Six Damn Fine Degrees #129: All About Fedora

Welcome to Six Damn Fine Degrees. These instalments will be inspired by the idea of six degrees of separation in the loosest sense. The only rule: it connects – in some way – to the previous instalment. So come join us on our weekly foray into interconnectedness!

Julie‘s lucid case for All About Eve over Sunset Boulevard as the ultimate satire on Hollywood stardom reminded me that beside these classic companion pieces, there is a third: a bookend, so to speak, a swan song: Fedora (1978), Billy Wilder‘s last truly big-budget film, a film so maligned and obscured, it took me years to come by it and begin to appreciate it as the wonderful gem that it is.

Strangely enough, I had known about Fedora ever since becoming a movie nerd at the age of 12: my first ever book on cinema (Die Chronik des Films, 1992) featured an entry on the international production which featured a lovely picture of a gorgeous man and woman ballroom dancing and described how that film had bombed at the box office, despite its famous director and stellar cast. I was particularly fascinated by its combination of Swiss actress Marthe Keller in the lead alongside an eclectic cast (William Holden, Hildegard Knef, Jose Ferrer, Mario Adorf, Henry Fonda, and Michael York, of course).

It took me twenty years to finally get my hands on a faded video transfer, just to discover that the film was receiving a makeover restoration by 2013, after which I was finally able to see Fedora the way it was intended to look and sound. The EuroVideo BluRay edition (2014) also features a lovely, almost 90-minute documentary (Swan Song – The Story of Wilder’s Fedora by Robert Fischer), carefully chronicling the making of the film, the difficulties attached to it and the revival it has experienced since.

Wilder had collaborated once more with his favourite writer I.A.L. Diamond (Sunset Boulevard, Some Like it Hot, The Apartment among pretty much all the great films by the director) to adapt Tom Tryon’s short story about an ageing movie star hiding away on a Greek island and an ailing producer (Holden) trying to lure her out of retirement. When he finally tracks her down, he is stunned by her ageless beauty and puzzled by the intricate network of people trying to protect a secret surrounding her. What follows is an unexpected and moving revelation concerning Fedora’s true story, framed by our knowledge that she has apparently thrown herself in front of a train in France at the opening of the film. An eerie, melodramatic atmosphere shrouds the mystery of the true Fedora until the final act, in which the fascinating and devastating truth is revealed.

Fischer’s documentary reveals the equally fascinating story of Wilder’s troubled production: unwilling Universal Studios executives who saw no potential in the “old-fashioned” melodrama unless Katharine and Audrey Hepburn were cast; a downbeat Wilder, who was saved by German investors offering him a chance to make the film at Munich’s Bavaria Studios (where Wilder had made his Cold War satire One Two Three); and Wilder’s trouble casting the title role: failing to lure Marlene Dietrich out of retirement and refusing to cast the overly political Vanessa Redgrave.

Enter Marthe Keller, Switzerland’s only truly international female film star (maybe) apart from Ursula Andress. Keller just came off an implausible string of independent cinema successes (Marathon Man, Black Sunday and Bobby Deerfield, alongside her long-term boyfriend Al Pacino) and presented herself to Wilder in untypical glamorous fashion, which landed her the part in Fedora. Little did she know what she was in for: Wilder’s patronising approach to directing, his criticism and his incessant focus on perfection made the production a living hell for the actress. The documentary shows her at peace with the director now, but the experience and lack of success must not only have been a blow to Wilder but to Keller’s career as well.

Keller‘s acting was not helped by the fact that she needed to be covered up in heavy make up, large sunglasses and hats almost all the time and that her voice was completely re-dubbed by German actress Inga Bunsch in English and co-star Hildegard Knef in German (Keller did however dub herself in the French version). And even though there were certainly big names attached to the project (York and Fonda playing themselves), nobody considered any of them to be box-office magnets anymore.

That certainly didn’t stop the production team from pulling all the stops: the production design by Alexandre Trauner (Les Enfants du Paradis, The Apartment) is exquisite, the cinematography by Gerry Fisher (The Go-Between, Juggernaut) is beautiful, the locations outside Bavaria and Boulogne studios in Greece and France glorious and the soundtrack by Miklos Rozsa (who had just scored Wilder’s Private Life of Sherlock Holmes) a wonderfully dramatic entry into his late oeuvre.

There was no helping it: Besides enthusiastic French critics at the time of its release, Fedora was universally panned and mostly ignored by audiences. It took almost forty years before its revival – but what a rediscovery it is! Fedora is in fact a carefully crafted, loving and moving rear view of old Hollywood that has only grown in relevance.

In 2019, I had the great privilege of watching the restored version at Zurich’s Film Podium alongside Marthe Keller herself, after which she spoke at length about the appreciation she has gained for the film over the years. The major revelation for me was how well the film still works today and how well built its drama is. William Holden was certainly inspired casting as Barry Detweiler, oddly mirroring his own Sunset Boulevard role but now being the ageing Hollywood item himself. His discovery of Fedora’s tragedy is accompanied by his bittersweet voiceover, in another nod to Wilder’s earlier film (and All About Eve), and quite heartbreaking indeed. Instead of a movie that faded away, Fedora actually proves to be one that lingers and lasts and its old-world beauty and tragic account of fame, obsession with youth and inevitable loneliness strangely reverberates today.

To put it into a scene from the film: the film doesn’t only deserve to be revisited on its forgotten island hideaway, it should finally receive that belated honorary Oscar brought directly to its sunny terrace by an admiring Academy president!

The restored film is available on BluRay, the making-of documentary can be watched here in its entirety.

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