by ALEX CARNEVALE
dir. Billy Wilder
Billy Wilder’s last film was a terrible comedy called Buddy Buddy that he made with Walter Matthau playing a hitman. Just before that, he wrote and directed Fedora, which no one liked very much either.
Wilder used Sunset Boulevard‘s William Holden, who plays a film producer trying to recruit a former Hollywood star named Fedora for a part in his remake of Anna Karenina, which he has titled The Snows of Yesteryear. No one wanted Wilder to make movies by this time, and he had to recruit outside financing through his agent’s German connections to get Fedora released.
Because of his many laurels and awards, Wilder thought himself above any kind of criticism by this point. He wanted Marlene Dietrich for the title role but she refused to be photographed in her old age and was disgusted by the entire story he was pitching. It suited his small budget anyway to cast European actresses and dub their voices. Wilder shot Fedora in the Greek islands in something of a hurry, since a budget of $6.7 million was not really a lot for what he wanted.
The entire movie hinges on the idea that Holden’s character thinks Fedora has been immaculately preserved by time and is imprisoned by a soggy countess in an ocean villa, but this is untrue. Fedora is actually the countess, and the Fedora impersonator is her daughter. She has managed this switcheroo because the right side of her face is scarred.
Matt Drudge celebrated Hillary Clinton’s 68th birthday with an ironic picture of her face this weekend. The point he was making is that plastic surgey has made her look unlike any other 68 year old woman not so medically blessed.
Drudge’s sexist laugh is a bit of a dirty trick, since plastic surgery is usually only indentified by TMZ or when it goes completely wrong, like what happened to Kate Beckinsale. (The lead role in Fedora is a open commentary on Greta Garbo, who was obessed with her aging proces.)
Given whatever has been done to her, Clinton looks at least fifteen years younger. It’s difficult to criticize her for this, since Richard Nixon once lost an entire election by dint of his wrinkles. In a flashback scene — Fedora has about ten of these, and they are all completely wretched and tone deaf in typical Wilder fashion — we see the moment when Fedora wakes us and realizes her pre-Botox-esque treatments from a sketchy doctor have gone tragically wrong.
In this way, Fedora is making a bland point against Hollywood’s obsession with youth. Wilder felt deeply discriminated against because studios wouldn’t fund his films in his last decades. Given the relative quality of his writing in Fedora, they were correct to abandon ship. When it played in front of its first American audiences, Fedora waa basically laughed out of the theater and Wilder stormed out in horror and rage.
Wilder fired his editor, but eventually he gave up on making any meaningful changes to Fedora. The main setting, on the Greek island of Corfu, is magnificently beautiful, which makes the tone of the film — somewhere between wacky comedy and sob story — all the more wrong. Ugly people in a wondrous setting makes for a bad time.
Fedora actually begins with the actress’ funeral, which added to the general malaise the film engendered in its audience. This framing device is so pathetically old-fashioned and out of date it lends extra years to a film that badly needed to feel current. Strangely, Fedora feels more modern today than it did then — not in its lighting or sets, which remain utterly dated, but in the way it merges a screwball comedy feeling with more serious themes.
Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording.
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