Combustible Celluloid
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With: William Holden, Marthe Keller, Hildegard Knef, José Ferrer, Frances Sternhagen, Mario Adorf, Stephen Collins, Henry Fonda, Michael York, Hans Jaray, Gottfried John
Written by: Billy Wilder, I.A.L. Diamond, based on a story by Tom Tryon
Directed by: Billy Wilder
MPAA Rating: PG
Running Time: 114
Date: 06/20/1979

Fedora (1978)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Fading Star

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

In casting William Holden in a 1978 movie about the movie business, was Billy Wilder inviting comparison to his own Sunset Boulevard (1950)? Was he confident that his latest vision would cancel out the earlier vision, or could he have been aware that his earlier classic would always eclipse anything that came after it? Fedora is, in its way, even more deeply cynical than its cousin, much closer to the abyss. It looks in and sees the end.

Wilder's penultimate film -- critics just love that word; it means "next to last" -- Fedora tells the story of an aging, second-rate Hollywood producer, 'Dutch' Detweiler (Holden). He sees a way of reviving his career by casting that legendary old screen actress Fedora (Marthe Keller) in a new adaptation of Anna Karenina. Like Garbo, Fedora mysteriously retired from the film business and lives, protected and isolated, in a remote island villa. When she is glimpsed, she is never without her huge sunglasses, large sun hat, and long white gloves.

Dutch once worked with her on an old musical; he was a lowly assistant whose job was to wade into a pool and cover Fedora's breasts with water lilies before the cameras rolled. She is intrigued by his reaction to her naked body; he yawns. So they have a brief fling. Dutch hopes he can jog her memory and use nostalgia to his benefit. But Fedora acts strangely and seems so mysteriously young for her age, and she doesn't seem very warm or nostalgic toward Dutch.

The movie begins with Fedora throwing herself in front of a moving train, in dark homage to Tolstoy. Then, in its second half, the movie pulls away the makeup and set dressing and reveals what's really going on. Like Sunset Boulevard, it's a movie about facade and identity. Norma Desmond was a kind of cynical, tragic joke; she couldn't reconcile her age with her image. She couldn't go gracefully into that good night. The younger writers, directors, co-stars and audiences could look at her with awe, or pity, but always at a remove. Fedora places us there, inside. Entire lives are ground up to feed the machine that is fame and acting, and they never come back out.

Wilder keeps his theme of Hollywood people vs. human beings going throughout, and I could go deeper, but I fear I'd be giving away too much about a movie that has been little-seen since its release. Audiences of 1978 saw it as a creaky old relic, probably not helped by the appearance of Henry Fonda as a lone sentry of Hollywood's old guard, and those that knew their film history saw it as an inferior imitator of Sunset Boulevard.

Now, thanks to a new Blu-ray release by Olive Films, it can possibly be re-assessed as a fascinating and revealing late-period work by a filmmaker who was rarely ever misunderstood or underappreciated. Olive's disc, as usual, contains no extras, but the audio/visual quality is fine.

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