Classic Film Talk: ‘Fedora’ (1978)

William Holden Centennial

Today we reminisce about

Fedora (1978)

Directed by Billy Wilder

Starring: William Holden & Marthe Keller

featuring Hildegard Knef, José Ferrer, Michael York & Henry Fonda

Synopsis

The very grand funeral of legendary film star Fedora (Keller) is taking place in her Parisian mansion. After a career that spanned over 40 years and included 41 feature films, she inexplicably committed suicide by throwing herself in front of a train. As Fedora’s body lies in repose, thousands of her fans line up in an endless succession to pay their respects, including Barry Detweiler (Holden) – also known as “Dutch” – who had worked with Fedora in 1947 when he was an assistant on the set of a film she was making for MGM. They ended up spending one night together although it was unclear if they were intimate. Just two weeks before her death, Dutch had visited Fedora on the Greek island of Corfu where she had been staying at the Villa Calypso with her old friend the Countess Sobryanski (Knef). Dutch is unwelcome at first but is then mysteriously greeted when he stirs up too much attention on the island.

The idea is for Fedora to star in a modern remake of Anna Karena that will be different from previous versions because it will be in colour and will not be restrained by heavy censorship. Having put all of his energy and resources into the script, Dutch needs a big success to get back on his feet and give his career a boost. Though Fedora has been retired from the screen for some time, she is still a beloved and revered cinematic figure. When Dutch gets a chance to finally see Fedora, she seems interested in the script but the Countess and her entourage, Dr. Vando (Ferrer) and Miss Balfour, are less convinced. Their reactions are abnormal and Fedora hints to her being held against her will. The doctor, who has been treating Fedora for many years, explains that her paranoia is simply a secondary reaction/effect to her anti-age treatment. At 67 years of age, Fedora looks like she has not aged much in 30 years time.

What is really going on at the Villa Calypso? Was Barry able to secure Fedora for his film before her passing? Why did she take her own life? There are worthwhile questions for an even worthier film and I would not dare spoil any of it for you.

 

Background

Fedora is based on a story that was included in the novel Crowned Heads by Tom Tryon, an actor turned writer. Universal purchased the rights, assigned Billy Wilder and his writing partner I.A.L. Diamond to the job of creating a screenplay. When it was finished, Wilder was shocked at Universal’s demands for the film which included casting preference (they wanted the pair of Katharine Hepburn and Audrey Hepburn) as well as decision on the final cut. He managed to buy the rights back from the studio then shopped around for a distributor who would help finance the film under his conditions. Wilder insisted on having the final say when it came to script approval, casting, and theatrical cut. After meeting with several possible film companies, he made a deal with German-based Geria Film and started the adventure of making his first independent film.

Billy Wilder had an immense respect for actors from the silent film days and the Golden Age of American cinema; those he considered to be Hollywood aristocracy. He not only wished to render homage to these grand figures, he also wanted to feature them in Fedora. Wilder’s first choice for the title role was Marlene Dietrich, an actress he adored and with whom he had worked with on two pictures: A Foreign Affair and Witness for the Prosecution. Dietrich was too ill to accept, unfortunately, which led to Vanessa Redgrave later expressing interest with the part ultimately going to Swiss actress Marthe Keller. Since the sad reality was that many of the greats had passed away or were retired, Wilder made sure to incorporate their presence in the storyline in clever ways. Joan Crawford, Robert Taylor, John Gilbert, Fred Astaire, Marlene Dietrich… their names are among the numerous stars acknowledged.

Mentioning this gives some insight into how personal a project Fedora was for Billy Wilder as well as how emotionally attached he was to his work. He fought against a world that did not care about old stars, films, and books; things that were often deemed as “out-of-style”. Gloria Swanson’s career was famously resurrected after Wilder cast her in Sunset Boulevard against the advice of studio executives. Swanson had achieved much success during the days of silent film but had failed to make the transition to sound, disappearing into personal and professional oblivion. It has been said that Sunset Boulevard is an adieu to the stars and the films of the silent days. In comparison, Fedora is thought to be a farewell to Old Hollywood and the days of the studio system.

 

Understanding Fedora

Fedora: the perfect specimen

The personage of Fedora was modelled after several of cinema’s grandest dames both in the way her character is written and in regard to her (fictional) filmography. Fedora’s most prominent works were Lady Bovary and Joan of Arc. Lady Bovary is a made-up title and refers to the real film Madame Bovary, the 1949 adaptation directed by Vincente Minnelli and starring Jennifer Jones as well as the 1932 pre-Code adaptation directed by Albert Ray and starring famed silent film actress Lila Lee. Joan of Arc was an actual film directed by Victor Fleming and starring Ingrid Bergman. Despite Jones and Bergman being completely different leading ladies, they were both considered to be strong women.

As an actress, Fedora was extremely popular, being given the most sought after roles and receiving global critical acclaim. As a person, Fedora was self-consumed beyond any normal comprehension, only caring about her own interests and obsessed with her physical appearance. There have been endless comparisons between Fedora and Norma Desmond, and while there are shared traits, they are distinctively different women. Norma tends to overact and be almost delusional when it comes to her appeal as an actress, still thinking she is a huge star. She believes she can jump back into the acting game with a nothing but a hit screenplay, just as Bette Davis’ Baby Jane Hudson thought in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? Both Norma and Baby Jane have lost their looks and their minds coupled with the fact that their talent is no longer relevant to modern tastes. On the other hand, Fedora is a more reserved diva whose appeal never went out of style. Her ego has always been nurtured, even in retirement with constant reference given to her beauty and talent. Dutch has made sacrifices in order to reach Fedora, a small labour of love in exchange for having her still valuable name attached to his script. However, there is one thing that Norma is able to do better than Fedora ever was and that is to love. Fedora does not even know how to give love or even show an emotional sentiment, only being capable of accepting adoration.

Gloria Swanson’s overdramatic Norma Desmond

Bette Davis’ campy Baby Jane Hudson

 

The Wilder Touch

It was a known fact that Wilder had one of the best sense of humour in the business. He was constantly cracking jokes and twisting his English in very unique ways to make the most original of puns, sometimes unintended. Though he could speak English extremely well, he never lost his thick accent and it never became his primary language. Those in Hollywood and those filling the movie theatres came to expect comedy from Wilder and had difficulty in accepting when he veered from this genre.

As a wise man said, “expecting comedy from Billy Wilder is to not be a student of his work.” This statement speaks volumes and makes you reflect; the intended effect of Fedora and other of his films. Wilder was a brilliant director because he had incredible insight and a solid vision of what he wanted to portray. He was also an active contributor to all of the pictures he made, always writing and often producing them. It so happened that along with making some comedic films, he got to work with some of the funniest actors ever to grace the screen like Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau, and chose to work with them several times over. These factors helped to mould a public vision of Wilder as the fun-loving King of satirical comedy and this is one of the main reasons why Fedora failed miserably when it was released.

Fedora is a film that makes you think and is not just a casual “have fun, eat popcorn” flick. In fact, I cannot think of any Wilder film that has a limp storyline intended only to be an easy box office draw. Wilder was a gifted, very involved writer and his stories had several layers to them. Most of film plots were not just linear Point A to Point B adventures. Instead, the plots were long winded, often curving and going into directions that one would never have guessed. This is very much the case with Fedora: you have the initial story and then you have its double meaning, in this case Old Hollywood. The picture goes beyond a film-within-a-film and rather portrays an industry-within-an-industry.

Being the sly fox that he is, Billy Wilder did include many similar props from Sunset Boulevard in Fedora. There is a run-down mansion, filtered telephone calls, heavy curtains/décor, and an antique Rolls Royce used as a limousine. To boot, I even noticed a reference to Some Like It Hot. The Countess is almost always sitting next to a portable heater and gets enraged whenever the electricity is cut off, prompting her to hit it with her cane several times while yelling. Sweet Sue, the leader of the women’s band that Joe and Jerry join, often hits things with her conductor’s wand while yelling “Beinstock!!!!” (the name of the band manager).

 

Golden Holden

This is one of the better performances that I have seen from William Holden. At 60 years old, he has still got his charm although his looks had suffered from years of severe alcoholism. He was very sure of himself in his role as Barry “Dutch” Detweiler, never once lagging in his acting and keeping up with the physical demands of his role. I quite liked seeing Holden in a European setting and felt that he blended in quite nicely with the surroundings considering that he was known for having very American looks and a very American way of speaking in his earlier career. He and Wilder had a great working relationship and they did excellent work together. His role was decidedly different from his portrayal of Joe Gillis in Sunset Boulevard and I feel like they should not be compared. If anything, I’d say that Dutch resembled Wilder himself to a certain degree. This would be his next-to-last prominent leading role in a major motion picture.

Wilder’s chosen cast is delightful and they all do a magnificent job in their roles. Marthe Keller was wonderful as Fedora and gave much insight into the workings of the film on the Blu-ray commentary. Apparently, her Swiss accent and Hildegard Knaf’s German accent were so thick that they needed to be dubbed in the final cut, a modification that was not at all readily noticeable. The real gem of the picture was José Ferrer, almost unrecognisable from his earlier Hollywood days. Michael York and Henry Fonda both appear as themselves, York’s role being more prominent as the object of Fedora’s affections whereas Fonda’s role was more of a cameo.

 

Final Thoughts: A nod to Mr. Wilder

Billy Wilder directing on the set of ‘Fedora’.

Even before he started working on Fedora, Wilder’s popularity had taken a nosedive. Beginning with his 1970 The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, he started receiving mixed critical acclaim and less than stellar box-office performances. The studios were getting nervous and even Wilder was starting to doubt himself, feeling the weight of the stereotypes that had been attached to him and his work over the years. His work became more sporadic and after Sherlock Holmes, would make only four other pictures. One of those films was Avanti!, a European-based and distributed film that was sort of a predecessor to Fedora in getting Wilder used to working with international crews and film companies. Before watching Fedora, I was actually expecting it to be somewhat like Avanti! but it turned out to be an entirely different type of film. At the end of his career, the modern world was turning their back on this living legend, no longer interested in his style.

The last film that Wilder did was 1981’s Buddy Buddy for MGM but it proved to be a disaster, hurting him profoundly that his career had to end on such an unflattering note. He kept working for years afterwards but he would never make another picture. Gerry Fisher, a cinematographer who worked with Wilder on several pictures, explained it best:

(There was) disappointment in Billy Wilder’s mind to the way audiences had changed their allegiance to his kind of storytelling. (He was) slightly disappointed that people had changed.”

When I first started writing about Fedora, I thought that it would be a straight review type article like so many others that I have done. However, watching the film and learning more about the filming experience touched me deeply. I also happened to watch a very nice documentary recorded in 1982 in which Wilder is very candid, talking about his own cinematic influences and other anecdotes. It made me realise that Fedora is much more than a film and a supposed “sequel” to Sunset Boulevard –– it is a piece of Wilder’s heart and soul, all the while being a fitting tribute to his own career. Long live the memory of this wonderful man and may his films never be forgotten.