Fedora (1978)

Directed by Billy Wilder

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Everything about Billy Wilder’s Fedora feels out of time and place.  The story takes place in an isolated European estate, inhabited by characters with deliberately hidden agendas.  Our hero, Dutch, is played by William Holden, two decades older than we’re used to seeing him in his most well-known films (Sunset BoulevardThe Bridge on the River Kwai), and he’s the one chasing down an even older performer, the legendary Fedora (Marthe Keller).

The story is old-fashioned in construction, with moments that strain plausibility by 1978’s (and today’s) standards but which feel in line with cinematic character motivations of the 1940s.  Beyond that, the film bears a striking resemblance to Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950), a story in which another William Holden character found himself in the company of an actress thirty or more years past the golden age of her career.

In Sunset Boulevard, Norma Desmond was a silent movie star out of touch with the present state of Hollywood.  When writer Joe Gillis (Holden) fell into her lap, she made him write a script for her triumphant return into the spotlight.  The film begins and ends with Gillis’ death and in the middle relies on his narration to explain to us Norma’s psyche and the events which got him killed.

Fedora similarly begins with a death, this time Fedora’s, which much of the rest of the film works up to.  Dutch visits her memorial and then narrates his journey out from Hollywood, hoping to convince Fedora to re-enter the spotlight and star in a film he wants to produce.

Norma’s heyday was the time of Sunset Boulevard.  While Norma hid way up there in her castle estate, Fedora would have been soaking up the spotlight.  But this being 1978, Fedora has now similarly aged out of an industry that prizes youth and a superficial, physical and temporary beauty.

More or less these are the same stories, and William Holden is there to guide us along the way.  The only difference is that Holden and Billy Wilder, like Norma Desmond and now Fedora, had aged out right along with them.  Fedora would be released only three years before Holden’s death, the 69th of his 75 IMDB acting credits, and the film would be the second to last of Wilder’s career.

You can feel all that time and age that went into this film.  You don’t just see it on Holden’s face or in the improbable monologue Fedora gives to Dutch, explaining the entire mystery sustained over the first hour of the film.  You see it as well in a certain cynicism that permeates the story as a whole.  When Holden decries modern Hollywood, the types of Spielbergs, Coppolas, Scorseses and Friedkins, it’s not hard to imagine Wilder saying those same things.

“It’s a whole different business now. The kids with beards have taken over. They don’t need scripts, just give ’em a hand-held camera with a zoom lens.”

I really enjoyed this film and its inherent silliness.  Part of the problem, for those who don’t like it, might be that the silliness was an unintended byproduct of Wilder’s age.  He makes a film that would feel conventional for the 1940s, but 30+ years later it comes across like your grandfather complaining to you about millennials through a series of pager messages.

Who is Wilder’s message directed at?  If he’s preaching to the choir, to the people who grew up on his films, then they surely already agree with him.  Damn the beards, the hippies, the Easy Riders and Hal Ashbys.  Where are the movie stars, all proper and sophisticated?

If he’s trying to communicate this point of view to a younger audience, then the point would have trouble landing considering the type of story is hard to take seriously for people coming of age during the 60s and 70s, when conventional forms of storytellings likely felt hacky and old-fashioned.

So whatever Billy Wilder set out to do, I doubt he had much success doing it.

That being said, Fedora is an interesting piece of film anthropology.  It’s made with purpose, some delusion and a grand sense of time felt just as strongly by its own characters.  It’s filled with a kind of existential doom similarly expressed by other generations trying to comprehend the younger ones.  While Dutch complains of the American New Wave filmmakers (who so many now hold in very high regard), he mirrors the people now who complain about CGI, the rise of digital filmmaking and the slow death of theater-going experiences due to the rise of online streaming.  This isn’t to say that any of these fears are invalid, just that they will always be there.

If Sunset Boulevard was made with any kind of youthful cynicism, maybe Fedora is a sign of empathy, Wilder demonstrating that he finally understands what Norma Desmond was up against.

I love that old film, and I kind of love this one too.  It’s juicy in its own way, fun to think about and informative when you take into account Wilder’s career as a whole.  Many filmmakers start to consider the state of things late in life and in their career.  Andrei Tarkovsky and John Huston both made their final films the years of their respective deaths.  Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice and Huston’s The Dead seemed to anticipate the ends of their lives as both films were lathered in symbolic mortality.  They felt like soft prayers uttered before the light went out.  Huston’s was serene while Tarkovsky’s felt more weighed down with a young person’s existential dread.  Maybe that’s because Huston died at 81, and Tarkovsky was only 54.

Fedora has none of the concerns with mortality that those films were built on.  If those other filmmakers anticipated their death, Wilder, with Fedora, was resisting it.  I’m sure this is looking too deep into a film that, when you take a step back, remains quite silly and delightfully absurd.  There is humor to Fedora, but it seems quite tampered by an earnest defiance.  At the same time the film, like Sunset Boulevard, acknowledges a performer’s (and thus a director’s as well) mortality.  Fedora, like Norma, is fighting a losing battle.  As the mysteries unfold, we come to regard Fedora as a much more troubled figure than we already suspected.

Dutch, once so stubborn in his desire to bring Fedora back to the states, accepts that his dream is dead.  He begins as one of those tireless Jimmy McGill/Saul Goodman types, and somewhere in the middle of Fedora’s long monologue he gives up.  He recognizes a horror in her life story, but if anything these new revelations just seem to broaden his perspective.  Life is more important than the movie he wants to produce.  By the end of the film, the guy who couldn’t take no for an answer finally does, and we’re happy to see it happen.

The film offers a resolution that exists solely within the confines of this story.  Maybe that’s why it’s a waste of time to make a broader point about Wilder and his career through one picture.  When Dutch walks away, the story is over, but that doesn’t mean Wilder thought the same about his career.

Fedora was released in 1978, 24 years before Wilder’s death.  While so much time passed, it didn’t mean he was done working.  As Wilder once said, “I was retired but I didn’t know it.”

Up Next: The Iron Giant (1999), Something Wild (1986), Parenthood (1989)

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