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1978. Directed by Billy Wilder; written by Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond. With William Holden, Marthe Keller, Jose Ferrer, Frances Sternhagen, Hildegard Knef, Michael York

I saw Fedora in Los Angeles when it first came out, and an interesting thing happened. The audience was doing okay with the movie's bizarre narrative structure, campy tone, and and coy roman-a-clef references (the legendary actress who is the film's subject dresses like Hepburn, hides out like Garbo, has a romance like Bergman's, talks like Dietrich, plays roles made famous by Vivien Leigh, etc.). Then Fedora started rhapsodizing about her most recent leading man, Michael York, and the titters started. When York appeared, playing himself, the place went up for grabs. People were laughing out of nervousness: they knew how to process the "thinly-disguised" stuff, but felt disoriented at this sudden turn toward "not-disguised-at-all."

What an audacious strategy this seemed back then, intertwining things that we knew were "real" with those that we suspected the filmmaker had dreamed up. . Fedora is a fictitious character, but she has supposedly interacted at every turn with movie folks that we've all seen and read about, and now here's Michael York in the flesh. His appearance lends an odd credibility to all the movie's claims about Fedora. Perhaps she has played opposite Robert Taylor, had affairs with Picasso and Hemingway,shared a plastic surgeon with Franco, etc. All the name-dropping is comical, but does situate Fedora in the real world.

In 1978, when Hollywood nostalgia was not as common as it is today, reviewers wrote of Fedora as Wilder's wry look back at old Hollywood and dig at movie-making in the post-studio era. The story is about a down-and-out independent producer named Barry Detwiler, who comes to Greece to lure the reclusive but still-beautiful Fedora into making her comeback in a picture some tax-shelter guys have put together. He infiltrates the Grand Guignol household where Fedora is apparently being drugged and imprisoned. Detwiler discovers, the truth and the lies behind the Fedora legend; Fedora ends up dead; the glory days of Hollywood end up dead, dismembered, and sprinkled with lime. It's all relentlessly acerbic and bloated. I would put the blame on Tom Tryon's source material (a novel called "Crowned Heads"), bu the director of Irma la Douce is capable of bloat on his own.

With William Holden in the lead, Fedora is a sort of bizarro Sunset Boulevard. Holden doesn't have youth as an excuse any more; he's old here, and tired and disillusioned in a way that whiny Joe Gillis couldn't imagine. Unfortunately, this movie doesn't pair Holden with anyone like his Sunset Boulevard co-star. The much-adored Fedora is embodied by a couple of second-tier European actresses of the day. Nothing about either of them hints at the fabulous thing we have been told Fedora is. They are, in fact, so strange, that you begin to wonder if Wilder is not even trying, or is at least taking a different tack.

William Holden, Jose Ferrer, and Frances Sternhagen give mainstream performances, but something quite different is going on with Marthe Keller and Hildegard Knef. They have been aggressively dubbed, and their disembodied, wierdly accented, drag-queen voices signal immediately that they are profoundly not what they seem. We never get a honest look at either of them, and they are clearly not making an attempt at naturalistic acting. It's like a couple of zombies in the midst of a drawing room of normal people, with everyone pretending not to notice.

You could explain this odd duo as hinting at the ultimate mystery of Fedora's identity. But I wonder if it doesn't also reinforce one of the subtexts of the movie: the death of the studio system and its replacement by the "international co- production." Keller and Knef seem part of a package.

Much sardonic fun made of Detwiler's status as an independent producer; his wanderings around Europe; his tax-shelter deals. Is he Wilder in disguise? Fedora itself seems the most hastily-assembled of "deals." I wasn't able to list a studio in the heading at the top of this posting; it's an Italian-German co-production with a baffling array of credits, and it seems to have been shot in studios all over Europe. Setting the story on Corfu seems quite arbitrary, and one suspects that it was driven by tax breaks. The "Hollywood" sequences have a suspiciously Cinecitta look. And in the middle of the film, in the title role, being constantly compared to Garbo and Dietrich, "the face that the camera fell in love with," is an inexpressive nobody starlet who sounds like Elmer Fudd with laryngitis.

I don't think Fedora could have found a better way to convey how sleazy, overblown, and money-driven filmmaking had become by the late 70s. The movie doesn't just remark on how the industry has changed; it presents itself as Exhibit A.



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copyright ©2005 Barbara Bernstein