An aged William Holden is in pursuit of the truth behind a once luminous, semi-retired Hollywood recluse in Billy Wilder’s Fedora (1978); a shamefully underrated masterpiece from the directorial giant who gave us, among many others – 1950’s scathing indictment of Hollywood, Sunset Boulevard; the antithesis of that town’s sycophantic nepotism. Fedora is, in fact, something of a follow-up/throwback to the aforementioned movie, based on Tom Tryon’s novel and conceived by Wilder as a passionate, often spellbinding meditation on the Hollywood that was, the bygone studio machinery that used to churn out movie magic en masse, and, the expected infallibility of ‘star quality’ – presumably, never meant to age. Timelessness is an intangible and foolhardy pursuit for mere mortals, however, and in his critique of this decaying Babylon, Wilder seems to be giving us more personal, bitter reminiscences; a careworn warhorse wearily clinging to the last vestiges of his own reputation. Fedora is old-fashioned in the best sense, richly textured, with finely wrought performances. Its plot, that of a vain silver screen diva, disfigured by botched plastic surgery at the height of her reign and feigning eternal youth by exploiting her estranged daughter to assume her identity - thereby destroying her own chances for happiness – may, at least on the surface, seem a shay ridiculous. But Wilder perfectly contains both the ironies and the enigma in this tragedy about two women destined to burn in hell for misguidedly chasing the same eternal flicker of corruptible youth and beauty.
Fedora comes at the tail end of Billy Wilder’s career. It is a flashback by an old master; its ruminations brutal and haunted, its anecdotes about the fast and frothy life of a movie queen of Garbo-esque mystique (she throws herself under a train like Anna Karenina – one of Garbo’s greatest successes) teeming with a majestic sort of guilt, bordering on epically perverse grand guignol. Density and equilibrium are equally applied to the screenplay, co-written by Wilder and his long-time associate, I.A.L Diamond; the towering score by no less an authority than Miklós Rózsa, thundering with ersatz empathy and pathos. There is nothing remotely self-conscious about the exercise, Wilder reeling his audience in on the lure of an almost supernatural suspicion begun when aged, hard-luck film producer, Barry ‘Dutch’ Detweiler (Holden) decides to confront the elusive apparition of a woman he has long admired and once had a fleeting tryst with as a much younger man. Made at any other juncture in Wilder’s career, Fedora would have justly taken its place alongside Sunset Boulevard as a bona fide work of genius. Alas, by 1978 Wilder’s good fortune – and, indeed, that of Tinsel Town itself – was far less conducive to the movie’s success.
A four year absence separates Fedora from Wilder’s The Front Page, ill-received and a financial flop. To Wilder, it must have appeared as though the very earth beneath his feet had suddenly shifted from a massive quake of audience expectations left unfulfilled at the box office. In reality, it was the audience who had strayed – perverted in their viewing habits and tastes – the backlash from a decade’s worth of indie-product making it more difficult for even stellar craftsmen of Wilder’s ilk to exist; deprived of the studio system’s insular artistic core, helmed by a competent mogul ready to back up and provide them with carte blanche. The other uphill battle for Fedora was it came in the wake of a slew of problematic stabs made by other filmmakers to tell stories about ‘old Hollywood. The grave-robbing begun with such offerings as Harlow (1967), Gable and Lombard, and, W.C. Fields and Me (both released in 1976) took on added artifice with Fedora; the fictional tale of an imaginary star, transparently modeled on the reclusive Garbo.
Still, it was a tough sell. Wilder’s first choices for leading ladies Marlene Dietrich to play the title character, and Faye Dunaway as her daughter, Antonia, fell through after both actresses expressed a genuine contempt for Tryon’s novel and the Wilder/Diamond screenplay. Indeed, Wilder could find no major production company states’ side to foot his bills or even show a modicum of interest in the project; a considerable blow for the man who once commanded respect without fail or question from the studio hierarchy and could literally write his own ticket at will. Fedora had a very spotty incubation period, beginning with Universal Pictures paying Wilder and Diamond to write the screenplay, but then promptly putting it into turnaround – code for a sort of creative purgatory from which too many projects are never rescued. Undaunted, Wilder began to shop Fedora to other potential investors, discovering more cold shoulders than anticipated. Eventually, an infusion of capital from German investors, Geria Films, Bavaria Atelier GmbH and Société Française de Production allowed Wilder to make more definite plans. In reviewing Fedora today, one can see nothing of Hollywood in it for obvious reasons. It was shot entirely abroad, in Greece and France, even the brief flashbacks supposedly taking place inside one of the cavernous sound stages at MGM during the halcyon thirties. In preproduction, Wilder had almost settled on casting former fashion model, Marthe Keller to play the dual role of the younger Fedora and her daughter, Antonia. Keller’s near fatal nerve damage sustained in a horrific auto accident prevented her from wearing heavy makeup, and Wilder thus reverted to hiring Hildegard Knef for the part of the aged crone.
Shooting commenced at a relatively uninterrupted pace. But it was only during his assemblage of the rough cut that Wilder suddenly realized, and much to his horror, neither Keller nor Knef’s dialogue was audible, necessitating the dubbing of both by German actress, Inga Bunsch for the English-speaking version of the film. Alas, Fedora’s troubles were only to fester and grow from here. The original distributors, Allied Artists, unceremoniously ditched Wilder in the eleventh hour of their agreement, after a sneak peak of the film for the Myasthenia Gravis Foundation in New York City met with less than enthusiastic response. Rumors abounded Fedora was a lemon; Lorimar Productions stepping up to the plate, but planning to release it as a CBS TV movie of the week. Mercifully, these plans were thwarted when United Artists agreed to a limited distribution deal, but ordering Wilder to cut approximately twelve minutes before another sneak preview in Santa Barbara. In the old days, previews were meant to test and improve the overall quality of a motion picture. Regrettably, in the cost-cutting 70’s, such pre-releases only served to cement a picture’s reputation either as a sleeper hit or a disaster in the making. In Fedora’s case, the latter scenario proved all too quickly to come to fruition, the audience bored and walking out; the critics mostly tepid in their praise or marginally cynical in their reviews.
Wilder’s perfectionism was mortally wounded by their response. He refused to cut or alter the film any further. Fedora had its official ‘world premiere’ at Cannes in May, 1978. By then, UA had lost all faith in Fedora, releasing it in only a few choice ‘art house’ theaters in Europe and America where it failed to catch fire or even the tailwind of Wilder’s immense reputation as a director. Dejected, Wilder would later quip with more than a modicum of disdain that UA had spent $625 on the film’s marketing campaign. Possibly, a wider release coupled with more PR would have buoyed the picture onward to a profit. But in retrospect, Fedora is hardly an artistic flop. Although it does not quite measure up to Wilder’s top tier efforts from the 50’s or 60’s, it is imbued with his distinctly glib style. The acting is uniformly solid, particularly William Holden’s craggy middle-aged has been, chasing the elusive dream of a comeback with the ageless and remote Fedora as his star. Part of Fedora’s allure derives from their passionate – if all too brief – affair of bygone years; ironically begun after Fedora accuses a much younger Dutch (played by Stephen Collins) of being ‘a queer’. The film opens with Fedora’s death; she, sheathed in a hooded cloak and wild eyed, throwing herself beneath the wheels of an oncoming train.
From here we regress into various flashbacks, to the summer before and Dutch’s arrival in Corfu; determined to be reunited with the legend, mysteriously not past her prime. He has a script tucked under his arm – a remake of Anna Karenina that can’t possibly fail. And Fedora, who seemingly came back from the dead a half dozen years earlier to be hotter than ever at the box office, but then just as inexplicably went into a self-imposed exile at the height of her own popularity, would be a natural in the part. If only Dutch could somehow find the opportunity to make his pitch. Alas, the actress is sequestered on an island chateau surrounded by barbed wire and stone fences, guard dogs and a bizarre entourage of sycophants, including the aged and domineering Polish Countess Sobryanski (Knef), her overprotective servant, Miss Balfour (Frances Sternhagen), a rather thuggish chauffeur, Kritos (Gottfried John) and curmudgeonly, Dr. Vando (José Ferrer), the physician reportedly responsible for maintaining Fedora’s perennial youthfulness. Yet, something is remiss about the good doctor, intermittently regarded as either a miracle worker with only one client or a sinister quack with a diabolically spotty track record. The Wilder/Diamond screenplay revels in keeping the audience guessing as to the uncertainty of Vando’s art. Why should the greatest plastic surgeon in the world shutter his lucrative clinic in Germany to take on just one client?
At first, Dutch’s interest in reuniting with Fedora is purely mercenary. Without her, his backers have elected to walk away from his proposed film project. Seizing the opportunity to ingratiate himself to Vando on the mainland, Dutch quickly realizes the good doctor has zero interest in helping him secure a chance meeting with Fedora. So Dutch slips a copy of his script into Vando’s coat, certain when Fedora reads it she will jump at the chance to do the film; another comeback –another chance to prove to fans she hasn’t lost the magic that made her internationally famous. Too bad for Dutch he is summoned to the villa by the Countess Sobryanski instead, given a tongue-lashing in her presence, but nevertheless denied access to Fedora. When Fedora emerges from her bedroom she is indeed as startling youthful as ever. Dutch cannot help but observe how time appears to have stopped for her while he has suffered its indignations; becoming a much older man, barely recognizable to his former paramour. Fedora expresses some interest in his movie. But her pleas grow hysterical and frantic; the Countess ordering Balfour to escort Fedora back to her room. Afterward, the Countess fabricates a nervous breakdown for the former star, presumably predicated on a failed love affair with actor Michael York (York, playing himself in a flashback).
Dutch doesn’t buy it, but departs the villa with script in hand, determined to think of some way to reach Fedora without the Countess’ influence. He doesn’t have long to wait; Fedora reappearing in his hotel room on a dark and rainy night; briefly pleading to be rescued before being found out by Vandos and Kritos, who waste no time hurrying Fedora off into a waiting limousine. Now, it is Dutch who is frantic. No one believes his story. Moreover, he cannot find anyone who will take an interest in rescuing Fedora from the Countess. So Dutch storms the villa alone, discovering it vacated and shuttered. An intercepted and cryptic telephone call for Vando tips off Dutch that Fedora and her entourage are likely headed for Vando’s clinic in Germany. However, he is unable to act upon the information; knocked unconscious by Kritos and awakening nearly a week later only to learn Fedora has since taken her own life. Attending her funeral, a glittery assemblage of adoring fans, Dutch confronts the Countess and Vando as coconspirators in Fedora’s demise.
He is in for a very rude awakening as the Countess confesses she is Fedora; that the woman lying in the casket is the love child she gave birth to but kept secret all these many years, possibly after being impregnated by Dutch during their foolish youthful dalliance from long ago. Billy Wilder delves into a very hideous and insidious side of fame; Fedora isolating her young daughter (played by Christine Mueller). Antonia is kept a prisoner of Fedora’s own image –tucked in the shadows and all but ignored accept for the briefest of reunions, instead pawned off as a ward to be looked after by Balfour. The child is undeniably – and justly – resentful; returning to her mother’s side many years later as a young adult after Vando’s experimental injections – meant to keep Fedora eternally youthful – have instead resulted in her permanent disfigurement. Multiple strokes follow, crippling the once glamorous screen queen and confining her to a wheelchair.
Hence, when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science contacts Fedora to bestow an Oscar for Lifetime Achievement, Fedora concocts a perverse illusion for the Academy’s President (Henry Fonda, playing himself) to witness. She dresses Antonia in her clothes and trains her in all mannerisms and deportment. The illusion is uncanny, the deception complete. Fedora now perpetrates the ultimate fraud; a comeback with Antonia carrying on the masquerade. Miraculously, no one questions how a woman in her sixties can appear as unchanged and vibrant as a girl of thirty. Many movies follow, as does a whirlwind romance with co-star, Michael York who falls madly for Fedora. It’s a fairytale, alas, doomed to the darkest side of a tale told by the Brothers Grimm; Antonia informing Balfour she intends to confess everything to York and thus, marry him as her own person. This, of course, Fedora cannot – and will not – allow.
And so, the second coming of the star abruptly ends; Fedora impersonating the Countess, kidnapping and holding her daughter a prisoner at her isolated Corfu villa; perpetually anesthetized by Vando and kept under lock and key to ensure no one discovers the truth. Unable to surrender herself to the cause, Antonia makes a daring escape from the villa. Met at the depot by Balfour, Antonia learns that none of her love letters to Michael York were ever mailed; that he knows nothing of her situation and is therefore not waiting for her at the station. Heartbroken, Antonia throws herself under the oncoming train – at last free of the deception she helped to perpetuate. We return to Fedora’s funeral; the late afternoon guests allowed to pay their last respects as Dutch bids the real Fedora farewell and departs, realizing the final resting place for his dreams and his memories has died a long time ago. We learn from Dutch that only a scant six weeks later the woman who called herself the Countess has also passed away.
Fedora is one of the most lyrically tragic homages to Hollywood stardom yet attempted; Wilder’s inability to reconcile the ersatz glamour and exoticism of old time talent with the town’s notorious reputation for dismantling, destroying and discrediting it, leaves a very bitter aftertaste on our collective misperceptions about fame and fortune. The desirability of a life in the spotlight is shattered. In fact, Wilder seems unscrupulous in his blind determination to shake even the staunchest daydreamer from his/her illusions. Success for Fedora and Antonia comes at an impossible price; the mother, selfish as ever as she exploits her naïve offspring to satisfy her overweening ego, the daughter attempting to draw nearer to a remote and desolate figure without any maternal warmth left to share. Antonia’s successful morphing into the real Fedora’s legacy is uncanny – and, in fact, unrealistic. But it’s only the legacy worth preserving here; not the tangible flesh and blood that might have carried the burden of such incalculable cruelties through to the inevitable finding out of their charade.
In some ways, Fedora foreshadows our present-day obsession with youth-orientated culture; the coarsening, cheapening and ultimate disposal of humanity for neither art’s sake nor reputation, but simply in favor of the next ‘best thing’. Wilder’s criticisms of Hollywood then were undoubtedly warranted. But the town has seen too much since. Fedora is far more prescient and relevant today; the quixotic myths about Hollywood brutalized and bombarded by a barrage of ‘tell all’ biographies and the steady stream of tabloid journalism meant to deny us of our fanciful ideas about the glamorous world of celebrity pop culture. Fedora really is Wilder at his best. It is a film imbued with the most transcendent qualities of old time entertainment, unfashionably out of touch with the grittier screen achievements from the 70’s, but wrought with a narrative assurance far beyond the comprehension of most any director working in movies today. Though imperfect, Wilder’s anachronistic approach to storytelling yields a highly personal aestheticism that buoys his harshest commentaries about fame. And, if there were ever any doubt about the lingering sting of Wilder’s prose, it’s all as plainly written on Bill Holden’s craggy face; the arctic desolation of a dream remembered, a remembrance best forgotten since, and well past its prime, and finally – regrettably – relegated to those ghost flowers of our collective imaginations, deadened without the illusion left intact.
Fedora was restored and remastered in 2k by Bavaria Atelier GmbH and, as represented on Olive Film’s new Blu-ray, is mostly impressive. There are a few inexplicably soft – nee blurry and decidedly out of focus shots; most noticeably underneath the main titles (partly the result of the primitive optical printing methods back hen). But this is sourced from an original camera negative and color saturation is mostly consistent, if leaning toward the warm spectrum. Better still, there are no age-related artifacts to distract and film grain is accurately reproduced. Contrast, however, is infrequently weak, the diffusion filters used in Gerry Fisher’s cinematography causing whites to bloom or give off a soft ‘angelic’ glow. Exteriors shot at the sundrenched villa teeter between paler than expected contrast, compared to the studio-bound and night time photography. Flesh tones are orange, though not demonstratively. Color fidelity is mostly solid. Close ups often reveal minute detail in hair, skin and clothing. A few sequences exhibit startling clarity. Undoubtedly, this is the best Fedora has ever looked on home video. But it lacked the essential consistency to achieve the ‘wow!’ factor. The DTS mono audio ably supports this dialogue-driven story. Alas, it also deprives us of listening to Miklos Rosza’s gorgeous score in the full-bodied luster of true stereo. There are no extras. Bottom line: recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)