Wednesday, February 04, 2015

Hats Off to Billy Wilder's Fedora

Legendary director Billy Wilder’s penultimate film is far from his best, but it’s an absorbing yarn nevertheless, with a neat plot twist and lively (if a bit over-the-top) performances. 

Fedora (1978) concerns a Garbo-like superstar who supernaturally retains her beauty and appeal through five decades, only to die under tragic and mysterious circumstances. Superior to Robert Aldrich’s turgid Hollywood fable Legend of Lylah Clare a decade earlier, and the ho-hum 1976 adaptation of Scott Fitzgerald’s The Last Tycoon, Fedora has so far failed to achieve the cult status of those films, or of the more deserving Day of the Locust.  But if you enjoy the “untold tales of Hollywood” genre and are willing to suspend your disbelief, you’re bound to be entertained and engaged. 

Marthe Keller in the title role

While obviously not in the same league as iconic Wilder classics like Double Indemnity, Sunset Boulevard, Some Like It Hot and The Apartment, Fedora has gotten a bad rap, its reviewers implying that the director was somehow losing his faculties when preparing and filming this picture. I personally find it at least as entertaining as some of Wilder’s lesser efforts of the ’60s and ‘70s, including One, Two, Three, Irma La Douce and Avanti. Wilder directed only one more film after Fedora, the forgettable Jack Lemmon/Walter Matthau comedy Buddy Buddy

William Holden as Barry Detweiller
Perhaps such unfair comparisons are drawn between Wilder’s Fedora and his legendary Sunset Boulevard because both are Hollywood stories of a leading lady as mentally unhinged as Hamlet’s Ophelia…...and the fact that Wilder casts the same leading man in both, a somewhat unfortunate homage now that a haggard William Holden is far from his prime here.

Holden (who won his only Best Actor Oscar for Billy Wilder’s Stalag 17) worked steadily up to his death in 1981, even scoring a huge commercial and artistic success with 1976’s Network, but his continuing struggle with alcoholism had begun to take its toll, and in Fedora he’s not really firing on all cylinders. As Barry Detweiller, a down-on-his-luck producer desperately trying to lure Fedora out of retirement so he can get his film produced, Holden has some good moments, but the heavy lifting of the story is achieved through the efforts of the rest of the ensemble cast. 

Hildegarde Knef as Countess Sobryanski
José Ferrer as Dr. Vando
Frances Sternhagen as Miss Balfour
Stephen Collins plays the young Detweiller in the 1947 Hollywood scenes, when he has a brief fling with the star while assistant director on one of her films. The reliable character actress Frances Sternhagen (Misery, And So it Goes) plays Fedora’s no-nonsense personal secretary. (And amazingly looks the same age today as she did in 1978 when the movie was filmed.) Scene stealer José Ferrer (Cyrano de Bergerac) is gerontologist to the stars Emmanuel Vando, upon whom Fedora depends to maintain her ageless beauty. Hildegarde Knef (The Snows of Kilamanjaro) is the dour, wheelchair-bound Countess Sobryanski, a bitter old crone swathed in black who keeps Fedora firmly under her bony thumb and speaks only in a raspy whisper. Michael York plays himself in a brief cameo, as the catalyst that causes the distraught Fedora to throw herself in front of a train, a la Anna Karenina, and end her stormy life. 

Fedora falls hard for her handsome costar (Michael York)
Marthe Keller is effective as the enigmatic Fedora, once a vibrant superstar and now a schizoid recluse, an amphetamine addict and a virtual prisoner on a private island off Corfu. The Swiss actress had enjoyed quite a Hollywood buildup in recent years, having costarred with Dustin Hoffman in Marathon Man and opposite real-life paramour Al Pacino in Bobby Deerfield, and in the big-budget mid-’70s epic Black Sunday.  After Fedora, she appeared with George C. Scott and Marlon Brando in The Formula, but her career as a leading lady in the States never really took off. But as Fedora, Keller gives a creditable performance in a difficult role, though the film’s failure at the box office obviously didn’t do her career much good. 

Young Detweiller (Stephen Collins) and Fedora
Fedora on the set for the nude swimming scene
Without crossing the line into full-on camp, the film offers a heightened reality, rife with melodramatic moods and situations that stretch credulity against a backdrop of picturesque Corfu and Paris locations, embroidered with touches of dark humor and guignol.  Fedora sleepwalks around the Greek island in picture hats and big Jackie O sunglasses, always wearing a pair of white gloves despite the summery climate. A peevish Countess Sobryanski smashes Fedora’s record player with her heavy black cane when Fedora’s music annoys her. Out of the blue, Henry Fonda, billed as the President of the Academy, appears in Corfu with a Lifetime Achievement Oscar for Fedora in a velvet drawstring pouch. In the flashback scenes, Fedora swims nude in a pool on the Hollywood studio soundstage a la Esther Williams. Later, an out-of-control Fedora is strapped into a straightjacket by her handlers before they throw her into the back of the Countess’s Roll Royce. And so on...

Fedora and her friends
The shrine to Michael York
Mr. Fonda delivers an Oscar to Corfu
The superstar lies in state
The flamboyant production design of scenes where Fedora’s body lies in state are pure Hollywood-style artifice, replete with the staples of funereal showmanship: hundreds of bouquets of roses and a string quartet playing mournful dirges as the public files solemnly past Fedora’s skillfully spotlighted casket--open, of course! (The effect is eerily similar to the outrageous Campbell’s Funeral Home scenes in Ken Russell’s Valentino, made the previous year.) 

Fedora is based on the short story of the same name in Thomas Tryon’s fascinating collection of fictional tales of classic Hollywood, Crowned Heads. Better known as the author of legendary horror novels The Other and Harvest Home, Tom Tryon began his career as a Hollywood actor. Classically handsome, with chiseled features reminiscent of his contemporary John Gavin (indeed, Tryon lost the part of Sam Loomis in Psycho to Gavin), Tryon appeared in films as varied as I Married a Monster from Outer Space to Otto Preminger’s The Cardinal, and played Marilyn Monroe’s hunky fellow castaway in her last unfinished film Something’s Got To Give in 1962. 

Beefcake actor turned best-selling novelist Thomas Tryon

Tryon gave up acting in the late 1960s to become a very successful novelist, his brand of suspense/horror on a par with Stephen King and Ira Levin. Two of his biggest best-sellers were The Other (made into a 1971 film starring Uta Hagen) and Harvest Home (adapted into a 1970s miniseries with Bette Davis and Rosanna Arquette). Each of these stories featured a famously ingenious plot twist or reversal that results in a satisfying jolt for the unsuspecting audience. (And so does Fedora.) 
Deeply in the closet all his life, the bisexual Tryon enjoyed long-term relationships with A Chorus Line original cast member Clive Clerk and with gay porn star Casey Donovan but never publicly admitted his sexuality before his death in 1991 at age 65. 

Though Fedora’s screenplay was written by Wilder and longtime creative partner I.A.L. Diamond, credit for the film’s unique storyline and impressively startling deux ex machina must go solely to original author Tryon...they are what make this lurid and melodramatic film special.  No spoilers will be found see the film if you can!

How old IS Fedora?


William said...

Haven't seen this one since it opened, and I'd like to see it again to see what I think of it now. If I recall correctly, Michael York played himself, and every time he appeared these two guys sitting in front of me would giggle -- they just seemed to find it hilarious that he was playing "Michael York."

As for Stephen Collins -- I don't shock easily but I was shocked by recent revelations of his private life, although I guess he deserves whatever he gets. At the time of "Fedora" he had a very promising career, had those chiseled good looks, wound up in a long-running TV series ...

I had a friend years ago who was a big Marthe Keller fan -- just thought she was the greatest actress in the world. Funny and a little sad how some people just fade out ...

Very nice article on this movie!

angelman66 said...

Hey William - yes, I think this is worth a second look. Your friend is right, Marthe Keller is a damned good actress...apparently in recent years she has been enjoying some success in theater on the stages of Europe...good for her! Michael York does indeed play himself in a one-scene cameo. And the recent news about Stephen Collins came as a shock to me, too.
I hope I have piqued your interest in seeing this one again, I would be fascinated to get your take on it....

William said...

I'll definitely look for it!

Ken Anderson said...

What a treat seeing your post about this film! I saw it way back when it came out and remember thinking it looked so much like it should have been a mini-series or "Special Two-Night Event" movie (which were all the rage then).
I think it had to do with the fact that it was one of the few nostalgia-based films of the time not to use that diffused light and "flashing" effect that makes "Day of the Locust" so blurry on HDTV now, but which I thoroughly associated with period movies of the time.
It zoomed in and out of the theaters so fast, I think I only saw it once. So obviously I'm thrilled as all get out that you have brought our attention back to it and reveal it's on YouTube (I'd batter act fast).
I was one of those in love with Marthe Keller back when she was given the big industry push and I always wondered why they didn't try to shove her in a comedy to see if they could warm up her frosty image.
I think she's a marvelous actress, but in a weird way, i totally get why American audiences never warmed up to her.
And nothing makes me feel older than to think back to a time when Michael York was popular and ubiquitous enough to get away with playing himself as a glamour object in a movie!
Thanks for highlighting this forgotten film, and for pointing me in the direction of rediscovery. Can't wait to see how a movie about aging I saw was barely 21, plays for me now in my dotage!

angelman66 said...

Hi Ken - I hope you do enjoy this upon your next viewing...I am indeed impressed with Marthe Keller...recently watched Marathon Man too, and I understand her appeal, tough she is a bit remote and Teutonic, the opposite of most American female stars of the mid to late 70s...

If you get a chance, also read the story in Tom Tryon's Crowned Heads on which it is based...I actually read it first as a kid before I even knew they made a movie of it. (I discovered this on the late late show some time in the late 1980s)... The film is a little different than the story, but also pure Old Hollywood...There is also a story in the book obviously based upon the murder of Ramon Navarro by gay hustlers....

Thanks for stopping by, Ken!

Ken Anderson said...

Hi Chris (again)
Finally got around to seeing this again. My rapidly-fading memory is usually a point of consternation with me, but in this instance, remembering very little of of this film paid off in that it confirms that the mystery side of the film is as solid as ever.
In fact, the mystery is so compelling you wish it were presented with more visual distinction.
Doesn't the film look like a 70s miniseries more than a feature film?
also, after throwing brickbats at Lucille ball and Mae West for being past their prime, it was interesting to see that the same ageism applies to men.
Holden seems too old for the part. When he goes running after Fedora you really think it's going to be played for laughs...he'd never make it.
I enjoyed it though, love Marthe Keller still, and had you kept the director's identity a secret, I would have said Otto Preminger long before Wilder came to mind.

I read the book"Crowned Heads" way back before I saw the film and remember really liking it (I adored "The Other" as well.
I don't usually like remakes, but I wish someone would remake this. I like the idea of the mystery so much, but even at his most gorgeous, Michael York was never believable as someone who could drive a woman to obsession (a man, perhaps).
Thanks for being the catalyst in my being able to revisit this film again, Chris! Looking forward to your next post!

angelman66 said...

Ken, I totally agree with you, the cinematography or lack thereof of this picture is completely uninspired, despite the great locations, very much like a TV movie. I suspect they shot this film on a quickie TV-like schedule, too.

I LOVE the idea of a remake of this one..the movie falls short of doing justice to Tom Tryon's original story, due to the lackluster elements we've discussed, particularly the miscasting of William Holden.

I must admit, I was as obsessed with Michael York as Fedora was, when I was 11 years old and went and saw Logan's Run 12 times. He was SO DREAMY!

I like The Other, too, but LOVE Tryon's book Harvest Home, and did enjoy the so-so TV adaptation with Bette Davis as the wicked Widow Fortune!

I am delighted you got to see Fedora! Thanks for the "full report", Ken, you delight me!!

jstephens9 said...

I will soon be reading "The Other" and "Harvest Home" after recently discovering Tom Tryon. I'm discovering something new every day it seems. I had no idea that there was a TV adaptation of "Harvest Home". I am also a big fan of Bette Davis and am really enjoy the new TV series "Feud" about Joan Crawford and her. Great show! I am glad to be a new member of your blog Ken!!


angelman66 said...

Hi Jack - thanks for stopping by!
Harvest Home and The Other are awesome horror stories, in my opinion on a par with Ira Levin and Stephen King. Tryon's other genre is legends of old Hollywood: Crowned Heads and All That Glitters are both awesome too.

I too am LOVING Feud with Bette and Joan! It's a winner...