Old Hat

09.03.14

Billy Wilder, Fedora, 1978, 35 mm, color, sound, 114 minutes.


RARELY SCREENED, Billy Wilder’s penultimate film, Fedora (1978), may be a wan companion to one of his most celebrated, Sunset Boulevard (1950). But several of its tawdry observations about stardom and vanity give it a kicky kind of sordidness, suggesting a squarer version of Hollywood Babylon, republished just three years before Fedora’s release.

Cowriting with his longtime collaborator I. A. L. Diamond, Wilder adapted Fedora from onetime actor Thomas Tryon’s 1976 novella of the same name. Just as in Sunset Boulevard, Fedora begins with a death: The mononymous screen legend of the title (played by Marthe Keller) has committed suicide at the age of sixty-seven, throwing herself in front of a train in a suburb of Paris. Among the throngs paying their respects at Fedora’s lavish open-casket ceremony is Barry “Dutch” Detweiler (William Holden, who played opposite Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard and also starred in two other Wilder films from the 1950s, Stalag 17 and Sabrina). A cash-strapped independent producer who had a one-night stand with the diva back in 1947 (when she was the leading lady and he the second assistant director of Leda and the Swan), Dutch recounts how he had sought out, a mere two weeks before her death, the long-reclusive actress at a villa in Corfu. During this extended flashback (a narrative strategy that also shapes much of Sunset Boulevard), Fedora is revealed to be the virtual prisoner of a bizarre team of handlers that includes the wheelchair-bound Countess Sobryanski (Hildegard Knef) and the hypo-wielding plastic surgeon Doctor Vando (José Ferrer).

Dutch had come to the Greek isle to offer Fedora a comeback vehicle modeled on Anna Karenina—a proposition that is unfortunately accompanied by the producer’s geezerish whinging: “It’s a whole other business now. The kids with beards have taken over.” (By sheer coincidence, one of the many films-within-a-film featured in Fedora is called The Last Waltz, which shares a title with the Band concert documentary directed by Martin Scorsese—perhaps New Hollywood’s most impressively bearded auteur at the time—that was released the same year as Wilder’s movie.) The carping isn’t confined solely to Dutch; even the Countess laments, “People are tired of what passes for entertainment these days—cinema vérité, the naked truth, the uglier the better.” Yet, unlike the grandiose pronouncements of Sunset Boulevard’s deranged silent-movie queen Norma Desmond (“We didn’t need dialogue. We had faces!”), these grumblings are proffered as dolefully accurate assessments of the film industry, in perpetual decline ever since the collapse of the studio system.

This wearying nostalgia for golden-age moviemaking aside, Fedora exposes, through a major plot twist I won’t give away, the offscreen pathologies that constitute the nightmares of the dream factory. These include Fedora’s antiaging regimen—an elixir consisting of “sheep embryos and baboon semen”—and even more extreme efforts to remain young. Fedora’s most outrageous feint reminded me of an especially ignominious incident in Joan Crawford’s career that occurred in October 1968, when the actress, then in her early sixties, subbed for her ailing daughter Christina, who was playing a twentysomething character in the CBS soap opera The Secret Storm, without her knowledge. This unhinged event is dramatized in the ghoulish Crawford biopic Mommie Dearest (1981), a film that, with its similar focus on monstrous celebrity dissembling and disguising, would make an excellent double bill with Fedora.

Melissa Anderson

Fedora plays in a new DCP restoration at Film Forum in New York September 5–11.