In 1950, Billy Wilder made what is probably the definitive film on Hollywood and aging with Sunset Boulevard, but it seems he wasn’t quite done with the topic, returning to it in 1978’s Fedora, a film about an iconic actress from the 1940s (very Garbo-esque in accent and distancing demeanor) who has retired to the Greek isles under somewhat mysterious circumstances.
After a long series of films with Jack Lemmon, Wilder returns to his previous favorite male actor, William Holden – who also not coincidentally played the male lead in Sunset Boulevard, the first of many echoes from that film to this. Here he’s a movie producer (perhaps a few steps up from Joe Gilles’ desperate screenwriter, though he’s still desperate) hoping to find the reclusive Mme. Fedora and convince her to come back and star in a film for him. The first half of Fedora plays like a mystery, a “where is Fedora” and “why won’t the people at this island villa she’s supposedly staying with let me in or talk to me” situation that’s reminiscent of The Third Man.
When the mystery is revealed halfway through, the second half takes the form of flashbacks within flashbacks, telling the tale of subsumed identity that led to the mysterious circumstances Holden encountered when he arrived in Greece. Though I guessed much of the mystery before the reveal, it was still satisfying and I won’t spoil it here, since I’m guessing many people won’t have seen this film.
Wilder is playing again on the idea of how horribly Hollywood treats actresses as they age out of leading roles, and even more as they lose (through whatever means) their beauty. At the same time, Fedora herself is only partially a victim, as she internalizes and reflects Hollywood’s obsession with youth, beauty, and an eternal legacy on to others in a cold and often vicious way. Perhaps movie stars CAN be unchanging and perfect forever, but at what cost?
The series of flashbacks that make up the film have the tendency to make everyone in the narrative feel powerless, with no ability to escape or change the known outcome of the film. This is not that different, either, than pre-determined noir films like Sunset Boulevard, but for some reason everyone here feels like they have even less agency or control than they do in that film. It could be a function of the rather flat shooting technique (despite the beauty of the Greek isles, the scenery never quite pops the way the Italian coast does in Avanti!, nor does the similarly helpful hotel concierge become quite so endearing), or the multiple narrators making everything seem doubly inevitable at every stage of the story being told. I can rationalize this frustrating lack of agency by pointing out that it mirrors the actual lack of agency of the character most entrapped in the story, which in turn mirrors the powerlessness of women by and large in Hollywood, especially in the studio era. That doesn’t make keep the experience of watching it from becoming dull at times.
Fedora‘s good ideas are enough to keep it afloat (I took some four pages of notes), though as you can tell, many of them are reiterations or expansions of ideas and plot elements that Wilder has used better in previous movies. At this point, in his next to last film, he’s riffing on some of his own favorite themes, and that’s not a bad thing.
Billy Wilder (as director)
Seen: 24 out of 26 features, 2 left to see