Secrets, lies and an old love…
An independent film producer visits a reclusive actress who he hopes to bring out of early retirement for an Anna Karenina remake.
FEDORA (Masters of Cinema) Dual Format Trailer, Eureka Entertainment
I recently read Billy Wilder: Dancing on the Edge (2021), a biography about the director of films such as The Apartment (1960) and Some Like It Hot (1959). After I read this sterling account of the man and his movies, I was keen to watch Wilder’s penultimate movie, Fedora (1978). Wilder’s film is a thinly veiled farewell love letter to his years as a director in Golden Hollywood and to the glamour of sweeping film epics. It’s his disparaging nod to the new “bearded kid” directors of the New Hollywood movies, that had replaced these films.
So it’s not a surprise to learn that Wilder made this film at the tail end of his career when his films and their directorial styles were seen as out of date. This film screenplay echoes his then thoughts on the then emerging Hollywood system in satire. His thoughts are reflected visually in his on-screen storytelling with many scenes reflecting Hollywood behind the scenes from a number of eras as befitting the then plot.
Interestingly Fedora was also the final of his four collaborations with actor, William Holden star of his films Sunset Blvd. (1951), Stalag 17 (1953) and Sabrina (1954). Wilder had not wanted Holden in this role, and it is reported that he disliked the idea of this film compared with Sunset Blvd which also reflected his thoughts on the film industry. Many critics believe Fedora is a companion piece to this Billy Wilder/ William Holden film.
Many of the themes and motifs of both these films – as seen in a flashback as this story is told from the perspective of a leading character (played by William Holden) – such as a fading celebrity, the end of a film era and an actress’ hope of clinging onto a once-famous past. And these you will discover are not the only themes conveyed in both films.
Fedora also reminded me of The Twilight Zone (1959) episode, The Sixteen Millimeter Shrine S1 Ep4 which starred Ida Lupino. This episode had Lupino as a vain, once famous and now reclusive actress who hopes for her film comeback, in a role similar to those she had in her heyday. She is horrified when she is visited by a one-time leading man of hers, who she feels has aged considerably and this then leads to a movie style twist of an ending.
In both Fedora and this Twilight Zone episode, the reclusive older actress – becomes concerned about her on-screen parts, after she loses her looks through natural ageing. She then pays great tragic and personal costs to keep her youthful on-screen presence and audience. These are seen to affect those others in her life, particularly in Fedora.
For this film, Wilder was reunited with his often screenwriter Iz A L Diamond. The script is expanded from the story within the anthology novella, Crowned Heads and this was written by Tom Tryon, a one time actor. Also like Sunset Boulevard, there are actors who play fictional versions of themselves in this movie, with Henry Fonda (in the same year he made a cameo in The Swarm (1978)). The other actor, Michael York has a pivotal role in the events. It’s unclear if his name was deliberately or accidentally misspelt for the cast credits.
The film starts with a flashback as a cloaked woman – known as Fedora – is seen jumping in front of a steam train, as someone calls her name. Fedora dies immediately, and the world believes it to be a suicide. As a newscaster (Arlene Francis) reports on the television of the untimely death of Fedora, her movie parts are listed. It’s noted that the movie legend became a recluse before her death. Fedora was believed to be between 60 and 70 years old.
It seems this renowned ageless beauty was a Hollywood actress for forty years, and she never lost her looks. At a time she was at her most famous, she inexplicably withdrew from Hollywood life and then lived as a recluse on a private Greek island. She lived there with three others and these cohabitees’ identities again added to the mystery.
A middle aged and craggy looking Independent film producer, “Dutch” Detweiler (William Holden) attends Fedora’s funeral in Paris. He – and Holden – is the narrator of this film, and just one of her many fans, television news reporters and the Press who visit her open coffin to pay their respects. There is an orchestra playing, a ton of flowers and a condolence book.
This producer notices this reclusive actress’ live-in companions, the elderly Polish Countess Sobryanski (Hildegard Knef), her long time servant (and nurse) Miss Balfour (Frances Sternhagen), the Countess’s son and a doctor, Dr Vando (José Ferrer). Like vultures, they observe those mourners from the VIP seats. Detweiler is angry as he looks up and sees these “bastards” at Fedora’s funeral. He believes this funeral feels more like a “goddamn premiere”. He wonders if Fedora would have lived had he not visited her, two weeks previously.
We then flashback to this time, as Detweiler visits Corfu by plane. He is on a quest to sign up his one-time lover, the actress, Fedora (Martha Keller) for a remake of Anna Karenina. He’s borrowed the money to get there from an ex-wife but desperate times, mean desperate methods. After phoning Fedora’s home, Miss Balfour lies and tells him that Fedora is not there and he’s told to try calling her at her home in Paris.
The always helpful Greek hotel manager claims to have seen her just two weeks previously. He tells Detweiler that if he wants to visit her home that his brother in law, has a boat. On visiting her private island, Detweiler is not deterred by the guard dogs at the front gate. After trying the back entrance Detweiler then sees Fedora from afar wearing a big floppy 70s hat, shades and gloves, despite the heat. She hasn’t changed in looks since he last saw her.
Fedora is fighting with an older woman, the enigmatic Countess Sobryanski. Sobryanski is frail, veiled and uses a wheelchair. The countess seems to call the shots in their relationship. We learn through this argument that this older woman owns the house that Fedora is now living in. Detweiler tries again to visit Fedora – after his telegram to her is returned to him – however, this time Dr Vando tells him she is not there. Fedora watches his side of the conversation from an upper floor.
Detweiler spots Fedora’s Rolls Royce in Corfu. He takes pursuit of her chauffeur-driven car. Fedora gives the chauffeur the slip as they stop at an indoor market. Detweiler’s confused when he catches up with Fedora in a shop as he learns that she’s strapped for cash. She also doesn’t recognise him from their shared past. She tells Detweiler that she is unhappy and friendless. She believes that her live-in companions are keeping things from her, and states she never got the script he sent her.
Detweiler then remembers – in a flashback from this flashback – working with Fedora in 1947 on the set of Leda and the Swan. He met her as he worked on set as a former assistant director. (In this flashback, Detweiler is played here by Stephen Collins and Fedora again, is Marthe Keller.) Detweiler helpfully covers her breasts up using water lily leaves to avoid censorship for a pool scene. He later talks with her in her dressing room. After some flirting, the two spend the night together on the beach.
Then it’s back to Corfu – for the flashback before this flashback – as Detweiler decides against sending a letter to Fedora. He approaches and charms Doctor Vando in the hotel bar, and asks him to give his script to Fedora. He tells Vando his concerns about Fedora’s life. Vando tells him he is now exclusively Fedora’s plastic surgeon after his practice stopped after he was branded a charlatan and that she’s 67.
Detweiler again tries to visit the actress but then meets the elderly Polish Countess Sobryanski and her servant and nurse / assistant Miss Balfour. These women don’t think that Fedora should be in his film production and believe she won’t be interested in this script. The Countess pays him back the money Fedora borrowed from him. However after Fedora joins them, she has an angry outburst, and these people placate her by manhandling her out of the room. Detweiler is now concerned for the actress’ welfare and well being.
Fedora visits Detweiler in his hotel room, and she believes the worst about her live-in companions. She tells Detweiler she is being kept captive on the island against her will. She is desperate to sell some letters to her from the then rich and famous and that her three companions are keeping her as a prisoner.
Vando appears with a drug filled syringe and tells Detweiler he has to medicate her, he claims that she’s paranoid and has a mental health problem. Detweiler observes him and Miss Balfour wrestle with the actress outside, as they try to put a straight jacket on her. She lets out a bloodcurdling scream as she is taken back to this island…
This film falls into two distinct parts, one sets up the mystery and the other half in more flashbacks explains this mystery and in doing this tells Fedora’s story. This film’s content and themes appear like a reflection of Billy Wilder’s thoughts and events happening to him at this time. The leading character Detweiler, an independent producer of approximately Wilder’s age is trying to make a comeback. The bearded New Hollywood directors are now making their films, and Detweiler wants to make an old fashioned movie with a one-time big star. He can’t get the funding…
These events all eerily reflected Wilder’s troubles off-screen while making this film, at the cusp of New Hollywood, his then difficulties in funding his films finally getting money from European funders, and on appearances, it seems by casting his now ageing star, William Holden.
As for the plot, the mystery and its revelations are interlinked, so many spoilers follow… Fedora is an eerie tale of the grotesque lengths that Fedora went to preserve her beauty as seen on-screen. Subtle hints to this obsession and hints to her story can be seen throughout the film, such as the lack of mirrors at her home, a veiled Countess, books with Fedora’s signature saying I am Fedora repeatedly, drawers full of white gloves and the wall strewn with pictures of Michael York in his many film roles.
These add up to a startling revelation and are embellished with even more digs at the then Hollywood system, in this twist which is now revealed… the actress Fedora – that met Detweiler – was replaced on screen by her daughter, Antonia. Antonia was born and brought up in secret. Antonia then replaced her mother off-screen and on-screen, unbeknownst to the world and Hollywood. The real Fedora – who recognises Detweiler – is the Countess.
As she grew older, Antonia had a startling resemblance to her mother. Antonia then replaced her mother on screen after Fedora had botched plastic surgery (at the hands of the “charlatan”, Dr Vando), in an attempt to retain her youthful looks and then needed a wheelchair after having a stroke.
Fedora’s devious plan came into fruition after the Academy in Hollywood planned to give Fedora a Lifetime Achievement Oscar. The Academy dispatched actor Henry Fonda – playing himself as President of the Academy – to visit Fedora. He gave to Antonia – donning shades, a floppy hat and gloves to disguise her youth – who masqueraded as her mother. Fonda, the Press and the world were fooled. With this charade a triumphant success, Antonia is now transformed into her mother through plastic surgery, dyed hair etc.
Then “Fedora” returned to Hollywood and to movies. Her daughter then as Fedora was forced by her mother to “retire” from Hollywood and lived as a recluse. This was after Antonia fell in love with the actor Michael York on set. Antonia wanted to tell him the truth… and her mother and then companions wanted her silenced. Other tragic events – which you will see watching the film – led to Antonia’s suicide, and the death of “Fedora”.
I believe that this daughter to mother switch is similar to an old original film being replaced by a new retake of a movie. This is now seen in the endless remakes, reboots and children of actors and actresses replacing those much-loved original films and appearances on the big and wee screen. This turnover seems never-ending, and so Tryon’s plot is more presciently eerie as it seems this plot foreshadowed the future.
Actor, Henry Fonda – in some now ironic casting – also mirrors this theme as the then elderly actor had in the past made traditional Westerns in the old Hollywood style. In the late 1960s and early 70s, he had been replaced by his son Peter’s motorcycle western-themed movies in films such as Easy Rider (1969). Then in time, Peter’s young daughter – and Fonda’s granddaughter – Bridget Fonda then later became an actress in her own right. One can only wonder now, what Wilder the satirist would make of movies now.
Wilder adds affectionate nods to Golden Hollywood movies and to the setting up of censored scenes. The flashback within a flashback recreates a Hedy Lemarr movie, and in a flashback with Michael York for a film The Last Waltz, to those sweeping historical epics. Both these homages showed the changing times in Hollywood and also tribute to Fedora’s forty years career in Hollywood. And it’s a crucial flashback with Michael York, as this actor plays a pivotal role in plot development.
This movie has as much to say then about filmmaking and is still resonant now. This is as Fedora – and Wilder – said goodbye to an Old Hollywood, and then Fedora said goodbye to her baby daughter through a tragic, untimely and unnecessary death. This death was a result of vanity and the unacceptance of growing old by her mother, as many films hoped to cling to Old Hollywood plots and styles but then New Hollywood reigned at the box office.
And in a final twist, The Last Waltz was also a title of a movie released in 1978, as directed by one of the then-new “bearded kids” of Hollywood, Martin Scorsese. These two films have only a title in common. But I’m tipping my hat to this Wilder directed plot, and I’d easily retrace those steps as he leads you on his merry dance of a satire. And now Sunset Boulevard and Mr Wilder, I’m ready for this close-up.
Weeper Rating: 😦😦 😦😦 😦😦😦/10
Handsqueeze Rating: 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 /10
Hulk Rating: 0 /10
The William Holden Blogathon 2022 No 9.
This post was added to The Wonderful World of Cinema, Love Letters to Old Hollywood and Flapper Dame‘s 5th Golden Boy Blogathon: A William Holden Celebration! Other films with this cast include William Holden in SOB, The Bridge on the River Kwai, Omen II and Network. Frances Sternhagen in Outland. José Ferrer in The Concorde … Airport ’79 Fantasy Island, Hotel, The Love Boat and Murder, She Wrote. Stephen Collins in Charlie’s Angels. Michael York in Murder on The Orient Express and The Austin Powers Movies. Henry Fonda in Meteor, The Swarm and On Golden Pond.