Secondary Action in The Apartment

Billy Wilder and Jack Lemmon

Clay Kaytis just put up part two of his James Baxter interview podcast, in which James talks about acting in animation, and cites Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau as excellent reference. Below is a clip of Jack Lemmon and Fred MacMurray from The Apartment that James used in a talk on secondary action that James gave at DreamWorks a few years ago (sorry it’s so small and has that black band at the top):

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The Apartment is an absolutely fantastic movie that deserves study on multiple levels, but take a look at the secondary action in this clip. As you all know, secondary action is behavior by a character that is not part of the primary action of a scene, and which adds nuance and personality to the character (note that secondary action is NOT “action that results from another action,” as you will find some people redefining the term — that should be referred to as secondary motion, or secondary animation). While the primary action often serves the plot, the secondary action often serves the theme.

In this scene, the primary action is the conversation between Bud Baxter (Lemmon) and his boss, Mr. Sheldrake (MacMurray). Bud is expecting a promotion; Sheldrake has instead brought him in to take control of Bud’s apartment for an illicit affair. This is a classic status transaction, with some great twists and turns, and wonderful acting by both players.

The secondary action is Bud’s behavior related to having a cold, which he caught because the night before his apartment was being used by a different executive in the company (this is a nice touch – the secondary action is directly related to the plot, so it’s not random, but if you removed this behavior the main action would be just as clear). Lemmon uses the tissues, the nasal spray, the coughing, and the sniffling masterfully. It never takes over the scene, it never fully upstages the main action, but it makes for a more entertaining, funny performance that perfectly complements the status transaction between the two men.

Note in particular the fiddling with his congested nose on “very flattering,” the sniffling and nasal speech, the squirt of the nasal spray on “leaked out,” the handfuls of tissues as he pulls out the keys, the thermometer popping out instead of a pen when he goes to write down his address, the last gathering up of his tissues from the desk. On top of all that, Lemmon gives some absolutely wonderful reactions. Look again at the hand gestures around 1:30; the close-up reaction around 1:48 – 1:58 when he’s confronted with how he’s been loaning his key out; the way he shakes his head ‘yes’ as he says ‘no;’ the way he starts unraveling and becomes more symptomatic starting around 2:00 – 2:31. Note also the fantastic way Lemmon tries to snake out of his chair around 3:34 — brilliant, and worthy of an animated film! Then there’s the very subtle shift, as he ‘gets it,’ around 4:55. It’s a beautiful example of an actor shifting gears.

Regarding the status transactions, note how Sheldrake/MacMurray exudes power by first making Baxter come to him. Lemmon/Baxter shows his status right off the bat, in the way he pauses and gathers himself up as he opens the door before entering. Sheldrake immediately gets him off balance, pulling out the ridiculous multi-page chart that must contain every work detail in Baxter’s career at the company. It’s a great subtle bit of business. He tightens the screws by asking a seemingly innocuous question that Baxter can’t answer (“Tell me, Baxter, just what is it that makes you so popular?” Is it a subtle message about Baxter’s eventual defiance that he subtly “flips the bird” to Sheldrake here?)

Then Sheldrake shows his greatest physical activity in the scene, getting up and walking behind Lemmon, towering over him, then turning his back on him. Throughout the scene MacMurray shows little emotion, speaks in a confident tone, takes a call in the middle of the meeting, and calls Lemmon back to his chair without even a glance back at what’s happening behind him. He moves with sure, contained gestures that contrast with Lemmon’s anxious squirming. The scene ends with Sheldrake calmly sitting at his desk, while Baxter anxiously glances back one last time as he exits.

And as a special bonus to go with part 2 of James Baxter’s Animation Podcast, here’s a clip of Matthau and Lemmon in The Odd Couple, to illustrate what James talks about in the interview. Have a look, then go listen to the podcast, then come back and have another look. This stuff is gold.

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Even though Matthau is sitting throughout this scene, the way the two characters move couldn’t be more distinct. Both characters (especially Lemmon) have tons of great secondary action here, too. I love the way Lemmon grabs the scissors when he gets angry and the way this threatening gesture turns into a joke (“You’re not going to cut my hair, are you?”) that leads into a second joke about making cole slaw. Brilliant.

11 Responses to “Secondary Action in The Apartment”

  1. remi Says:

    THnx For This!!

    Your blog is really cool!


  2. Matt Jones Says:

    Excellent! After listening to the podcast yesterday i was looking for some examples of Lemmon & you have the perfect clips to illustrate James Baxter’s interview.

  3. Ian Says:

    Love your work, I’m hanging on every word. Thanks

  4. Olivier L. Says:

    ah ah. Right on Kevin 😉 this is perfect. Thanks for posting this.

  5. Kevin Says:

    You’re welcome. Glad you found this useful.

  6. Olivier L. Says:

    my first comment was just a first reaction to the videos you posted but I just read your comments now and I must thank you again for spending the time to do a shot walkthrough.


  7. Alonso Says:

    Thanks Kevin,
    This kind of walk thru analysis is always super informative and useful, not only helping me to better understand the topic at hand, but also understand better how to analyze shots in the first place.

    2ndary action is a tricky subject, thanks for exploring it in more depth.


  8. Floyd Norman Says:

    Good stuff, Kevin.

    Brings back memories of my kid days at Disney when the old guys like Frank Thomas would talk to us about animation acting.

    I loved “The Apartment,” and Jack Lemmon is a fantastic actor. Sorry he’s gone.

  9. Mariya Kalachova Says:

    Dave and I just started watching this movie 🙂 I remember reading this article ages ago and wondering what film it was, I have to watch more classics, I love Jack Lemmon. Dave made an interesting note, its funny how its not as easy to tell who’s going to be the main characters in an older film because I don’t know the actors/actresses.

  10. Animation Article Database · Knowled Says:

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  11. Sophia Ryzhikov Says:

    This is a great movie, and the theme of getting a cold plus the doctor resonates throughout the film. Wonderful to watch and to listen to the music in the movie as well. No matter that the neighbors are complaining. C.C.Baxter can calm any stormy weather.

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The animation and animation-related musings of Kevin Koch