Past midnight at the Formosa Café is no place to be when you’re not drinking but that’s where I recently found myself. The details of why I was there at that hour are not important. Suffice it to say that it involved a conversation which was rather heated and, as often happens in real life, very little was resolved in the end. After midnight in Hollywood, very little gets resolved anyway. Flash-forward less than a week later and there I was further down La Brea at the New Beverly, on a night when ordinarily I would have been at home completely exhausted since the TCM Classic Film Festival had ended just the day before. This was no ordinary night at the New Beverly however, but a double bill of Billy Wilder films that seemingly never play. Anywhere. I do not expect it to happen again. I had to be there. This was Wilder, after all, so as far as I was concerned church was still in session and for this one final night it simply moved over to another venue.
The two films, 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.
Legendary film star Fedora has died after throwing herself in front of a train. As her body lies in state in Paris, film producer Barry Detweiler (William Holden) flashes back two weeks to when he traveled to the Greek island of Corfu looking for the reclusive Fedora (Marthe Keller) in the hopes of luring her out of retirement to star in his new version of “Anna Karenina”. Long ago in the MGM days Detweiler had a brief fling with the star which he doesn’t even expect her to remember but upon seeking the legend out he discovers that the shockingly young-looking Fedora appears to be virtually held prisoner in a villa on a tiny island owned by the elderly Countess Sobryanski (Hildegard Knef) and the mysterious plastic surgeon Dr. Vando (Jose Ferrer). Detweiler seeks out the residents of the island to get the script to her but when he attempts to get Fedora away from them that only makes things worse, leading to revelations of what really happened to the star since her glory days at MGM long ago.
With a screenplay by Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond based on a novella in the collection “Crowned Heads” by Tom Tyron, FEDORA is about the ghosts of the past both in the deep recesses of our mind and in Hollywood as well. The subject of old movie stars was certainly nothing new for Wilder and in spite of how well the film played with AVANTI!—the much more hopeful half of the pairing—it feels like FEDORA was specifically designed to play in rep houses following Wilder’s masterpiece SUNSET BOULEVARD, the most obvious reference point. With some of the film told in flashback narrated by Holden, even if he’s not the dead body this time around, it’s hard to avoid that feeling and at one point when the star launches into a speech of his woes where he complains how “the kids with beards have taken over” decrying the Hollywood of the 70s, it’s as if Wilder’s main direction to him was to simply play it as Joe Gillis thirty years later. Or maybe, having seen it all himself, the character is simply Billy Wilder. Although presumably not in terms of material—though one of Detweiler’s films, something called CHINAMAN’S CHANCE, ‘received three nominations’ his “Anna Karenina” remake has the title THE SNOWS OF YESTERYEAR which is pretty much the most corny, sentimental way of thinking about the past imaginable. It sounds like the sort of sludge Billy Wilder would probably never want to see, let alone make and although Detweiler does his best to push the script whenever given the chance it’s as if he can’t see how empty the whole thing, along with his futile mission to track down this old movie star, really is.
Whichever of Wilder’s post-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 expected wit of Wilder/Diamond is there with an extra degree of bitterness to some of the dialogue but also feels a little buried this time out. Maybe the director doesn’t want to shine too much light on the inherent absurdity of the story, maybe in the end he’s just unable to find very much humor in it like he used to. It’s a film made by someone who’s seen too many people die, had too many people fall out of his life for him to want to make jokes about it anymore. Annoyed at still being alive while looking back on outliving one’s beauty one character observes, “Monroe and Harlow, they were the lucky ones.” There’s a streak of humor the film almost doesn’t want to acknowledge, a deadpan nature never more apparent than when Jose Ferrer’s Dr. Vando carefully explains how he pulls off the plastic surgery miracles to keep his patients young, mentioning items like sheep embryos and baboon semen. His speech actually got one of the most audible laughs during the New Beverly screening, causing me to really pay attention for the first time to the madness he was describing. “How much of that is really true?” Holden asks him after listening. “All of it. None of it,” is the reply which could describe the logic of what we’re seeing as well (although, considering what Ferrer is seen doing during one flashback, maybe more of it is true than we’d rather know).
One almost imagines Wilder standing off to the side of the screen as the film plays glaring at us, daring us to acknowledge the sick joke of it all as if there’s more he identifies with here than he wants to admit. Early on Holden is given some worry beads as a totem to help solve the problem of finding Fedora—an AVANTI!-like touch where the main character begins to give in to local customs—and much to his surprise they do the job almost instantly, something of a reversal from Wilder’s often pragmatic plotting. The message is clear: be careful what you wish for. Don’t go rooting around in echoes of the past since, just like MGM, it’s all dead and buried. When someone wonders who won the Oscar in a certain year, the closest they get to an answer is a vague, “The one who played that nun with tuberculosis.” The Oscar itself, for that matter, is derided as “just another knick knack that needs dusting.” Wilder doesn’t even seem to revel in the nostalgia of the THAT’S ENTERTAINMENT 70s—realizing that the concept of ‘old times’ sake’ is useless, Detweiler literally burns the letter he writes Fedora about their one night together and at another point tells her about old props being sold off at MGM saying, “Remember that big gold bed where you made love to Robert Taylor? It went for 450 bucks.”
There may be echoes of Wilder’s own past associating with the likes of Garbo and Dietrich (asked to play a key role here, she flat out refused) and maybe even the dangers of getting too close to one of those godessess. “I wouldn’t wish that on any man to be married to a movie star, carrying her vanity case, it’s too demeaning,” goes one line and in some ways it could all speak to a mixture of what some feel is Wilder’s own misogyny combined with his fascination with these women who still baffle him. Discussing Tolstoy and ANNA KARENINA one character decries, “He knew nothing about women,” as if Wilder is all too aware of what they’ve been saying about him. The portrayal here of the women in question mixes love in with that hatred, a total empathy combined with a sad acknowledgment that he’ll never have all the answers. It also veers closer to being a horror film than any Wilder ever had before, all set to a score by Miklos Rosza of the DOUBLE INDEMNITY and LOST WEEKEND days, insistently trying to bring the spirits of the past back to life. The treatments Norma Desmond went through to restore her beauty as she prepared for the film she’ll never make are turned into something much more horrifying this time out. Just as locks were removed from her house in case she tried anything once again, mirrors are removed from Fedora’s house to make it clear how much the villa is essentially being occupied by a vampire is living there. The character in this film is a monster but retains sympathy nevertheless because of what Hollywood has done to her, what the world has done to her, the very thing that causes those women to sob over what they’ve done to themselves. It makes them hate you as well. If it feels like that sympathy only goes so far on Wilder’s part maybe that’s because the film makes it clear he doesn’t claim to have any answers to this. Holden, playing the alleged lead role, listens and acts concerned and tries to understand but he’s forever an outsider to the real drama--if the film is viewed from the point of view of one other character (maybe two of them) it becomes an absolute nightmare. Wilder knows how little he really understands them, it’s just the way it is and always will be.
There’s a ludicrous majesty to it all, presented with an old world feel in a place where traditions must be upheld, complete with a bit involving putting out a cigarette that feels left over from the world of Lubitsch. In every scene there’s a consistent discipline to the framing, not in Scope like many of Wilder’s later films, and the scenery is lush but the local flavor of Corfu is almost presented as incidental which makes sense since Detweiler barely cares anyway. Visually speaking it doesn’t quite have the power in some of his other films with Fedora’s villa certainly seems like an attractive hideaway which is appropriately isolated but doesn’t quite speak to the madness we know is in there. But there is imagery which feels appropriately unnerving such as countess pairs of white gloves in a dresser drawer allegedly meant to cover up Fedora’s aged hands, a single haunting phrase scrawled countless times in multiple notebooks and even the name of Ferrer’s ‘Dr. Vando’ sounds like a character who should be played by Boris Karloff. Nods to films not make by Wilder are in the air as well such as essentially opening the film with someone declaring, “Fedora is dead,” followed by the twists to come the film offers echoes of Preminger’s LAURA as well and it’s hard not to think of Robert Aldrich’s impossible 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.
Detweiler refers to ‘tax shelter guys’ helping to get his Fedora movie off the ground which also seems to be how Wilder would up making the film after Universal put it into turnaround and was by accounts apparently not an easy shoot. The casting of Marthe Keller was seen as an issue with the actress never quite coming off as the right sort of Garbo-like enigma, which, no spoilers, led to extensive dubbing by German actress Inga Bunsch. When Holden encounters Keller at the Countess’ villa her behavior plays like an actress overdoing an actress overdoing it—one half expects him to realize it’s all for naught within five seconds and just leave. In interviews Wilder wasn’t too kind about the finished product saying to Cameron Crowe, “I wanted to stop the whole thing after we were shooting for a week or so, (but) I couldn’t…I mean, I could, but it would have been a loss of income, so I just finished it. It never became a sort of second SUNSET BOULEVARD,” sounding a little like he wants to move on to another topic. But he’s sadly no longer here to fault us for liking his own film and looking at it now FEDORA plays as Wilder’s ultimate statement about the ugliness of Hollywood and the allure it will always have. It’s his own THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE and all that comparison entails but here, instead of a stately intonation along the lines of Ford’s “When the legend becomes fact…” as someone muses over the façade of Hollywood and all that goes into keeping it alive Holden simply replies, “Magic time.” That’s about it.
As a result, it could almost be seen as a summation of Wilder’s entire filmography as well as a conclusion. Of course there was still BUDDY BUDDY to go just a few years later just as it always seems BUDDY BUDDY still lies ahead in life. But FEDORA has an awareness of that end and of how there’s no going back. The film ends on a brief, quiet acknowledgement of the past between two characters which is maybe all the lead was really looking for. Maybe that’s all we can ever get. Also found within the cracked beauty of the final moments of FEDORA is a last line in Holden’s narration which has to rank among my favorite things in all of Wilder—a deceptively flat statement of fact which also reveals a lifetime of dreams and regret that will never be fully reconciled. It haunts me, just like the film does. Within the sense of majesty and irretrievable fate is a feeling that it just misses greatness, maybe because it has to answer so many questions during the second half that the story telling becomes didactic but as flawed masterworks go, FEDORA possesses a bitter grace unlike anything else.
Serving as the sad conscience of all this, William Holden delivers a strong performance which is also free of ego, since he has to take a back seat for much of the second half. He seems to be in better shape than his last film, Blake Edwards’ 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).
FEDORA was the second film shown on the bill at the New Beverly and it ended late. That was bound to happen, considering how long AVANTI! is—incidentally, the first film of the night looked immaculate while the 35mm print of FEDORA was faded and a little scratchy but considering the miniscule release the film got that there’s a print of the film at all is miraculous; the 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.