Six Damn Fine Degrees #130: Sunset 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!

Come think of it, the whole place seemed to have been stricken with the kind of creeping paralysis… out of beat with the rest of the world… crumbling apart in slow motion.” — Joe Gillis, Sunset Boulevard

Last week, Sam did a damn fine job arguing the merits of Billy Wilder’s penultimate film Fedora. I’m very glad he did. I’ve had Fedora on my list of possible subjects to do for a Six Degrees for a long time now but never quite managed it. Every time I thought I would write something I would inevitably come up against a terrible problem, namely that I love Billy Wilder but really, really dislike Fedora. And if you adore a director, why focus on a much-maligned later work if all you’re going to do is malign it some more.

That’s why Sam’s article is nicely liberating. Set against his positive commentary, I feel free to be mean about this film. This crazy mess of a film. This embittered romantic swansong from a great director. Seen by many as a thematic sequel to Sunset Boulevard, it’s a film that mainly reminds you just how good that earlier film was – and also why the words ‘diminishing returns’ so frequently get used about sequels.

Where Sunset Boulevard was the angry work of a filmmaker who knew exactly what was rotting at the heart of the Hollywood he was working in, Fedora feels like the work of someone angry at an industry he no longer understands, and as a result flails around failing to land a punch. Seeing it in the context of his earlier seventies work emphasises the point. The failure of The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes seems to have been a major turning point. A labour of love that he had spent years working on, he was to see it chopped up and truncated by studio demands – before then having to take the blame for it flopping at the box office. A double whammy that not only his instinct might no longer be in tune with the general public, but that he lacked the clout to fight studios to get the cut of the film he wanted.

There’s perhaps a cruelly revealing moment in the recent film Dolemite Is My Name, the biopic of ‘seventies’70s black comedian Rudy Ray Moore. In a key scene in the film, Moore, played brilliantly by Eddie Murphy, decides to visit the cinema to celebrate his first successful tour. The film they see is Wilder’s The Front Page. Sitting in the cinema, unmoved by the performance of two ageing Hollywood stars retreading a fifty-year-old comedy, Moore is inspired to start making his own films, to find a new audience. By the mid-’70s, Wilder, once the boundary-pushing hot talent that once told Louis B Meyer to “go fuck youself” after the studio boss criticised his work, has become a byword for ageing, dated irrelevant filmmaking.

Fedora feels like the work of a director who knows he’s becoming irrelevant, and in trying desperately to make a serious work to counter this he ends up underlining it. There’s stuff in it that feels absurdly dated even for the ’70s. The plot relies on accepting two people playing the same role who don’t even remotely look or feel like they could be the same person (the script even crams in a plastic surgery angle to try and make this credible, the sort of bad B-movie shenanigans you don’t expect from Wilder). And when he tries to take a swing at the “kids with beards” that rule Hollywood, his description of their output feels like an attack on the early ’60s trend for free-wheeling, cheap location shooting: “They don’t need scripts, just give ’em a handheld camera with a zoom lens.” A world away from the contemporaneous Hollywood of what Coppola, Spielberg or Bogdanovich were actually doing.

Billy Wilder’s status as a genius is highlighted in his mastery of two genres – not only comedy but also dark, morally ambiguous pictures like Double Indemnity and Ace In The Hole. But Fedora managed to combine the two in the worst way possible. In its attempt to be dark and serious, it all too often strays into unintentional comedy. The film wants us to find a deep tragedy in an unrequited love for Michael York, but nearly all the truly serious moments intended to convey that are absurdly laughable. After we first saw this film, the phrase ‘Long, rambling letters to Michael York’ became an in-joke about earnest clunkiness in dialogue between a friend and me.

Wilder being a genius, there is stuff to admire in this film. It looks absolutely gorgeous, the lighting is tremendous and the score is great. And there is undoubtedly a defence of the film that it touches upon ideas of ageing, or irrelevance. A melancholic air hangs over this picture. But I don’t think it ever really explores these aspects; instead the script bogs itself down in a central mystery that is both comically absurd and astonishingly badly handled. In Conversations with Wilder, the director was to cite one of the key script-writing lessons learnt from his mentor Ernst Lubitsch: don’t tell the audience something, give them enough to work it out for themselves. They’ll feel clever, they’ll feel rewarded and they’ll remember it. Yet there is none of that here. Instead the central mystery in this film is grindingly explained through flashback, voice-over and well, someone on screen just telling us what happened.

The production of this film is fascinating though. Co-writer I.A.L. Diamond hated the project but persevered due to his friendship with Wilder. The shoot seems to have been troubled, with struggles between director and lead actress on set. Scenes run long because Wilder didn’t shoot any covering material, there just wasn’t anything to cut. And it’s reported that on set Wilder was to utter “I’ve made a mistake” about the whole production. It’s easy to understand why the author Jonathan Coe decided to make the shooting of the film central to his fictional novel Mr Wilder & Me: the themes of ageing and the fear of irrelevance seems more deftly explored in the actual production itself, rather than in the resulting mess of a film.

Ultimately, while I could never really recommend Fedora as an actual good film, it is a fascinatingly flawed piece of work. Normally cinematic failures provoke two reactions, if the studio has screwed the whole thing up, you can sneer at their ineptitude. If an overly indulged director has disappeared up their own pretension, you can laugh at the clothes-less Emperor. But Fedora is a truly great screenwriter/director trying to make a popular and critically acclaimed piece of cinema – exactly the sort of thing he has made before so many times – and instead demonstrating to everyone, including himself, that he probably doesn’t have it in him anymore. Perhaps this is where the film ultimately becomes the spiritual sequel to Sunset Boulevard. The empathy and pity I find that the earlier film evokes for the struggling Norma Desmond is now, ironically, generated for Billy Wilder himself. And no other cinematic failure has made me feel this.

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