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 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, with its bygone studio machinery that churned out movie magic en masse. It is also an indictment on our ridiculous expectations regarding the infallibility of ‘star quality’ – presumably, never meant to age. Like all living creatures, we human beings are impermanent, our ephemeral presence destined to fade as old photographs. Timelessness is an intangible and foolhardy pursuit for mere mortals. Alas, reality never prevents us from trying. And yet, in his critique of this decaying Babylon, Wilder seems to be more personally involved; reminiscences of a careworn warhorse who has seen better days in Hollywood; now, bitterly clinging to the last vestiges of his own reputation. Fedora is old-fashioned in the best sense, richly textured in Wilder’s unvarnished wit and occasionally haunting revelations, with finely wrought performances throughout. Its plot, that of a vain silver screen diva, disfigured by botched plastic surgery at the height of her reign, 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 fanciful. But Wilder perfectly grounds both the ironies and the enigma in the tragedy of the piece; two women destined to burn in hell for misguidedly chasing the same waning flicker of corruptible youth and beauty.
Fedora comes at the tail end of Billy Wilder’s career. It is a flashback made by an old master who has lived through the halcyon days of glory; its ruminations brutal, frank and unsettling, its anecdotes about the fast and frothy life of a movie queen of Garbo’s 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 grand guignol. Intensity and equilibrium are equally applied in 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 in the exercise, Wilder reeling in his audience on a lure of disturbing suspicion, stirred 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 own good fortune – and, indeed, that of the Tinsel Town he had known – was far less conducive to success.
Four years’ absence separates Fedora from Wilder’s The Front Page, ill-received and a financial flop. To Wilder, it must have seemed the very earth beneath his feet had suddenly shifted from a massive gestalt in 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 low budget indie-product, more ambitious in exposing skin than talent, making it difficult for even stellar craftsmen of Wilder’s ilk and repute to exist. Deprived of the studio system’s insular cocoon, in the glory days helmed by a competent mogul of enterprising resolve, ready to carte blanche black any genius with a good story to tell, Wilder was left scratching his head in disbelief of the uphill battle he had survived to make the picture in the first place. The other uphill battle for Fedora was it came in the wake of a slew of problematic movies made by other filmmakers attempting to tell tales about ‘old Hollywood’. The grave-robbing begun with such glossy offerings as Harlow (1967), Gable and Lombard, and, W.C. Fields and Me (both released in 1976) took on added artifice with Fedora; a fictional account of an imaginary star, transparently modeled on the reclusive Garbo.
Wilder’s first choices for leading ladies Marlene Dietrich and Faye Dunaway, to play the damaged mother and her bitter daughter, Antonia, fell through after both actresses expressed 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. Fedora had a very spotty incubation period. Universal Pictures paid Wilder and Diamond to write the screenplay, but then promptly putting it into turnaround – code for a sort of creative purgatory from which far too many projects – then and now – are never rescued. Undaunted, Wilder began shopping Fedora to other potential investors, discovering more cold shoulders than warm handshakes. 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 pre-production, Wilder had almost settled on casting former fashion model, Marthe Keller to play the dual role of the younger Fedora and her daughter, Antonia. Alas, Keller’s near fatal nerve damage sustained in a horrific auto accident prevented her from wearing heavy makeup. Thus, Wilder reverted to hiring Hildegard Knef for the part of the aged crone.
Shooting commenced at a relatively uninterrupted pace. 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. But 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 they also ordered 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, audiences 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. But 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, 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 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 the passionate – if all too brief – affair of bygone years; ironically begun after she accuses the much younger Dutch (played by Stephen Collins in a flashback) of being ‘a queer.’
The film opens with Fedora’s death; the radiant, if frantic star, 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. Dutch has a script tucked under his arm – a remake of Anna Karenina that cannot 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 resurrected popularity, would be a natural. 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, stone fences, vicious guard dogs and an even more bizarre and insidious 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), a hack physician, reportedly responsible for maintaining Fedora’s perennial youth. 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 delights 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 Fedora is purely mercenary. Without her, his backers will walk away from his proposed project, thus ending his own chances for a comeback. 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 has not 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 severe tongue-lashing, but nevertheless denied access to Fedora. When the star emerges from her bedroom she is as startling youthful as ever. Dutch cannot help but observe how time appears to have stopped for Fedora while he has suffered its indignations; becoming gnarled and cynical, barely recognizable to his former paramour. Fedora expresses some interest in his movie. But her pleas grow hysterical; the Countess ordering Balfour to escort Fedora back to her room. Afterward, the Countess fabricates a nervous breakdown of the former legend for Dutch’s benefit, presumably predicated on a failed love affair with actor, Michael York (York, playing himself).
Dutch doesn’t buy it, but departs the villa with script in hand, determined to think of some other way to reach Fedora without the Countess’ influence. He does not 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 bundling her 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 cryptic telephone call for Vando tips off Dutch. Fedora and her entourage are likely headed for Vando’s clinic in Germany. However, he is unable to act upon this 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 gathering of worshiping 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; 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. Herein, Billy Wilder is ruthlessly clever as he delves into the hideous side of fame; Fedora isolating her young daughter (played by Christine Mueller), held captive under Balfour’s stern watch. Not surprisingly, the girl has grown resentful of her mother’s fame. It has, in fact, denied her the one commodity desperately needed - love. But Fedora is incapable of this basic human emotion. She is a star that shines hard and bright, her vanity superseding any chances of a meaningful mother/daughter relationship. Antonia is kept a prisoner of Fedora’s own image –tucked in the shadows and all but ignored accept for the briefest of reunions; pawned off as a ward to be looked after by the insidiously dutiful Balfour. The child is undeniably – and justly – resentful; returning to her mother’s side many years later as a young adult, uncannily Fedora-esque in her radiant beauty. By now, Vando’s experimental injections – meant to keep the real Fedora eternally youthful – have instead resulted in her permanent disfigurement. Multiple strokes brought on by Vando’s concoctions have crippled the once glamorous screen queen, 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) to witness. She dresses Antonia in her clothes and trains her in mannerisms and deportment. The illusion is eerie, but the deception is made 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: a fairytale, alas, doomed to the darkest side of a tale told by the Brothers Grimm. Antonia informs 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, kidnaps and holds her daughter a prisoner at her isolated Corfu villa; perpetually anesthetized by Vando and kept under lock and key to ensure no one ever discovers the truth. Prompted by a ruse perpetuated by Balfour, and quite unable to surrender her dreams of Michael York, 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 actually mailed. In fact, he knows nothing of her situation and is therefore not waiting for her at the station. Heartbroken, Antonia throws herself under the wheels of an oncoming train – at last free of the deception she helped to perpetuate. We return to Fedora’s funeral; the late afternoon guests paying their last respects as Dutch bids the real Fedora farewell. Only now does he realize the final resting place for his own dreams has died, along with his memories, a long time ago. In an epilogue voiceover we learn from Dutch only a scant six weeks later the woman who called herself the Countess also passed away.
Fedora is one of the most lyrically tragic homages to Hollywood stardom; 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 contemplation on fame and fortune. Wilder makes no apology for dismantling our collective desirability of a life in the spotlight. In fact, he seems unscrupulously determined to shake even the staunchest daydreamer from his/her illusions. Success for Fedora and Antonia comes at a terrible price; the mother, tenacious as she exploits her naïve offspring to placate an overweening ego; the daughter, blindsided in her desperation to be drawn as a moth to a flame, nearer this cruelly remote and desolate figure without any maternal warmth left to share. Antonia’s successful morphing into the real Fedora’s legacy is uncanny – if unrealistic. Arguably, Wilder makes his point herein; that it is only the legacy worth preserving; not the tangible flesh and blood that might have carried the burden of such incalculable malice through to the inevitable discovery 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 our fanciful ideas about the glamorous world, long since distilled into celebrity pop culture. In retrospect, Fedora really is Wilder at his best; 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 is as plainly written on Bill Holden’s craggy visage; the arctic desolation of a dream denied, a remembrance best forgotten since, and well past its prime, and finally – regrettably – relegated to those ghost flowers of our collective imaginations, deadened without any illusion left to savor.
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 sun-drenched 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)