Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Revisiting Fedora

In preparation for the upcoming class on Billy Wilder, I recently watched a late film of his that I'd long been curious about but had yet to see (primarily because its one of many "forgotten" Hollywood films that never made the transition from VHS to DVD): 1978's Fedora. By the time it came to my attention, old video copies of it were long out of print, and there was never the urgency to track down a copy until now. Fedora intrigued me not only because it was one of his last films, or because it was his last work with frequent collaborator, a perfectly vintage William Holden (who remains one of my all-time favorite actors)--the intrigue was also based on its status as a symbolic sequel/remake of Sunset Boulevard (1950), arguably his most celebrated film.

The similarities between the two Wilder films are indeed unmistakable (and no doubt influenced by some intended ironic impulse, which for me never quite came into focus)--both star Holden as a failed Hollywood player (first screenwriter, now producer) who is forced to deal with an old movie star living in seclusion with her eccentric staff. Both are structured heavily around his not-always-accurate voice-over narration. Both feature cameos by established movie stars playing themselves. Both express open--if underdeveloped--disdain for the industry itself. And both even open with violent deaths which then lead into extended flashbacks explaining what happened. Wilder even spoke about the crossover here in a 1979 interview with The New York Times.

Fedora wasn't literally Wilder's final film. Three years later, he reunited again with Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau (a comedy team he helped create with 1966's The Fortune Cookie) on Buddy, Buddy--a lightweight but generally well-received, and similarly nostalgic, career capstone. Fedora features a cameo by Henry Fonda and makes direct reference to Mister Roberts (1955), which a close viewer will note is also the film which brought Lemmon to Wilder's attention. Yet, despite Buddy, Buddy, Fedora certainly feels symbolically like his final film, both in its stubborn, disorienting adherence to the old formal conventions of Classical Hollywood storytelling--both form and content--in the Post-Classical age, and in its defiant rejection of a changing industry its struggling mightily to understand. Some important spoilers follow.

Fedora is the story of an independent producer (Holden)--on his last creative and financial leg--traveling to a reclusive location in Greece to track down a retired movie star from the classical era named only "Fedora" (a commentary or foreshadowing of the likes of Cher or Madonna, I suppose). The producer's interest is both imminently practical--he has funding for an adaptation of Anna Karenina but only on the condition Fedora stars--and quietly nostalgic--he spent the night with her decades earlier when he was a young production assistant. Fedora lives with a Countess who keeps her locked up in a mansion. Or so it seems. People are struck by how good she looks for her age, but the twist halfway through is that Fedora is actually her daughter, who looks a lot alike, and the old Countess is really the original Fedora. Nobody seems to notice this, even after the "new" Fedora starts appearing in films again.

Part of the story involves an underdeveloped critique of plastic surgery--everyone buys the young Fedora because they think it speaks to the wonders of this "new" innovation, while the real Fedora went into seclusion because a plastic surgery procedure went horribly wrong and permanently scared her face, which she cannot bring herself to reveal to the adoring world. This also leads to a strange subplot involving the real Michael York and the younger Fedora's eventual suicide (ambiguously introduced in the beginning) which seems to exist narratively only to force the revelation of the plot twist. After her death, fans still believe the "real" Fedora has died--thus the Countess sits quietly in the shadows during the public wake, watching admirers who've come to mourn what they think is her death.

From a film critic's standpoint, the movie just doesn't work, even if we read the film with a heavy dose of irony towards the old melodramatic Hollywood conventions, which was no doubt intended. The film has its knowingly satiric moments--in the opening sequence, Holden begins the trademark Wilder first-person voice-over narration, only to be interrupted and pushed aside by another character. The final scene, meanwhile, works beautifully--but as a meta-commentary on Wilder's career achievements and not as a satisfactory resolution to a thoroughly messy plot. The premise stretches credibility, the performances are erratic, the voice dubbing is terrible (Wilder had the same woman record the voice for both mother and daughter, which results in a jarring experience on a number of levels), the larger themes seem confused, and the distant framing of actors (probably motivated by the convoluted plot twist) is frustrating and off-putting. Even the use of Holden and his familiar voice-over feels like little more than a nostalgic throwback to the classical period.

Meanwhile, the humor seems often out-of-place--whether its the obnoxious Greek hotel owner whose entire overdone performance feels lifted from an old screwball comedy, or whether its the trademark zingers directed towards the industry. Consider this one-liner that Holden delivers midway through:

The guys with beards have taken over [the "New" Hollywood]. They don't need a script anymore. Just give them a hand-held camera with a zoom lens . . .
Its a mildly amusing observation and accurate to a point--but if the idea is to mock someone like Robert Altman (who, perhaps aside from the hand-held crack, would seem to fit the description) then it falls pretty flat as an incisive comment on the industry. Not to belabor the point, but Altman was doing far more interesting work in the 1970s and beyond than Wilder was by then. Its one thing to critique the crass commercialism of the emergent blockbuster mentality, but that's not what's going on here. In the end, Fedora feels like an awkward anachronism which painfully foregrounds how out of touch Wilder and Diamond were by the de facto end of their careers. In Fedora, we see a brilliant filmmaker unable to adjust to the times, and, with that, perhaps some better understanding of why he didn't--or couldn't--go on making films (even though Wilder lived another 25 years).

Yet those evaluative comments miss some more interesting historical aspects of the film. The idea that it was originally written for Garbo as a comeback (with whom Wilder was always obsessed) helps its existence make a bit sense. She reportedly turned it down, believing--rightly--that the whole premise was insane. But had she appeared in it, then Fedora's inherent power over audiences, her fear of mortality and the appeal to old Hollywood, would have been more convincing and absorbing to audiences than a movie starring a couple of unknowns who are completely unsympathetic and even deliberately kept at a distance. The result is that we never have an connection, let alone sympathy for her, which is a sharp departure from the delusional, dangerous but nonetheless genuinely sympathetic Norma Desmond.

The weird mix of professional frustration and uncritical nostalgia directed at Hollywood in Fedora is a striking contrast to the unrelenting bitterness of Sunset Boulevard, where the studios do nothing but chew you up and spit you back out. The reversal from the earlier film is telling--in SB, the industry has ungratefully tossed the bitter old movie star aside, whereas in Fedora the industry is still enamored with its old icon, who willingly plays the part of the recluse because she cannot accept her own changes (unlike Norma, whose in complete denial about her own mortality, let alone the transition to sound films). Rather, in Fedora, its the struggling filmmaker (sound familiar?)--and not the still beloved star--who cannot deal with a rapidly changing Hollywood.

And perhaps therein lies its confusion. Fedora still believes in the power of old Hollywood glamour, even as it tries to mock the emptiness of that facade, which the final scene makes clear--fans of movie stars are ultimately more in love with an idea, a fantasy, than with a person. The film is nostalgic for the old ways, and critical of the new trends, yet it also presents Hollywood as just as enamored with the Fedoras (i.e., the old stars) of its past as ever. Holden's character is struggling, and filled with bitterness and anger. But, like the film itself, he doesn't know who he's really angry at.

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