I sometimes remember the cinemas I have visited more clearly than the films I watched in them. This is certainly true of Fedora which I watched in the Theater Tuschinski in Amsterdam, one of the most beautiful cinemas I’ve ever visited, in December 1978 on its first release. I seem to remember being taken to our seats by a uniformed usher. I think some of the audience might have had glasses of wine (I might be making that up). At that time the 1921 art deco/art nouveau theatre was still a single screen. There now seem to be six screens in an enlarged complex. All this is, if not clear, at least a memory. About Fedora I remembered very little. Possibly I was too young at the time to understand it.
Fedora was the penultimate film directed by Billy Wilder, who helmed his last film in 1981 and then lived another 20 years, making it to 95. I hope he remained sharp until the end. Fedora is currently streaming on MUBI in its collection of ‘Perfect Failures’, which the curators suggest are films not appreciated at the time of their release but which are worth a second chance. It’s a strange selection so far. Southland Tales (Richard Kelly 2006) and The Countess of Hong Kong (Charles Chaplin 1967) are films I’ve never really been interested in seeing. Night Moves (Kelly Reichardt 2013), however, is a film I found intriguing, perhaps not my favourite film from Ms Reichardt but in no way a ‘failure’. But what about Fedora?
Fedora sees Wilder returning to a film about ‘Golden Age’ filmmaking and specifically to his own key title Sunset Boulevard (1950), signalled by both its subject – ‘Fedora’ is a European star of Hollywood in the 1940s/50s – and its investigator played by William Holden. The plot is relatively straightforward. A prologue shows a woman in black leaping in front of a steam train followed by a TV report of Fedora’s death. Then a flashback shows us Holden’s character ‘Dutch’ Detweiler travelling to Greece to find the renowned star Fedora who is in a form of purdah in an isolated mansion on its own island. A further flashback will show that Dutch, as a young assistant director, once spent a night on a beach in Southern California with Fedora. Now he has a new script with which he hopes to lure Fedora out of retirement and into a new film he will produce as an independent.
What happens in the rest of the plot is fairly predictable. Most audiences will guess the twist in the narrative long before the ‘reveal’. But the film doesn’t seem to be too concerned about plot. I find myself having to agree with Roger Ebert whose review of the film back in 1979 nails it. He recognises that audiences could be easily bored by the predictability of it all and then suggests:
If you can see Fedora and not get hung up on what it’s about and who the characters are, which is admittedly a large order, there’s a real pleasure to be had in sitting there and letting it happen to you. It is not a great movie, but it has the form and feel of a great movie.
The script is actually an adaptation of a story by Tom Tryon, himself an actor in the 1950s/60s. I find it impossible to outline the plot without revealing the twist. As soon as you start to work out how old Fedora must be, you will realise what must have happened. William Holden was himself 60 in 1978 – he died just three years later. If he was supposed to have been a young man when Fedora was already a major star, she must be a woman in her mid-60s at least. The two ‘leading ladies’ in the film are Marthe Keller (born 1945) and Hildegard Knef (born 1925). It’s a strong cast. José Ferrer plays Doctor Vando, the physician who tries to keep Fedora young. Mario Adorf plays the hotel manager who takes pity on Detweiler as he tries to find a way into Fedora’s mansion – today in his 90th year Adorf has 219 credits for mainly Italian and German films. Henry Fonda and Michael York play themselves, Fonda as President of the Academy offering Fedora an honorary Oscar and York as the young man she fell for on her last production.
I watched the opening ten minutes of the film on MUBI and wasn’t overly impressed but I went back a day later and found myself watching the whole film. Ebert is right, there is a fascination in watching a master filmmaker who has scripted the film himself and knows just how to handle his starry cast. There is a one-liner which suggests that Wilder just couldn’t come to terms with a contemporary Hollywood “full of young men with beards” (Coppola, Scorsese, Spielberg and others). Fedora is in fact a German-French co-production, based in Munich and Paris and widely distributed in Europe. I’ve always like William Holden and all the leading cast are impressive here. The latter part of the film is a joy, especially after we have dispensed with the reveal and can deal with the characters as they are. Wilder is astute in recognising the problems with what Hollywood was becoming in 1978 but I’m not sure he had enough energy left to sustain and attack beyond this feature. I haven’t seen his last film, Buddy, Buddy (1981), but the reviews aren’t that great. If you take note of Ebert’s verdict you may well enjoy Fedora.
This Park Circus re-release is currently showing at BFI Southbank. My younger viewing companion said she enjoyed the film and was glad to have been able to see Monroe on the big screen. At the end of the film a sizeable chunk of the audience applauded.
I have seen the film at least twice before but I followed it quite happily. I came to a number of conclusions. Monroe is remarkable. How much the camera loves her – and she responds (even though it is now suggested that she was a nightmare to work with). It occurs to me that Monroe, possibly alongside Paul Newman, was the last of the Golden Age mega stars to emerge and make a significant group of films in the dying studio system. On the other hand, good though her performances on screen turned out to be (whatever pain and blood she generated for directors), Monroe’s star persona also depended on her early pin-up work and later celebrity ‘appearances’. She put as much into the ‘secondary circulation’ of her star image as some of the later ‘celebrity stars’. Those Eve Arnold photos are also important.
But actually, the real stars of the film are Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon. I can’t split them, though I think that Curtis has sometimes been under-rated as an actor. His early career included a lot of studio fluff alongside the real deal in Sweet Smell of Success (1957) and The Defiant Ones (1958). By contrast Jack Lemmon had a critical success in 1955 with Mr Roberts and sustained a remarkable career for the next forty years. Lemmon appeared many times for Billy Wilder and developed a reputation for working well with his leading ladies, starting with Judy Holliday in It Should Happen to You in 1954. Lemmon was a consummate comic actor and he and Curtis perform as if they had always been a double act.
The script by I.A.L. Diamond and Billy Wilder is the other star ingredient. I was intrigued to discover that Wilder was ‘inspired’ (and presumably borrowed quite a lot from a German cross-dressing comedy – see the plot summary for Fanfaren der Liebe (West Germany 1951). This reminds me of the later Hollywood remake of a German film from the 1920s that was also made in French and remade in the UK in 1935 and then became Victor Victoria as directed by Blake Edwards in 1982. Clearly cross-dressing has universal appeal. Wilder’s treatment of sex and violence was radical for Hollywood at the time. The sex tends to mirror Monroe’s approach, earthy and sensual, but somehow childlike and innocent at the same time. The violence is more interesting in the sense that Wilder doesn’t shy away from the bloodshed in the St Valentine’s Day massacre scene. Wilder was also ahead of the game in his approach to the intertextual. He deliberately re-created the Warner Bros look from The Roaring Twenties (Warners 1939) and cast the iconic figures of George Raft and Pat O’Brien who played the gangster and cop in various Warners films. James Cagney versus O’Brien would have been even more ‘authentic’ but Cagney would have changed the tone of the film I think. Mike Mazurki is a reference to the slightly later era of the film noir/’hardboiled’ stories of the 1940s such as Farewell My Lovely. I don’t think the script is perfect. For instance, much of the potential for comic business around the workings of the all-female band led by ‘Sweet Sue’ is simply thrown away in the last third as the narrative focuses resolutely on the two ‘romances’. Still the dialogue is so witty and the pace unrelenting so that there is no time to think about the plot and its potential holes.
I hope the film does well on this re-release and encourages more comedies from this era. Some of Jack Lemmon’s other work needs to be seen again and some more Monroes are always welcome.