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.
In the last few weeks I’ve struggled to watch streamed movies on MUBI, mainly because I couldn’t find the time, but also partly because of the films on offer. However, I couldn’t resist the prospect of the 1937 A Star is Born. I’d seen the film many years ago, but possibly in black & white on TV. The early Technicolor print was a welcome surprise. I don’t know if it was MUBI or my TV set but the Academy ratio print kept switching to a cropped 1.78:1 TV image. This was annoying but in the end I simply accepted that it wouldn’t stay in the correct ratio. I’ve noticed this before and it seems to be a streaming problem.
I enjoyed the film immensely but I had forgotten just how many tears a good 1930s melodrama can invoke. Dare I re-watch Barbara Stanwyck in Stella Dallas (1937)? That’s usually the acid test for a Melo. A Star is Born works for me because of the performances of the lead actors. That isn’t to detract from William Wellman’s direction. He was mainly known for his action pictures but here working for David O. Selznick he takes a sharp look at the familiar Hollywood tale about the young woman who leaves North Dakota to find fame and fortune. Wellman contributed to the script alongside Dorothy Parker, her husband Alan Campbell and Robert Carson. I found the studio scenes to be very interesting, illustrating the workings of the system. I suspect that the story of the production of the script would be well worth exploring. Both original story and developed script were Oscar-nominated and the story won. Janet Gaynor gives a remarkable turn as Esther Blodgett who becomes Vicki Lester when she signs a studio contract courtesy of her encounter with ailing star Norman Maine. The irony is that Ms Gaynor had been in Hollywood since the early 1920s, starting aged 16 and when she made A Star is Born she was already an Oscar winner for her three films, including Murnau’s Sunrise, in 1927. All I can say is that I was convinced by both her portrayal of the young girl from North Dakota and, even more so, by her emerging star persona as Vicki Lester. She is ‘natural’, beautiful and captivating whether as Esther, Vicki or ‘Mrs Norman Maine’.
I also like Frederic March who seems to convey strength and vulnerability, solid character and potential danger with ease. March had a long Hollywood career in leading roles without ever quite reaching the top echelon of stardom (by which I mean, his name hasn’t stayed in the public consciousness since the studio period). Outside of film and theatre (where he was also successful) March appears to have been politically OK as well. Perhaps most of all I enjoyed watching Adolphe Menjou in this film. It’s such a shame that Menjou was not only a staunch Republican but also a fierce anti-communist and McCarthyite. But then that’s true of quite a few of the Hollywood actors I admire. That was their talent I guess, to play roles that often belied their own political views. In A Star is Born, Menjou is the remarkably sympathetic small studio boss who goes out of his way to help Vicki. The other standout performances are by May Robson as Esther’s grandmother, a young Andy Devine as the assistant director who encourages Esther and Lionel Stander as everyone’s idea of the hard-bitten studio press secretary who will stop at nothing to paint the studio in its best colours.
A Star is Born has had a complicated history in the US in terms of ownership and rights. Made for Selznick, it was eventually sold to Warner Bros. which produced the first remake in 1954. The film then passed into the Public Domain in the US in 1965, although Warners have retained distribution rights that have covered each of the three subsequent remakes. I’m assuming that the MUBI streaming uses a print based on the original nitrate print that was used for Kino’s Region A Blu-ray. I found the print to be quite muddy and dark in the opening half of the film with few of the uses of primary colours I associate with early Technicolor. The later scenes, especially outdoor scenes seem to have a much greater colour range and more vibrancy.
Perhaps now I’ll dig out my DVD of the 1954 remake before finally getting to see the new version in December if it’s still around.
Feud is unusual and intriguing. I’m not sure it works, but having started watching it, I found myself hooked and watching all eight episodes over six days. It’s important, I think, that I never usually watch any US TV. The last American TV I watched with any interest was The West Wing ten years ago (and the Anglo-American serial Humans more recently), so I’m approaching Feud from a different position than most audiences. The narrative is set over the ten years from 1962 to 1972, which was a period when I was much more involved with American film and TV.
Feud is described in reviews as an ‘anthology TV series’. I vaguely remember this term from the 1950s, used to describe shows like The Dick Powell Show (1961-3) and, most famously perhaps, Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1955-65). These series comprised single dramas of 25 mins or 48 mins performed by the same actors (or a selection from a ‘pool’ of actors) and/or introduced by a host like Powell or Hitchcock each week. The shows were written and directed by both the developing stars of TV and some of the directors who moved between cinema and TV, such as Sam Peckinpah, Blake Edwards or Ralph Nelson. The actors were often well-known Hollywood names.
The new anthology series like Feud seem to me rather different. Feud is produced by Fox TV for the FX cable channel. The same ‘showrunner’, Ryan Murphy, has already set up two anthology series called The American Horror Story (2011- ) and The American Crime Story (2016- ) which are now both into multiple seasons. The first season of Feud, titled ‘Bette and Joan’ ran for eight 45-58 minute episodes in March-April 2017 in the US. It has recently been broadcast on BBC2 in the UK. The eight episodes recount the supposed ‘feud’ between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, centred on the production of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? in 1962 and continued over the events of the next few years. The series is designed to be an anthology in the sense that the next serial will be concerned with the story of the marriage of Charles and Diana and its aftermath. It seems more sensible to me to call it a serial, a long-form narrative or simply a form of televisual biopic. But US TV has its own terminology. More to the point, the BBC decided to follow the Netflix model and release all eight episodes on iPlayer before the end of the broadcast transmission run of two episodes shown as a double bill each week (following the precedent of Scandinavian drama serials on BBC4).
Outline (no spoilers as such – the story is based on real events)
Bette Davis (Susan Sarandon) and Joan Crawford (Jessica Lange) in 1962 were A List Hollywood stars in their fifties struggling to find roles worthy of their talent in Hollywood (Davis had actually returned to the stage). Crawford found the novel Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? and persuaded Jack Warner (whose studio had made successful films with both Crawford and Davis) to agree to distribute a film adaptation. The film was made by director Robert Aldrich (Alfred Molina) using his own production company, The Associates and Aldrich. Warner (Stanley Tucci) believed that Psycho had introduced mainstream audiences to shock/horror films and he gambled on an unusually wide release. The film proved to be a significant hit and was nominated for several Oscars. This caused further problems between Crawford and Davis. A sequel was then suggested . . . Joan Crawford died in May 1971 and was remembered during the 1972 Oscar ceremony. (Davis continued working until her death in 1989, but the serial ends in 1972.)
The narrative is supported by the insertion of a quasi documentary element in the form of a series of interviews which on-screen titles date as conducted in 1978. The interviewees include characters directly involved in the story such as Aldrich’s assistant Pauline (Alison Wright) as well as two other leading actors who knew Crawford and Davis – Olivia de Havilland (Catherine Zeta-Jones) and Joan Blondell (Kathy Bates) – and others involved in the events depicted. This re-inforces the sense of a tension in the presentation of the mise en abîme – the ‘making of’ not just the films, but also the Oscar ceremonies. We are familiar in biopics with current well-known actors playing Hollywood figures from the past, but in Feud this becomes overwhelming. At the centre of the narrative, Sarandon and Lange are very good indeed – and like Davis and Crawford, they both have a producer credit on the serial. Sarandon could pass for Davis, although she’s actually about 15 years older than Davis was in 1962. Lange doesn’t have anything like Crawford’s eyes so her performance has to create an illusion of Crawford’s look (she’s also much older than Crawford was in 1962). Lange also has a role in one of Murphy’s other anthology titles – The American Horror Story – and has played two other celebrity figures, Frances Farmer, the 1930s Hollywood actress in Frances (1982) and country singer Patsy Cline in Sweet Dreams (1985). I’m not sure what this means, except that I think I ‘read’ Lange/Crawford differently than Sarandon/Davis. I’m more familiar with Davis’s work than Crawford’s but while I admired and respected both stars, my own preference was always for Barbara Stanwyck – not mentioned in Feud, perhaps because she was still successful after moving into TV in the 1960s.
Feud is very ‘self-enclosed’ and most of the action takes place on set, in the homes and offices of the principals, or in exclusive restaurants. There is little awareness of the world outside Hollywood itself. Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? actually opened a few days after the Cuban Missile Crisis in the US, which is not mentioned. I didn’t notice any references to the Civil Rights movement (I don’t actually remember any African-Americans in the whole serial) or Vietnam. This isn’t a criticism, just an observation about the enclosed world. One sequence in which Crawford travels to the UK to make a horror film for Herman Cohen Productions looks very strange. As far as I’m aware this horror film was shot in Berkshire, but the set is by the Thames in East London and there are other strange elements in the presentation of characters. The final episode of Feud includes some hallucinations suffered by a central character.
The focus, as the title emphasises, is on the feud between the two stars, but how much of this was invented to suit the publicity for Baby Jane and how much was ‘real’ isn’t clear. The serial also uses the gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Judy Davis) as a device to increase the animosity between the two actors. In reality, Hopper died in 1966 aged 80, so this is possibly a fanciful presentation? Hopper’s rival Louella Parsons doesn’t feature in Feud – she retired in 1965. Overall, I feel that the serial is an odd mixture of ‘feud’ (which is accessible to any audience), a presentation of the dying days of ‘studio Hollywood’ and a rather intimate drama about two ageing stars. I found these two latter narratives more interesting than the feud – but both are frustratingly restricted in the overall mix. Bob Aldrich’s story features quite promisingly in the opening episodes but then disappears – a real shame.
As is usual in American TV, this serial is written and directed by a large group of people. There are five writers and five directors who mix and match across the episodes. Some write on one episode and direct another. Interestingly, in the present climate, four of the episodes are directed by (different) women and one woman was involved in writing three episodes. Despite this large number of creative inputs, I didn’t notice an inconsistency of styles – which is either a tribute to the showrunner’s overall control or a comment on a conventional TV drama approach. I’m not really able to tell which!
What Feud does have is some snappy one liners which recall those ‘women’s pictures’ of the 1940s and some great performances. Catherine Zeta-Jones is especially good.
Here’s the official trailer: