Is it just me or is this like a lost, not quite classic Billy Wilder flick that reunites him with his leading man from Stalag 17 and Sunset Boulevard, William Holden for one more go around on the life of a Hollywood Diva who has long been out of the limelight ala Norma Desmond?
The comparisons to Sunset Boulevard are inevitable. And why not, the film starts with a woman throwing herself in front of a train and William Holden narrating the story as he did from Miss Desmond’s pool back in 1950. The woman who has committed suicide is Fedora. A beloved icon of movies from the studio years who never seemed to age on camera and not only played opposite the likes of Robert Taylor and Clark Gable but also more modern stars like Michael York and still in the leading lady role despite being in her seventies though she doesn’t look it. Fedora is played here by Marthe Keller.
While standing in line with the mourners and fans, Holden approaches the coffin and begins our story told in flashback.
Fedora lives a secluded life in the Greek Isles and like Garbo, doesn’t want to see anyone. That includes Holden who travels to her island retreat with a script in hand to lure the diva and his one time lover out of retirement for an all new version of Anna Karenina. He is rebuffed at the door by her handlers, Jose Ferrer and Hildegard Knef. Ferrer is her personal physician and Knef a wheelchair bound Countess with a violent temper who does not suffer fools gladly. It’s a creepy set up and there’s a hint of mystery in the air though Holden isn’t giving up that easy.
Holden more or less stakes out the isle and gets a chance to come face to face with Fedora while she shops on the mainland. Closely guarded by her chauffeur (not Max) she seems but a prisoner and flighty, not seeming to recall Holden from her past. Helping us along with the story of Holden is a flashback within a flashback where Stephen Collins is playing the Holden character during the 1940’s on set with Keller and Ferdy Mayne trying his best at a Michael Curtiz impression (I think). It’s here we’ll see Fedora and Collins/Holden have a quiet affair on the beach.
Losing his opportunity, Holden will attempt to get to her through Ferrer who is very good here in support of Holden only to discover the nature of Fedora’s illness and just who her handlers are and the reason for her being kept isolated and secluded from her Hollywood past.
The flashback will come to an end just past the half way point and of course there is still the mystery of the whole set up to be uncovered. Holden is up to the challenge and I’m not going to play spoiler.
There is plenty of plot squeezed into this satisfying …… thriller? I can see that term being used to describe this tale of Hollywood sin and stardom. The need to always be young and a star resonates strongly after just watching Feud on Cable last month where Joan Crawford and Bette Davis continually tried to stay atop the box office looking as young as they did in the 1930’s.
Michael York does indeed appear in the film and has a magical moment near the fadeout that was well played by Wilder’s script. We also have Henry Fonda playing himself in a cameo as the President of the Academy who travels to Greece to personally bestow an honorary Oscar upon Fedora. This scene is another that tugs at the heartstrings once you’re in on the real truth behind Fedora.
Special mention should go to Mario Adorf for supplying plenty of comedy relief as the owner of the cheap hotel where down and out producer Holden is staying while trying to put himself back on top of the Hollywood hot list by scoring Fedora as his leading lady if he can just get his project greenlighted. Adorf does his best to steal most every scene he’s in.
Not having seen this film before, it was so heartwarming to see Holden on screen late in life playing a meaningful role in a good film under Wilder’s direction once again. When he started to narrate after the opening scene, I’ll admit to a warm feeling coming over me due to my love of his role as Joe Gillis in Sunset Boulevard and enjoying most of his career in general. This time he isn’t playing opposite Gloria Swanson but Marthe Keller does justice to the film and her role as Fedora. A glamourous beauty who was at one time the biggest star of Hollywood.
Do your self a favor and get a copy of this Billy Wilder film and hopefully you’ll enjoy I as much as I did. It’s out on blu ray thanks to Olive Films if you care to take me up on my recommendation.