it hurts him, and the audience along with him. But that’s what makes Lemmon such a talented actor: that pain never feels manufactured or forced. It’s pure and organic and when you find yourself feeling it, too, it’s a beautiful thing.

The Apartment is simultaneously delightful and depressing, far and away my favorite film of all time. And without C.C., sometimes unassuming, sometimes strong, and always endearing, it would fall away to nothing. Whether C.C. is a mensch or not is something you should discover on your own. His story is a worthwhile one that any lover of film should share.

Honorable mentions:

Max Fischer, Rushmore

Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman) falls in love with an unobtainable woman (Olivia Williams), befriends a depressed tycoon (Bill Murray), and transfers schools to Grover Cleveland High after getting kicked out of Rushmore Academy. In the process, he schemes and plots and plans and writes plays with the best of them, turning in a delightfully devious and, eventually, heartwarming performance.

William Miller, Almost Famous

“Someday,” William Miller’s (Patrick Fugit) older sister (Zooey Deschanel) tells him at age 11, “you’ll be cool.” Within a matter of years, William travels from coast to coast with his favorite emerging rock band, Stillwater. Does his journey make him cool? No, not really. He’s still a dreamer who worships rock and roll, a writer with too-high ambitions and an enormous capacity for forgiveness–but he’s OK with that now. Also, he falls in love with a definitive Manic Pixie Dream Girl (Kate Hudson), and that’s gotta count for something.

Cosmo Brown, Singin’ in the Rain

Though he could simply serve as a sidekick to silent movie star Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly), Cosmo (played beautifully by Donald O’Connor) does infinitely more than that. He sings! He dances! He provides all the best laughs in the movie, mostly through insults! Although the actual “Singin’ in the Rain” sequence might be the most lauded in the film, to me, even more iconic is Cosmo’s solo number, “Make ‘Em Laugh.” You’ll never see funnier or more impressive physicality than this, not even in the most slickly polished musicals of today. Really, Cosmo could say nothing and stick to the dancing, and he’d still steal every scene. The fact that he talks almost makes it too much.