Videophiled Classic: ‘Fedora’ – Billy Wilder’s memorial for old Hollywood

Fedora (Olive, Blu-ray, DVD) opens with a moment right out of Anna Karenina: a woman throws herself in front of an oncoming train, a steam engine puffing out white clouds against the night sky. A grand, glorious, powerfully melodramatic suicide right out of a glamorous tragic Hollywood romance. It’s a fitting in many ways, but especially because the woman, a reclusive Greta Garbo-esque Hollywood legend by the name of Fedora, has just been offered the lead in a new screen version of the Tolstoy classic, a comeback opportunity that her watchers—a gargoyle-ish group reminiscent of the waxworks that kept company with Norma Desmond in Sunset Blvd.—turn down for her. So this actress appropriates the role for her exit. It turns out she’s all about role playing, to the point that she no longer can tell the difference between who she is and who she plays.

The penultimate film from Billy Wilder and a more fitting wrap to his career than his final feature Buddy, Buddy, Fedora (1978) recalls and plays off of Sunset Blvd. in numerous ways, from the premise of a retired Hollywood legend living in self-imposed exile (here it is in an isolated villa in Corfu) to William Holden in the lead, playing an out-of-fashion Hollywood producer named Barry ‘Dutch’ Detweiler, a former assistant director who worked his way through the ranks (and who could be Joe Gillis in 25 years had he survived his first brush with a Hollywood legend). He tracks Fedora (Marthe Keller), who walked off the set of her last film 15 years before and never returned, to an island villa owned by the aging Countess Fedora Sobryanski (Hildegard Knef). She looks like she hasn’t aged since the forties, which is attributed to the controversial work of once-famous plastic surgeon Doctor Vando (José Ferrer), who is now in his own kind of exile thanks to controversial treatments and scandalous failures, but she’s also paranoid and fragile. The villa could be an asylum or a fairy tale prison and the “companions” either her tough-love caretakers or jailers. In fact, appearances are deceiving in every way, and as Barry attempts to get his new script to the retired actress (with whom he had a brief fling back in his Hollywood apprenticeship), he discovers the truth behind the legend of the Fedora and her sudden disappearance years before.

William Holden and Marthe Keller

Made at the end of a rich Hollywood career of over forty years, Fedora is many ways Wilder’s tribute to the art of classic moviemaking in the new Hollywood and to the nature of stardom and the sacrifices made to the altar of youth and success. The film has the gauzy look of an old Hollywood romance, with sun-washed light diffused through the space created a warm surface but a cool remove from the scene, and a lush, old-fashioned score by Miklos Rosza, which gives it the quality of a classic movie drama out of time in the 1970s. Its aging characters seem trapped in their memories of the past and build walls to keep the modern world out. When Holden remarks, “The kids with beards run it now. They don’t need a script. Just give them a camera with a zoom lens,” he seems to be speaking for Wilder himself, a filmmaker struggling to tell his kinds of stories in the film culture of the late-1970s. But it is ultimately a tragic story of youth and fame and identity in the culture of celebrity and what happens when you start to believe the fantasy behind the real person. What was caustic and bitter and played for high melodrama and twisted psychology back in Sunset Blvd. is now just sad and filled with loss and regret, an unintended victimization of an innocent trapped in the Hollywood fantasy without the survival skills to hold back the pressure. Wilder doesn’t press the guilty verdict but it hangs there, a shadow over the vampires who may not have intended to drain their victim dry but nonetheless have.

The English-language film is actually an international production, produced by the German studio Bavarian Atelier (who also made a handful of significant Fassbinder films and Robert Aldrich’s Twilight’s Last Gleaming, which was released by Olive a couple of years ago) and shot in Europe, at Bavarian studios outside of Munich and on location in France and Greece. It’s been restored in 2K from the original camera negative by Bavaria Media, which is basis of this release. There’s an old-Hollywood softness, the gauze-over-the-lens look, which mutes the colors and gives the film a yesteryear look. To my eyes the diffuse image looks overly grainy and washed out at the beginning and end of the film (which may be a problem with the materials, an imbalance in the mastering the film grain in such circumstances, or simply my own bias at an accurate preservation) but otherwise looks fine (if never spectacular) throughout. No supplements.

Images from the DVD Beaver review

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William Holden

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