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 here...so see the film if you can!
|How old IS Fedora?|