Fedora (1978)

A late career triumph by Billy Wilder that works effectively as a spiritual sequel to his legendary ‘Sunset Boulevard’, as he looked back at the glamour of Hollywood with sad ‘European’ eyes. 

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Dir. Billy Wilder
1978 | France/West Germany | Drama | 114 mins | 1.85:1 | English, Greek & French
Not rated – likely to be NC16 for some partial nudity

Cast: William Holden, Marthe Keller, Hildegard Knef
Plot: Washed-up producer Barry ‘Dutch’ Detweiler attempts to lure the iconic but reclusive actress Fedora out of retirement in a bid to revive both their careers. But her privacy is hard won, and with good reason.
Awards: Official Selection (Cannes)
Global Screen

Accessibility Index
Subject Matter: Moderate – Hollywood, Fame, Legacy
Narrative Style: Slightly Complex
Pace: Normal
Audience Type: Slightly Mainstream

Viewed: MUBI
Spoilers: No

Rarely discussed in the work of Billy Wilder, Fedora was a late career triumph by one of Classical Hollywood’s most accomplished filmmakers. 

His penultimate film, Fedora saw Wilder tackle a subject matter that he so incisively explored nearly 30 years ago with Sunset Boulevard (1950)—the toxicity of Hollywood glamour and the desire to prolong one’s legacy whatever it takes. 

William Holden is back in this spiritual sequel of sorts as Barry Detweiler, a luckless independent Hollywood producer hoping to score a casting coup by landing Fedora, the world’s most famous but reclusive actress who has gone into retirement in an island in Greece. 

Barry knows Fedora from a long time back during the heyday of Hollywood, but as he desperately tries to make contact, her caretakers warn him to leave her alone.  Sensing something amiss, Barry is pushed to find out the truth. 

“I guess no gentleman would bring up an old affair. But then, I’m no gentleman.”

Even at an autumnal age, Wilder was such a skilled writer and director, particularly how he structured the film as a series of flashbacks that propelled the narrative forward, sometimes in unpredictable ways.  What stands out most is that Fedora was a European co-production, yet its Classical Hollywood style is unmistakable. 

Furthermore, if one were to bring in the fact that Wilder (who was Jewish) left for the safety of the US before the horrors of WWII hit the European continent, one might better appreciate how Fedora, though similar in theme and style to Sunset Boulevard, works so much better if you see it through Wilder’s sad ‘European’ eyes.

While Fedora is a wonderfully-constructed old-school mystery with elements of the thriller, it is also a meta-filmic reaction to the bygone era of enchanting Hollywood stars, the competitive studio system, the luxury of shooting on expensive sets, etc. 

Wilder also took a pot-shot at the ‘New Wave’ kids, lamenting their lack of rigour (“They don’t need scripts, just give ’em a hand-held camera with a zoom lens.”), yet one could sense that he was also elegiac towards his inability to adapt to the new world order.    

Grade: A-



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