Before we begin, I have two caveats: First, I will ruin both the ending and the beginning of this movie. Second, this is less an essay than it is an apology, but more on that later.
Fedora opens with the titular character, a one-time movie star with a literally ageless beauty (played by Swiss actress Marthe Keller), hurls herself in front of a moving train, ending her life and her legacy. (That she does this after having fallen in love with Michael York, playing himself, is revealed later and should come to no great surprise to anyone, really.) Her funeral is an event unto itself and chief among the mourners is her once-upon-a-time lover and soon-to-be-has-been producer, Barry “Dutch” Detweiler (William Holden). Just two weeks before her suicide, Dutch had visited her in the hopes of convincing Fedora to return to the screen as a new Anna Karenina.
Not only does she refuse the role, but she tells him a strange tale that she’s being held captive in a private Villa on an island near Corfu, Greece. Her gaolers included her shady chauffeur Kritos, her shadier and jumpier servant Miss Balfour, her personal physician and possible plastic surgeon, the mysterious (and shady but less-jumpy) Dr. Vando and, last but not least, the extremely old Countess Sobryanski. When Dutch tries to help Fedora escape, Kristos clonks him unconscious, in which state he remains for over a week. By the time he recovers, Fedora has killed herself.
Dutch flashes back to the time when he first met the beautiful and (supposedly) talented Fedora, when they were both young, when he was an up-and-comer and she was an already-there. In the form of Stephen Collins (an almost-acceptable choice for a younger Holden), they begin their brief and torrid affair. As Dutch’s career ramps up, Fedora disappears for a spell, then reappears years later without having aged a day. Her only affectation seems to be for shoulder-length gloves, which she wears everywhere. It’s even in her contract that she be permitted the accessories on film, regardless of the role or the temperature.
Fedora resumes her stardom with nary a hitch. But she starts to get weird after meeting and falling for Michael York. Prior to their first scene together in a new film, he confesses that he was so taken with her as a child that he wet himself in the theater. And if that isn’t a turn-on, you tell me what is.
Thus, the film drags itself along like a man dying of a gunshot wound. Constantly, we’re reminded of Fedora’s stature, her beauty and her second-to-none talent. That we’re shown little of Fedora’s acting seems to be neither here nor there, and in the presence of the actors around her—Holden, Henry Fonda in a cameo, Jose Ferrer (constantly looking for an escape hatch as Dr. Vando)—Ms. Keller does not hold her own. (Truthfully, she is less-wooden than York, but what English writing desk isn’t?)
At the same time, we’re also constantly reminded of what a sleazy, degrading, sweatshop of a business that is show. Hollywood, as described by Dutch and portrayed by its citizens, is the literal polished dog-dropping of the world. Beneath all the marble and champagne and chandeliers is the churning stuff Hell wishes it were made of. And the older Dutch gets, contrasted with the still-youthful Fedora, his own star begins to fade, then dim, then get lost under a couch. This Anna Karenina deal is his last shot at staying relevant in the world obsessed with youth.
And when Fedora takes her own life, something snaps within him. In Fedora he saw not only her youth but his own as well. She was a perfect thing and obviously the fame and her keepers had poisoned her mind.
Now here’s that spoiler I warned you about: when Dutch confronts the Countess at Fedora’s funeral and accuses her and her accomplices of this complicitness and murder-accessory, the truth is revealed: Countess Sobryanski is actually Fedora. The dead girl was her daughter, Antonia. It seems that one too many “treatments” from Dr. Vando disfigured the star and she forced Antonia to take up the role, playing Fedora in public. Therefore the gloves, for only her hands would give away her real age. When Antonia wanted to run away with York, her madness was finally revealed… uh, the jig was up, so to speak, so the Countess, Kristos, Miss Balfour, Vando (the Professor, Mary-Ann…) kept her drugged and secluded until Vando could come up with a cure for York-love. As a way of proof, the Countess offers Dutch the contents of Antonia’s room, in which are kept drawers full of gloves, and diaries filled with the sentence “My name is Fedora.”
Dutch then sees that Hollywood has no incorruptible corner, that innocence is its eternal meal, and it will never be cheated of its hunger for youth.
Billy Wilder was at the top of the food chain by the time he made the daring, The Apartment in 1960. After that, his career started on a more downward spiral. It had a brief recovery for 1966’s The Fortune Cookie, which netted Walter Matthau an Academy Award, Wilder unfortunately followed it with The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, which was brutalized in post by the studio and has never been fully restored. Never a big fan of the business in which he worked, descended even further into bitterness and anger—the bitching in Fedora makes Sunset Boulevard seem like a dirty fork in comparison.
Fedora was Wilder’s penultimate film and it seethes and gnashes against Hollywood. Based on a novella by actor-turned-novelist Tom Tryon (wrote The Other, starred in I Married a Monster From Outer Space), Wilder had trouble securing financing for the film. Hollywood suits claimed that the failure of recent “Hollywood movies” W.C. Fields and Me, Gable and Lombard, etc., made Fedora automatically uncommercial. Wilder showed them! He found some wealthy Germans and shot in and around Europe. Like Dutch, he spent a good deal of time trying to Woo Marlene Dietrich for the title role, but the actress hated the book, the script and allegedly Wilder’s tie. (I may have made that last part up.) The resulting film is a slog and has little of Wilder’s twinkle, his grin in the face of doom. Holden was often a screen surrogate for Wilder but there’s little satire in the frustration here. It shows in the faces of the actors, especially Ferrer and especially Holden (who would be in 1981 (after completing a slightly more-Wilderish Hollywood movie, Blake Edwards’ S.O.B.), of a headwound sustained by a drunken trip into a nightstand, and his body wouldn’t be discovered for four days). Holden looks tired and in some scenes he is clearly inebriated. Whatever it took to get through his director’s painful personal struggle.
The film was a commercial failure—it kept audiences laughing, but in all the wrong places. While some critics were kind to it, for the most part it was reviled in the press. It was the first movie Wilder had made in four years (following the most bitter adaptation of The Front Page) and he wouldn’t make another one until Buddy, Buddy in 1981. Following this film’s failure he ostensibly retired from the business he so loathed and spent his twilight years cultivating a world-reknowned art collection. To his credit, he never slapped on a pair of shoulder-length gloves to hide his age.
Now for the apology: since we first met, my wife Amy talked about this “gloves” movie she saw on TV as a kid. We consulted other film scholars, including my father and even Josh Becker (who’s seen, like, everything), but nobody could recall seeing a movie “where the daughter of this old actress wears long gloves so no one would know she was younger than she could have been. And she had notebooks filled with ‘My name is Fiona, or Folana’, something like that”. Even the ever-reliable internet offered no help. The closest we thought we’d come was an episode of either The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits (yeah, my memory ain’t so good either). After a while, it became a family joke at Amy’s expense. Anytime anyone was at a loss for a movie title, someone would chime in, “Are there gloves in it?” And we talk about movies a lot in the Watt household, so we all decided that, obviously, Amy was nuts. “No,” she’d say, “I saw it with a babysitter.”
“Did this baby sitter give you little activites like licking stamps or eating special brownies?”
Which would usually result with me suffering from a throat full of teeth.
And as oh-so-smart as we all are, peerless in our movie knowledge, I found Fedora by accident. I was on a Wilder kick while researching him for a book and tried to run down all of his unreleased stuff by, uh, grey-area means. I’d never even heard of Fedora at the time I downloaded—er, procured it. So when I popped it in, not only was Amy vindicated, but I realized that I’d seen it as well, as a kid around her age and probably on the same TV station. I instantly recognized the scene where the young Collins met a topless Keller swimming in a marble pool. The scene caught my eyes at such a young age for two reasons: 1) I had been a devotee of Collins’ short-lived adventure series Tales of the Gold Monkey (long before he got all Jesus-y on us), and 2), dude, there were boobs on regular TV! HBO was not unknown to us in 1982, so people my age knew what boobs looked like, but here they were right after a commercial! Yeah, they were distorted by the water but, still. I was lucky my grandmother hadn’t made me turn it off.
So after eighteen years of being together, my doubts of my wife’s sanity were washed away, along with a good dose of crow. (Sorry, sweetie!) When I excitedly called my father about this fact his response was underwhelming. “Oh, okay, sure. I think I saw that when it came out. Awful movie, isn’t it?”
Yes it is, dad. Yes it is. (See for yourself and watch the whole thing HERE.)
But like the most famous line from one of Wilder’s best movies goes: “Nobody’s perfect.”
Image courtesy of Billy Wilder Blogspot