Jazz, film, and improvised culture.
Billy Wilder’s Rakish Fedora
turns out Norma Desmond was right. By 1978 the pictures had gotten small. One
reclusive actress could make them big again, if only she were willing. One scuffling
independent producer thinks he has the perfect comeback vehicle for her, but he
will have to get past her suspiciously protective entourage in Billy Wilder’s
newly restored Fedora (trailer here), which opens this
Friday at Film Forum.
Desmond, the uni-named Fedora appears truly ageless. Part of the credit must go
to Dr. Vando, her personal physician, but he is just as controlling as the rest
of her gatekeepers. Fedora is staying at Countess Sobryanski’s villa on the
Greek Isle of Corfu, where access is strictly limited. Even though she has
rebuffed Hollywood’s overtures for years, Barry “Dutch” Detweiler has come on
borrowed money, script-in-hand, hoping to entice her with his modern day remake
of Anna Karenina. Since the film
starts in media res at Fedora’s funeral, it is safe to assume the trip will not
be a success. In fact, Fedora will dispatch herself in the manner of Tolstoy’s
heroine. Of course, there will be a decidedly thorny explanation for her actions.
we learn in flashbacks, Detweiler has a personal reason to believe Fedora might
consider his offer. They once had a fling when she was at the height of her
stardom and he was a very junior but very popular production assistant. There will
be many more deep dark secrets from the past that Wilder and his celebrated
screenwriting partner I.A.L. Diamond clearly enjoyed teasing out.
a sort of thematic sequel to Sunset
Boulevard, starring William Holden as Detweiler, Fedora ought to be beloved or reviled, yet it has been largely
overlooked during the succeeding years instead. Frankly, that is rather
baffling, because their dialogue is as snappy as ever and their take on the
late 1970s business of moviemaking is drily mordant. There are obvious
parallels with Boulevard, but they
dress it up with the scandalous trappings of the Harold Robbins novels then in vogue (sex, drug
addiction, children secretly born out of wedlock).
Wilder was still Wilder, so he could secure some really big stars to appear as
themselves. Henry Fonda cranks his likability up to superhuman levels to play
himself as the president of the Academy, specially delivering Fedora’s honorary
Oscar two years before he was awarded his own. On the flipside, Michael York is
quite the good sport appearing as a shallow, clueless Michael York.
proves he can still masterfully handle Wilder’s adult banter, but there is also
something poignant about Detweiler’s mounting desperation and nostalgia for the
good old days. Even in his final years, he was a true movie star. Marthe Keller
is also quite compelling in the title role, which turns out to be quite the
complicated part, for reasons that would be spoilery to explain. Likewise, it
is great fun to watch José Ferrer’s Vando swill his liquor and chew his
is alternatively lurid and campy—all the best films about Hollywood are, at
least to some extent. More importantly, it has the wit and the attitude you
would hope for. Not exactly a masterwork and certainly not a masterpiece, Fedora is really just a ripping good
exercise in storytelling. Highly recommended for fans of classic movies and the
people who made them, Billy Wilder’s Fedora
opens this Friday (9/5) at New York’s Film Forum.
Labels: Billy Wilder, William Holden