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FEDORA (director/writer: Billy Wilder; screenwriters: from the story Crowned Heads by Tom Tryon/I.A.L. Diamond; cinematographer: Gerry Fisher; editors: Stefan Arnsten/Fredric Steinkamp; music: Miklós Rózsa; cast: William Holden (Barry ‘Dutch’ Detweiler), Marthe Keller (Fedora), Hildegard Knef (Countess Sobryanski), José Ferrer (Doctor Vando), Frances Sternhagen (Miss Balfour), Mario Adorf (Hotel Manager), Michael York (Himself), Henry Fonda (Himself, as President of the Academy), Hans Jaray (Count Sobryanski), Gottfried John (Kritos, Fedora’s chauffeur); Runtime: 114; MPAA Rating: PG; producer: Billy Wilder; United Artists; 1978-West Germany/France-in English)
“Brilliant homage to a bygone age of glamor.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Billy Wilder’s (“Kiss Me, Stupid!”/”The Seven Year Itch”/”Some Like It Hot”) brilliant homage to a bygone age of glamor that revisits the same bitter-sweet theme as his 1950 Sunset Boulevard, that also starred William Holden, but with an updated look at screen legends. It’s taken from the story Crowned Heads by Tom Tryon and cowritten by Wilder and his regular collaborator I.A.L. Diamond. Wilder filmed it while in ailing health and being questioned by critics that he was losing his gift.

Wilder patches up his feud and reunites with Miklós Rózsa after their successful collaboration many years ago with Double Indemnity (1944), The Lost Weekend (1945) and more recently in 1970 with The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, and he magnificently scores the film to fit the mood of each character while making good use of his trademark solos of layered strings and woodwinds.

Barry ‘Dutch’ Detweiler (William Holden) is a broken-down Hollywood producer who borrows $2,000 from his ex-wife to travel to Corfu to try and talk the reclusive villa-living legendary 67-year-old Polish aristocratic actress Fedora (Marthe Keller), who miraculously keeps her beauty, out of retirement. He once spent an afternoon with her on a Santa Monica beach some 30 years ago when he was an assistant director and she was a Hollywood superstar.

The film is filled with twists and surprises. It tells of the strange life of the enigmatic sunglasses wearing actress who favors big floppy hats and white gloves, who tried to remain forever young out of vanity and met with disastrous consequences. The has-been producer will learn of the reclusive Garbo-like star’s incredible tragic secret in the third act.

It opens with Fedora throwing herself in front of a train and Dutch attending her funeral. In a flashback Dutch tells of meeting her two weeks ago in Corfu to see if he can get her to make a comeback in a film he wrote and will produce, and of her keepers–the elderly wheel-chair bound crusty Polish Countess Sobryanski (Hildegard Knef), the no-nonsense servant Miss Balfour (Frances Sternhagen) and the discredited clinic doctor, who treated her to arrest the aging process, the plastic surgeon Dr. Vando(Jose Ferrer)– and their attempts to control her life and keep him away from her.

Michael York plays himself, as the narcissistic Brit actor half the age of Fedora whom she fell in love with when costarring with him after she ended her retirement but had to quit the film for mental health reasons to never work again. Henry Fonda has a cameo as the President of the Academy, visiting Fedora on Corfu after her initial retirement to present her with a special Oscar for lifetime achievement.

It’s Wilder at his most sublime, away from his silly half-baked black comedies, in a biting psychological drama that is able to lay out in the filmmaker’s own understanding terms what the movies meant to him. It’s not a perfect film because Keller can’t quite get us to believe she’s a legendary glamorous actress, but the beauty is that it doesn’t matter–the film works fine because of its dreamlike qualities, its succinct gallows humor, its memorable ending and its richly cynical appraisal of Hollywood as a land of magic induced by special effects. It’s a film only a master filmmaker could have made when he was older and wiser, and is one of his most underrated and misunderstood films.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”