Thursday, May 19, 2016
As You Get Older
AVANTI! and FEDORA, have never been the most popular Wilder titles but putting aside how much I love them they made sense as a pairing—both from the 70s and set over in Europe, they each are rather wistful meditations on the past and what it means to us, what it can continue to mean for us. Essentially, they are Billy Wilder as Old Man. Both films have also been largely forgotten about and FEDORA, completed in 1978, never got much of a release at all. With issues that compounded its making, FEDORA is a problem film. Once the full scope of its plot has been revealed it’s easy to imagine how it might have worked better in its original literary form anyway. But along with the right amount of acidity within its story and compassion for its characters, FEDORA also has a power within the greater context of Wilder’s career. This is it, the film says, there are no other chances. This is the only opportunity you have to get everything right and, face it, you probably won’t. It’s a film that basically says ‘Fuck it’ to everything. Like many problem films, it’s rather beautiful in its freakishness. It’s also a reminder that most desperate conversations you have in bars late at night never result in anything you desire. APARTMENT films feel stifled by their strict plotting and maybe also a little too lumbering in how they’re paced (some more than others) FEDORA actually feels a little like he’s managed to break free of those old structural habits for the first time in years and found a new way to explore his preoccupations. Narratively speaking, it’s one of his most daring films with an intricate structure that almost shouldn’t work, essentially a plot that takes up the first hour followed by a flashback heavy second half in which everything gets explained a la Agatha Christie. I’m hardly the first to point out that just about anyone could guess where things are going within the first 30 minutes (in spite of this, I’ll try to keep the twists and revelations of the film under wraps) but for once the strict mechanics of the plot feel secondary to Wilder. FEDORA is not SUNSET BOULEVARD of course, few films ever can be, and it almost has no choice but to live in the earlier film’s shadow while still offering some intriguing differences to make it a distorted mirror image--the movie star in the earlier film has been forgotten about by the world, left to rot even if she is only a few miles away from Paramount. The title character of FEDORA, on the other hand, has traveled far away to live in exile and is still remembered but can’t return no matter how much people apparently long for the glamour that she represents. There’s a broken beauty to FEDORA which makes perfect sense since that’s much of what it’s about anyway. THE LEGEND OF LYLAH CLARE (I still watch that every now and then, desperately looking for the good film in it) from a decade earlier which contains more than a few similarities—it’s not too much of a stretch to call this the Wilder rewrite of that film’s concept but his particular point of view gives FEDORA both the satirical slant as well as the sadness. There’s no getting away from this in Wilder’s eye, there’s no way out but the death that, if one faces facts, is most likely not too far off. S.O.B. just a few years later, and his strength is what’s needed particularly since it doesn’t always come from Keller’s performance in spite of her valiant work. It needs to be the performance of a lifetime but, of course, Fedoras don’t come along every day and at least Hildegard Knef as the Countess does manage to find the weary tragedy in the story when it’s most needed. Jose Ferrer also brings the needed wit to his part as if his character is continually annoyed by the events of the movie and would much rather sit down with yet another bottle of cognac. Frances Sternhagen is Fedora’s loyal secretary/companion, Mario Adorf (who took part in one of the best car chases ever in Fernando Di Leo’s THE ITALIAN CONNECTION) is the friendly but ignored hotel manager assisting Holden in some of the material that most closely resembles AVANTI! and Stephen Collins is the young William Holden in flashback. Henry Fonda is President of the Academy Henry Fonda while Michael York appears in what has to be one of the strangest ‘as himself’ cameos ever (of course, making me wonder if Wilder ever actually sat through LOGAN’S RUN). Blu-ray released by Olive Films is also highly recommended. Either way, it meant that the long glorious weekend of the TCM Fest was finally, completely over. FEDORA was the perfect film to end it on, with William Holden’s last line sticking in my brain, a reminder of everything in the world, or maybe just in Hollywood, that doesn’t work out the way you want it to. There wasn’t a return to the Formosa that night. I had experienced enough late night cruelty there already and didn’t want to revisit the feeling at that time. Besides, as Holden’s Barry Detweiler quotes Samuel Goldwyn in this film, “In life, you have to take the bitter with the sour.” Since then I’ve gone back again to visit Billy Wilder as I’ve done before so at least I got him to talk to while continuing to look for answers. As for FEDORA, Billy Wilder actually said once that he’d like to remake the film then immediately contradicted himself to say there wasn’t much point in doing that adding, “I want to move ahead to new errors.” Which maybe in life is about as optimistic as you can ever get.