At 72 years old, the venerated Hollywood director Billy Wilder had a much higher proportion of yesterdays than he had tomorrows. He was intent on spending those few remaining tomorrows doing what he loved: making movies. Retirement was, quite simply, not an option. While he was in relatively good health, his advanced age meant that any project he took on could theoretically be his last. This meant that whatever he took on, it had to be good. In recent years, he hadn’t quite cut the mustard in that regard– his latest output consisted of a string of flawed misfires that came across as increasingly craggy in the context of a youth-oriented Hollywood. In developing his follow up to 1974’s THE FRONT PAGE, Wilder leaned in to the fact that he was a piece of living history,fashioning a new story that evoked his former glory. Working once again with his writing partner I.A.L. Diamond, Wilder adapted a novella by author Tom Tyron titled “Crowned Heads” under the title FEDORA, sculpting it as a companion piece to his 1950 milestone, SUNSET BOULEVARD. Both projects dealt with the mystery surrounding a reclusive, aging actress, but times had changed since Wilder’s earlier masterpiece. Navel-gazing films about the Hollywood industry weren’t doing well in the late-70’s box office, and given the disappointing performance of Wilder’s last few films, Universal executives weren’t exactly tripping over themselves to offer the legendary director his usual deal when he came to them with FEDORA. Instead, they put his script into turnaround, casting a pall over the project that no other studio in town would touch. No longer would his clout as one of the best filmmakers in history be enough to guarantee a greenlight– he’d have to earn it like everyone else. In the end, it was but by the grace of German investors that Wilder was finally able to start production (2). This development marked a profound turning point in Wilder’s career, signifying nothing less than the beginning of the end.
Throughout his long and storied career, Wilder alternated between homegrown portraits of his adopted American homeland and romantically-styled travelogues of European destinations. FEDORA is the last of the latter, set on a picturesque Greek island. One of Wilder’s marquee leading men, William Holden, returns to the director’s fold after a long absence as Dutch Detweiler, a middle-aged independent producer who’s made the long journey to convince the titular Fedora– a glamorous and reclusive film star– to mount a comeback in his new picture. Holden’s final performance for Wilder is full of melancholy grit, burdened by a bittersweet nostalgia. Marthe Keller plays the titular Fedora, a paranoid and eccentric shut-in who hides her fading beauty (as well as her true identity) behind a giant pair of opaque sunglasses. Her delusion and paranoia echoes SUNSET BOULEVARD’s Gloria Swanson, confounding Detweiler’s quest at every turn while drawing him ever deeper into her own compelling mystery. Henry Fonda also appears in a cameo as himself, keeping in line with FEDORA’s portrait of the Hollywood industry by gifting Fedora with a long- overdue honorary Oscar.
Wilder recruits Gerry Fisher as FEDORA’s cinematographer, who lenses the 35mm film picture in color on a 1.85:1 canvas. Wilder’s approach to cinematography was much more evocative in his black and white days, but somehow it didn’t quite translate as well to his color pictures. FEDORA’s exterior scenes are overexposed, imbuing the film with a harsh, blinding sunlight that washes out his color palette. While Wilder’s preference for minimal coverage is largely intact, there is a distinct lack of inspiration in FEDORA’s visual approach, utilizing classical camera moves and zooms in a manner that adds little in the way of kinetic energy. Just as Holden returns for one last round with Wilder, so too do two key technical collaborators from the director’s prime deliver their final commissions for him: production designer Alexandre Trauner and composer Miklos Rozsa, whose mysteriously romantic score is complemented by the local flavor of Greek folk music and Jean Sebelius’ eerie classical work, “Valse Triste”, during a centerpiece funeral scene.
With FEDORA, Wilder takes great pains to echo the key narrative beats of SUNSET BOULEVARD, beginning in media res with the death of a main character and Holden’s gravelly narration setting the scene. However, FEDORA’s tepid imitation of its predecessor only underscores its supremacy, and illustrates how far Wilder’s potency has withered in the decades since. That’s not to say that his signature is absent from FEDORA entirely– his fondness for European culture (and Paris specifically) is highly prominent, as is his desire to retain his cultural edge in the face of a rapidly-liberalizing society. As the sexual revolution gave way to the Free Love era and beyond, Wilder had to forsake his signature mischievousness and titillating taste in favor of increasingly crude gestures like blunt profanity, nudity, and misguided jabs at homosexuality. Indeed, FEDORA’s few flashes of classic Wilder wit comes when he’s lambasting the act censorship itself.
In her review for the New York Times, critic Janet Maslin described FEDORA as having “the resonance of an epitaph”. Indeed, a funereal air hangs heavy over the film, the product of a filmmaker who is grappling with his legacy as his career nears its end– even the script that Detweiler is trying to get in front of Fedora is titled “The Snows of Yesteryear”. Unfortunately, FEDORA would not be greeted with the same kind of praise that enshrined SUNSET BOULEVARD as one of the greatest films ever made. The film premiered at Cannes as the culmination of a retrospective on his life’s work, only to be hampered by mixed critical reviews that admired Wilder’s intent and introspectiveness rather than the actual film itself. United Artists picked up the film after it was dropped by its original distributor following a disastrous charity screening (3), and was given a limited release in select American and European markets with a meager marketing budget– virtually ensuring that the film would bomb (1). This strategy no doubt doomed FEDORA to failure, but it arguably would have floundered on its own merits, given how much time it devotes to attacking Hollywood’s obsession with youth culture. While it’s a profoundly flawed film that lives in the shadow of the monumental SUNSET BOULEVARD, FEDORA nonetheless shows Wilder’s desire to end his career on the level of his mid-century masterpieces. His desire for greatness is visibly palpable on the screen, but his swan song is ultimately compromised by both his diminished reach and the eagerness of Hollywood to relegate him to the annals of cinematic history.
FEDORA is currently available on high definition Blu Ray via Olive Films.
Produced by: Billy Wilder
Written by: Billy Wilder, I.A.L. Diamond
Director of Photography: Gerry Fisher
Production Designer: Alexandre Trauner
Edited by: Stefan Arnsten, Fredric Steinkamp
Music by: Miklos Rozsa
- IMDB Trivia page
- Via Wikipedia: Sikov, Ed, On Sunset Boulevard: The Life and Times of Billy Wilder. New York, New York: Hyperion 1998. ISBN 0-7868-6194-0, pp. 551–53
- Via Wikipedia: Sikov, Ed, On Sunset Boulevard: The Life and Times of Billy Wilder. New York, New York: Hyperion 1998. ISBN 0-7868-6194-0, pp. 560-61