Directed by: Billy Wilder | 116 minutes | drama, romance | Actors: William Holden, Marthe Keller, Hildegard Knef, José Ferrer, Frances Sternhagen, Mario Adorf, Stephen Collins, Henry Fonda, Michael York, Hans Jaray, Gottfried John, Arlene Francis, Jacques Maury, Christine Mueller, Ellen Schwiers, Ferdy Mayne
‘Sunset Boulevard’ (1950), one of Billy Wilder’s best-known and most appreciated films, forms an (unofficial) thematic diptych with the much less well-known ‘Fedora’ (1978). Both films cast a critical eye on Hollywood and stardom, with William Holden playing the male lead in both films. ‘Sunset Boulevard’ revolves around a star from the silent film era played by Gloria Swanson, who doesn’t want to realize that her heyday is far behind her; in ‘Fedora’ we follow a film diva from the studio era of the forties and fifties, who does not want to lose the battle with the youth ideal in Hollywood. Billy Wilder and his faithful writing partner IAL Diamond wrote the story with Marlène Dietrich in mind for the title role and Faye Dunaway for the role of her daughter. But La Dietrich thought the book on which the screenplay was based, written by Tom Tryon, was abominably bad and refused to cooperate. It wasn’t going well for Wilder anyway; his previous film – ‘The Front Page’ (1974) – had flopped and audiences were not particularly enthusiastic about the series of films about classic Hollywood that had recently hit theaters (including ‘Gable and Lombard’, ‘Goodbye , Norma Jean’, WC Fields and Me’ (all from 1976) and ‘Bud and Lou’ (1978)). For that reason, Wilder did not get the film funded by United Artists. Fortunately for him, money came from German investors, so that ‘Fedora’ could still be made.
Fedora (former model Marthe Keller) is one of the biggest movie stars of the century. For twelve years, however, she has been living as a hermit on a tiny and cut off from the outside world off the coast of the Greek Corfu, with a curious and colorful company consisting of the invalid East European countess Sobryanski (Hildegard Knef), doctor Vando (José Ferrer) and housekeeper Mrs. Balfour (Frances Sternhagen). Although she must be old by now, Fedora still looks youthful. As the film begins, we see her throw herself in front of a train. One of the people who comes to pay her last respects during her memorial service is the now aging Hollywood film producer Barry ‘Dutch’ Detweiler (William Holden), with whom Fedora had a one-night stand in a gray past. He reminisces about how he visited Fedora in her barricaded villa two weeks before her unfortunate death, intending to persuade her to star in a movie one more time (a modern version of “Anna Karenina”). It was not easy to speak to her, but in the fleeting conversations the two have, she tells him that she is being held captive by the Countess, Dr. Vando and Mrs. Balfour. When he tries to help her escape from her oppressors, Detweiler is knocked down. He does not wake up until a week later, after which he receives the news of Fedora’s death. During the funeral, he demands clarification from the mysterious trio.
‘Fedora’ is Billy Wilder’s penultimate film, before retiring in 1981 after the moderately received ‘Buddy, Buddy’. That the old master was already a bit past his prime can be seen in ‘Fedora’, which is less sharp and cynical than many of his earlier films. The criticism of the ins and outs of Hollywood, and especially the fixation on eternal youth, is certainly there. “Jean Harlow and Marilyn Monroe got a good look at it,” Fedora says at one point; because of their early death they have eternal youth. The fact that actors have a longer shelf life than actresses is still current; in that respect, this is a quintessential Wilder film, as he has always made films with themes that are universal and timeless. ‘Fedora’ is less contemporary in style, tone and tempo; the film is told fairly classically, at times quite viscous and slow and the striking one-liners that characterize Wilder’s work are there, but in more modest numbers and less vicious. Holden starred not only in ‘Sunset Boulevard’, but also in ‘Stalag 17’ (1953, the film that earned the actor his only Oscar) and ‘Sabrina’ (1954) by Wilder and comes here solid and sympathetic (but a tad naive) for the day. It seems that he barely has to put in the effort to land the role of Barry Detweiler. Keller doesn’t have the look that an iconic movie star should portray; moreover, the mystery that the viewer must unravel with Barry is quite predictable. The company around Fedora is so colorful and eccentric that it becomes unbelievable. In addition, the narrative structure that Wilder uses is illogical and unnecessarily confusing.
With ‘Fedora’ Billy Wilder made a film in which he looks back on the good old days in classic Hollywood with warmth and nostalgia, and on the other with a bitter smile on what has become of that world. Despite a lack of sharpness, a slow pace and the remarkable narrative structure, Wilder manages to hold our attention. This is largely due to veteran William Holden, who, without too much effort, is redoing his legendary role from ‘Sunset Boulevard’.