Tuesday, July 31, 2018


Spoiler Alert. This is a critical essay, not a review; plot points are referenced for analysis. 

"Have They forgotten what a star looks like?" - Norma Desmond Sunset Boulevard (1950)

The very same thought occurred to me while watching Billy Wilder's penultimate film Fedora. A they-don't-make-'em-like-they-used-to, post-Golden Age eulogy for the Hollywood of yesteryear. Set in such glamorous locales as France, Greece, and Los Angeles, Fedora nevertheless has the nondescript, pared-down, underpopulated look of a made-for-TV movie when what it cries out for the lacquered sheen and cast-of-thousands excess of the days of the big studios. Why? Because it's a heartfelt, elegiac rumination on the immortality of silver-screen legends and the myth-making magic of the Hollywood star system. One that's undermined at every turn by its obvious budget limitations and the conspicuously low-wattage luminance of its own "This will have to make do" compromise of a cast.
William Holden as Barry "Dutch" Detweiler
Marthe Keller as Fedora
Hildegard Knef as Countess Sobryanski
Jose Ferrer as Dr. Emmanuel Vando
Frances Sternhagen as Miss Balfour
In 1976, actor-turned-author Thomas Tryon (he wrote the bestseller The Other and was the wooden, lantern-jawed presence in The Cardinal and I Married a Monster from Outer Space) published Crowned Heads, a collection of four loosely-connected roman à clef novellas set in Hollywood. The screen rights were swiftly snapped up, and early reports suggested Tryon's gossipy interlinked tales of Tinseltown (the novel's four stories share common characters) were ideal material for a TV miniseries. Sometime later, trade papers announced that the most popular of the short stories, Fedora, about a Garbo-esque movie queen whose ageless beauty is the source of a bizarre mystery, was to be made into a feature film by multi-Academy Award-winning director/writer Billy Wilder (Double Indemnity, The Lost Weekend).

Tryon's mystery-shrouded Hollywood Gothic offered Wilder (whose most recent series of films had all been comedies) an opportunity to return to melodramatic form: à la Sunset Boulevard (1950). Fedora's industry-insider angle appeared to be an ideal match for the director's distinct brand of perceptive cynicism and dark wit. When it was further disclosed that Wilder was to reunite with longtime script collaborator I.A.L. Diamond (Some Like It Hot, The Apartment) and Sunset Boulevard star William Holden (in what would be their fourth picture together), the potential of the proposed film adaptation sounded even more promising.
Henry Fonda appears as himself in a cameo bit involving personally delivering an Honorary Oscar to Fedora on her remote island. Billed simply as President of the Academy (a position he never held in real life), Fonda was cast after Gregory Peck declined. 

But Hollywood, as we all know (ironically, via Wilder's own Sunset Boulevard), has a short memory. When it came to finding a studio willing to produce Fedora, the distinguished career and track record of the 70-something director mattered considerably less to industry higher-ups than the fact that Wilder's last three releases (The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes -1970, Avanti! -1972, and The Front Page-1974) had all tanked miserably at the box office.
Wilder and Diamond reworked Tryon's novella in ways that intentionally evoked and referenced Sunset Boulevard, so securing the services of William Holden as narrator and leading man was a major coup. But progress on the project was hampered considerably when Wilder hit a major snag in the casting of the all-important lead role of the elusive, eternally youthful Fedora, and her companion, the mysterious Countess Sobryanski. 
Fedora inquires of a young stagehand if he's gay (albeit, not so politely). The previous year,
Marthe Keller asked Al Pacino the same question--just as offensively--in Bobby Deerfield

Wilder's initial casting choices of Faye Dunaway and Marlene Dietrich, later Vanessa Redgrave and her mother, actress Rachel Kempson, all turned the film down due to concerns with the screenplay. These delays forced Fedora into development hell—the property being handed from one studio to the next, rewrite to rewrite—before all the major studios eventually bailed. This led Wilder to make his film overseas with French-German tax shelter money, casting Fedora with actors who, happily, didn't strain the film's budget, but neither did they generate much in the way of pre-release marquee enthusiasm.
In yet another second-choice slot, longtime TV game show panelist Arlene Francis
 stepped into the intended for Barbara Walters

Fedora, a film told in flashback spanning thirty years and set in exotic locales and meant to depict the opulent lifestyle of individuals whose money affords the luxury of running away from time, was originally budgeted at $4 million but shot to over $6 million due to production problems. Even with this spike in finances, Wilder knew, given the scope of the story, that his film had the budget of a B-picture. For a sense of 1977-1978 budget scale: an intimate movie like Annie Hall, shot on location with no (then) big names in the cast, cost $4 million. The average cost of major studio releases like The Boys From Brazil was $12 million, and the modestly-scaled Heaven Can Wait came in at $15 million.
Hindsight suggests that Wilder, unable to make Fedora the way it should have been made, would have been wise to let the project go. As it was, faced with compromise at every turn, Fedora proved to be an ill-fated production plagued with delays and setbacks from the start. 
Fear of going over budget prohibited Wilder from having rehearsals (worse, it shows). And at one point, he rather ungallantly referred to his leading lady as "Not much of an actress." Keller's inability to play the dual roles of Fedora and the Countess (ostensibly due to the old-age makeup proving too painful for the actress, insiders saying she wasn't up to the challenge) occasioned the casting of Hildegard Knef...her engagement putting a minor strain on the budget, but throwing one of the film's major plot concepts (duality) out the window. 
The original editor was fired after two months of shooting, the cast didn't get along, and the unintelligibly thick accents of both Keller and Knef necessitated the post-production looping of both voices. I'm not sure whom we're actually listening to on the current Blu-ray release, but the hollow disembodied voices–especially the dreadful one used for Fedora's little daughter–wreak havoc with the film's two pivotal performances.
Marthe Keller certainly has the beauty and regal cheekbones of a classic Hollywood star,
she simply lacked the effortless hauteur

When completed, Fedora started out well, what with a huge Cannes premiere and considerable press fanfare focusing on Billy Wilder's "comeback." But then advance buzz fizzled out rather swiftly. The film was besieged by such poor preview response and bad word-of-mouth that it sat on the shelf for a year while its producers searched for a distributor. Trying too hard to please too many potential buyers, Fedora was tinkered and fiddled with to the tune of losing some 12-minutes of its original footage and sizable chunks of its lush Miklos Rozsa score (Double Indemnity, The Lost Weekend, Madame Bovary).
With a high degree of anticipation (I loved the Thomas Tryon novel, was infatuated with Marthe Keller, and was a big fan of Billy Wilder), I finally saw Fedora when, after what felt like years of bad advance publicity, it played briefly in Westwood in the Spring of 1979…before disappearing without a trace. 
Cast as himself, the beauteous Michael York exudes so much macho mojo he literally drives Fedora to madness for want of him. It may seem like a stretch to accept that an actress who'd worked with the greats would be taken with so mild-mannered a leading man, but I recall in the '70s Bette Davis citing the transcendently bland Robert Wagner as one of her favorites.

The story: Desperate over being put out to pasture by New Hollywood's current breed of bearded young upstarts, 59-year-old movie producer Barry Detweiler (William Holden) hopes to resuscitate his flagging career by coaxing reclusive screen goddess Fedora (just one name, like Cher, Charo, or Dagmar) out of retirement to star in The Snows of Yesteryear, a film that would mark the 4th American adaptation of Tolstoy's Anna Karenina ("This time we can do it right!"). 
Star Search
Tracking Fedora (Marthe Keller) down to her island compound off the shore of Corfu, Detweiler finds the aged star just as beautiful as when they last worked together thirty years earlier (and shared a seaside tryst). But he grows concerned when the eccentrically vainglorious actress (forever in gloves, enormous shades, and wide-brimmed hat) appears to be both emotionally unstable and peculiarly cowed by her motley retinue: the autocratic, wheelchair-bound Polish Countess Sobryanski; starchy personal secretary Miss Balfour; and dipsomaniacal age-retardation gerontologist Dr. Vando.
Detweiler's fears are confirmed when Fedora confides to him that she is being held on the island against her will and is prevented from returning to films. But alas, his efforts to aid in her escape only set into motion a series of cataclysmic events leading to ultimate tragedy and the unearthing of a dark, fiercely-guarded secret.
The Countess, surrounded by her ever-present space heaters 

I won't lie and say I wasn't disappointed when Fedora's ended (the underwhelming effect of the entire film given the coup de grace stroke of having Michael York's name misspelled in the credits). I enjoyed it, for the film's central mystery is compellingly weird enough to sustain interest (although given the extreme lengths the bizarre characters go to protect their secret, the ultimate reveal can't help but have an air of "Is that all there is?" to it). Plus it was nice to see William Holden reprising his Joe Gillis bit again. But as movies go, Fedora struck me as a bit of a puzzler. 
I left the theater that day with the impression that Fedora was an admirably ambitious effort on Billy Wilder's part that somehow got away from him. Sunset Boulevard embraced its themes and delivered an outlandish tale shrouded in a baroque style that recalled the melodramatic excesses of the silent era. Fedora, a melancholy paean to the Hollywood of yesteryear and the days of the studio system, is strangely lacking in atmosphere for so macabre a story. The obvious budgetary restrictions and the flat, characterless cinematography, are visually at odds with the film's nostalgia-laced themes. 
Oscar Winners
Jose Ferrer for Cyrano de Bergerac (1950)
 William Holden (under Billy Wilder's direction) for Stalag 17 (1954)

Most damning of all is how disconcerting it is to watch an entire film devoted to heralding the magisterial splendor of the immortal goddesses of the silver screen, yet fails to generate much heat with its leading lady. Fedora cries out for a dynamic, larger-than-life screen presence...someone along the lines of Faye Dunaway (I can't think of another contemporary actress who better radiates classic movie star style). The conspicuous lack of a genuine star presence at the center of the film torpedoes the credibility of an already preposterous story that needs all the verisimilitude it can get. (And one can't really fault Ms. Keller's performance...what the movie cries out for is one of those things you've either got or haven't.) Wilder perhaps recognized this himself, given that he ends the film with two characters having this exchange:
- "This would have made a much better picture than the script I brought you"
  - "Yes, but who would you get to play it?"

 Fedora shoots a scene recalling Hedy Lamarr's scandalous nude swim in Ecstasy (1933)

Much in the way Alfred Hitchcock's lesser works have come to be reevaluated after his death, Fedora's longstanding unavailability combined with renewed cinephile appreciation for Billy Wilder has produced a sort of revisionist interest in the film. Though it's an independent film, Fedora feels like a product of the studio system, its old-school charms playing better as "pure cinema" in today's climate of CGI and comic book franchises than they did back in 1978. I wouldn't call Fedora an underappreciated masterpiece, but I do think it's Billy Wilder's best film since 1966's The Fortune Cookie, and superior to some of his more unwatchable fare like Kiss Me, Stupid (1964).
Because I hadn't remembered the film so fondly, revisiting Fedora via the pristine, restored Blu-ray, I'm able to enjoy it as a kind of extended The Twilight Zone episode. (In fact, it recalls a similar-themed 1964 Twilight Zone episode titled "Queen of the Nile," in which Ann Blyth starred as an ageless movie queen with a secret.)
I confess to not being able to take the film as seriously as some. Fedora's flaws are too elemental for them not to mar my overall experience. But the film is made with a sincere (if bitter) conviction, some style, and a great deal of wit ("Not there! That's the cat's chair!"). Which, when combined with the abundant unintentional humor, grants Fedora a kind of loopy, absurdist grace.
Mommie Dearest
Little Antonia (Christine Mueller) learns it's no picnic being the daughter of a movie star 

One of my favorite things about Fedora (which couldn't have been intentional and will sound like faint praise) is how its execution and construction seem designed to draw attention to the more far-fetched aspects of the plot rather than conceal them. Fedora begins on a note of implausibility and just keeps stacking the crazy from there. The first leap of faith we're asked to accept is that during the waning days of the '70s nostalgia craze—when real-life screen legends Mae West and Audrey Hepburn were appearing in embarrassments like Sextette (1978) and Sidney Sheldon's Bloodline (1978); when Golden Age stars were routinely trotted out like waxworks displays on TV shows like Fantasy Island and The Love Boat; and when movie theaters were showing Star Wars (1977), Saturday Night Fever (1977) and The Deer Hunter (1978)—that anyone in their right mind would think there was an audience clamoring for a remake of Anna Karenina starring a 67-year-old Anna.
Sunset Boulevard -1950
Fedora - 1978
There's fun to be had in catching all the Sunset Boulevard references. Just as it's enjoyably distracting to take note of all the mystery elements that don't quite make sense (Fedora goes around in gloves and dark glasses even when no one but her handlers are around). But it gets a little wearying hearing Wilder endlessly vent his spleen about Hollywood and the movie biz through Holden's character. Holden would follow Fedora up with another film in which he played a battle-scarred Hollywood veteran with an ax to grind: Blake Edward's S.O.B. (1980). It would be Holden's last film. 
Throughout Fedora, I kept wondering why no one commented on the fact that her servant Miss Balfour (she reminds me a bit of The Omen's Mrs. Baylock crossed with Mommie Dearest's Carol Ann) never ages. That's certainly true in real life for character actress Frances Sternhagen, who looks pretty much the same today as she always has.

Looking (refreshingly) every day of his 59 years, William Holden's un-nip-tucked appearance fits nicely in with the film's "youth at all costs" theme; the actor's solid likability grounding Fedora in a reality that little else in the film is tethered to. And while scenes of his running or kicking down doors had me more concerned with his health than the plot (and I could have gone to my grave without the sight of Holden's granddad bod in saggy jockey shorts), he nevertheless gives a solid performance and is a welcome presence in Wilder-land. 
In the nearly empty theater where I saw Fedora, this big dramatic scene revealing Fedora's
 hidden shrine to Michael York was greeted with giggles, not gasps 

Fedora came at the tail end of America's brief but high-profile love affair with Swiss/German actress Marthe Keller. After catching the attention of the studios with her performance in Claude Le Louche's And Now My Love (1974), America beckoned and cast her in a series of showy roles that only made clear they hadn't a clue as to how to use her. Her thick accent branding her as an "other" or "exotic," she was cast as a femme fatale in the films Marathon Man and Black Sunday, and the manic pixie dream girl to Al Pacino's morose race car driver in Bobby Deerfield.
I think Keller's beautiful, but largely at sea when it comes to conveying that old-Hollywood star quality that made even tiny actresses like Judy Garland and Tallulah Bankhead feel like they filled up a room when entering it. Also, the dubbing thing just does no one any favors. But with that being said, I still think Keller is quite good here. Willful yet fragile, she's the warm heart at the center of a cold Hollywood nightmare.
Of the cast members appearing to have the most fun in their serio-camp roles are Hildegard Knef and Jose Ferrer, which seems rather apt, as they play caricatures more than characters.

Fedora, long unavailable and rarely-seen, is definitely worth a look. As I've said, it plays much better now than in 1978. You won't find the same level of perceptive cynicism Billy Wilder brought to his far superior Sunset Boulevard, but there's still much to enjoy amongst the film's unrealized ideas. And if you're of a certain age, plenty of nostalgia.
Thomas Tryon is said to have based the character of Fedora on a number of Hollywood legends, but the one most often cited is the largely forgotten Corinne Griffith. At age 72, Griffith claimed not to be the real Corinne Griffith, but rather, the actress' 52-year-old sister. Her assertion being that, following the death of the original Corinne many years before, she assumed the identity of her older sister and carried on with both her life and career. 

Faye Dunaway was always the Fedora Billy Wilder needed. And by the looks of her at age 77 in this 2018 Gucci commercial (which captures more real movie star magic in 90 seconds than the entirety of Wilder's film), I'd say she IS Fedora.

Swan Song: The Story of Billy Wilder's Fedora
The European Blu-Ray release of Fedora contains many enviable extras not available here in the States. Among them is this documentary featuring deleted scenes and commentary by Marthe Keller, Michael York, and others involved in the making of the film. Alas, some of the interviews are in French & German, and the DVD offers no subtitles. It's available on YouTube HERE

For more on Fedora, check out the blog Angelman's Place 

Old-Fashioned, but not Old Hat

Copyright © Ken Anderson  2009 - 2018


  1. Wonderful post on a film I still need to see.
    It's interesting to me how Hollywood seduced and then abandoned two fine actresses during the 1970s -- Keller and Liv Ullmann.
    By then they had lost the magic touch they were able to apply to earlier imports like Bergman and Garbo.
    You could argue that Keller got better Hollywood roles than Ullmann, but U.S. audiences didn't get anything like the power and charisma of those ladies back home.
    I love Keller in her later character roles like the one she played in the Isabelle Huppert film "School of Flesh."
    Now I have to track down "Fedora"!

    1. Thank you, Joe
      This has been an elusive one for so long. The new Blu-ray looks better than I remembered it on the big screen. Time has been strangely kind to it, the late '70s feeling all wrong for both the topic (mourning old Hollywood) and its treatment (very old-fashioned filmmaking).
      And you're right about how poorly Ullmann and Keller were served by their Hollywood years, Ullmann MUCH moreso. Although she did get much better roles, I always associate Marthe Keller's tenure with all the slouching she had to do with her tiny co-stars Dustin Hoffman and Al Pacino. She was like the Austrian Barbara Feldon. I think I need to seek out some of the character work you reference. I've always liked her a great deal. Hope you get a chance to check out FEDORA sometime soon.

  2. Oh god I could not not comment on Faye, she look like she is going to break in 2 god bless her. And tennis???? Maybe in a wheel chair. Contact Blythe Danner ASAP. I hope she got lots of money. I saw this movie and don't remember much of it, not even Bill Holden in his saggy shorts or Marthe's nude swim, but do remember the Michael York part (bizarre) and the big reveal. I didn't know the background of trying to get the project off the ground and it sounds cursed from the get go, starting with the title (maybe they should have gone with Babushka). I feel sorry for Billy Wilder. Thanks for the heads up on Hildegard Knef, I didn't know that was her. I saw her on the Mike Douglas Show when I was a kid. She was promoting her autobiography and of course having no idea who this woman was I read it. I did see Amnesia, I think it was Marthe's latest film, she has aged well.

    1. HA! I am SO in love with the way Dunaway looks in that commercial. Indeed she looks so frail when she's walking with her "daughter" and (to me) looks adorably aged in her tennis sweats. I think it has the effect of humanizing her.
      Also, situating her as a denizen of Beverly Hills guarantees that she looks as "natural" as all the other men and women around her. I pray for her to be given one more major role so we don't have to think of her as the Oscar-winning actress who had to resort to those dreadful "faith" genre movies.
      As for FEDORA, I grappled with including a screenshot of Holden in his droopy drawers but decided I liked him too much for that. Michael York I like so much (especially these days since he advocates so bravely and with such dignity for the amyloidosis he's stricken with), but every time Fedora begins to wax rhapsodic about him, it only seems like a device to affirm her deteriorating mental state.
      It did indeed seem like a cursed project (I cracked up at "Babushka") but I guess Wilder's perseverance spared us all for a TV movie adaptation of it starring Loni Anderson and Hal Holbrook.
      This is the only film I've ever seen Hildegard Knef in, but I remember when her autobiography was out and I'd had no idea who she was.
      You and Joe have given me two Marthe Keller films to keep my eye out for. The last film I ever saw her in was Clint Eastwood's HEREAFTER. She was good. Thanks for reading and commenting, loulou!

    2. Thank you Ken. I don’t want to wear out my welcome here but the premise that a star is somehow ageless seems to have come to pass, the prime examples being Cher and Barbra Streisand (sorry not sorry Faye). Actresses on either side of 50, Jennifer Lopez, Jennifer Aniston, Julianne Moore, Gwyneth Paltrow, Amy Adams, Jennifer Connelly, Jodie Foster et al. are reasonable facsimiles of their 20’s selves.

    3. On the contrary, loulou: I love that you read the comments and engage some of the contributors in an exchange of even more thought-provoking ideas.
      What you pose here is quite true. There is a "look" that was once shocking and now has grown quite normalized. The look of unapologetic facial manipulation/alteration in an attempt to look young forever. It's not a criticism, really, as all those you named look terrific. But there is a leveling out of expressiveness that goes with the territory along with a similarity in appearance that was perhaps always there, but seems accentuated now that they all have the same frozen face.
      And this isn't just women in Hollywood. Actors under the knife however tend to look less "youthful" and more embalmed (that or perpetually startled-looking).
      Your observation here poses another reason why the subterfuges and machinations of FEDORA must seem like they take place in an alternate universe. Who would care WHAT she did to stay young today?
      As a counterpoint to this beauty/youth obsession, I do love it and find it so ironic that Michael York--the object of Fedora's obsession--has been so public with his very visible, look-altering illness. I champion anyone who challenges the notion that anything less than eternal beauty and youth should be hidden away, unseen, and not talked about.

  3. Another good thinking piece, Ken!

    “Fedora” is arguably the foremost example of why Hollywood can’t be trusted with making cinema about Hollywood: for every “Sunset Boulevard” and “Day Of The Locust” there are ten “Lylah Clares” and “Harlows” and “Baby Janes”. Regardless of budget, they all fixate on themes around old actresses and perceptions of legend. Strange then that there's no similar genre for males.

    I’ve no doubt that Wilder seized on one idea still popular in the early 70s: returning Garbo to the screen as the ultimate statement towards legitimizing the Hollywood Dream. To reference “Sunset Boulevard” would have seemed a no-brainer for him, but the central idea itself was just as deluded as Norma Desmond. The source material itself wasn’t likely to be improved with the Garbo overlay – despite the many and frequent books about that particular “mysterious” old actress, and the many aborted attempts at “bringing her back” over the decades.

    You’re quite right in pointing out that “Fedora” can’t be taken too seriously. I’d say that the problem lies with Billy Wilder taking himself and his subject matter too seriously. “Fedora” almost seems like an apology to all those who were offended by “Sunset Boulevard” – allegedly including Garbo herself. As an older man himself, he could have served his art better by acknowledging decay rather than pursuing the muse of time standing still, and not realizing its inherent limitations.

    Coincidentally I’m re-reading Patrick Dennis’s “Little Me”, and loving the wickedly acerbic wit which time (and subsequent “tell-alls”) has only justified. Seems like they were all pieces-of-work, and many degrees separated from palatable personhood. In a time when we laud Dead-Marilyn-As-Victim we forget the humor of squalid starlets and shitty actresses who attempt to prop up their long-gone heterosexual appeal with the delusion that their “art” will be ultimately justified by Eternal Stardom. The psychology is pure camp-as-truth, and not Gothic nor “the stuff dreams are made of”.

    The time has probably passed for a really insightful movie about the denizens of Old Hollywood, but I’m betting the Belle Poitrines are alive and well. And wondering how they can cash in on the Me Too Movement (and whatever else it takes) in the name of immortalizing themselves in true Hollywood style, while side-stepping their own predatory tendencies.

    1. Well, we have the Scotty Bowers documentary to check out. I haven't seen it yet but it looks better than the book.

    2. Great point loulou. If the takeaway from Bowers’ documentary is that Hollywood already has form when it comes to self-censorship (and holding actors to “morality” standards) then we’re wise to learn from the past when evaluating exactly what collateral damage a sanitized and Disney-fied industry is likely to do in the future. Right now it seems to be at odds with most forms of culture inasmuch as it’s still doggedly prioritizing male heterosexual ideals which are toxic at worst and comically ludicrous at best. Part of Old Hollywood’s ongoing charm is salacious smut and failed attempts at literary adaptations as it sought to dodge censorship – I’m wondering if modern corporate “family values” cinema is actually the most offensively manipulated propaganda of all.

    3. Thanks, Rick!
      You make many excellent points in your comments. One of them being that Hollywood, when invested in sustaining and perpetuating its own myths, is often ludicrous.
      FEDORA is like an insider’s tale told to a bunch of yokels. It’s rooted in the assumption that the viewer (Jane and Joe Q. public) actually buys into and is invested in the myths Hollywood fabricates. Unfortunately, the end result reveals that the so-called “insider” takes these myths more seriously than anyone.
      Female stars seem to corner the market for all the beauty and glamour Hollywood represents; perhaps no films made about male Baby Janes or Norma Desmond’s exist because they would really be too close to home. It would be those aging, sagging lotharios like Tony Curtis, looking like one of The Golden Girls, bragging on TV how he needs to be seen with beautiful women.
      It would be fat, sweaty John Wayne showing his visible girdle line through his western shirt. Or maybe grandfatherly Fred Astaire trying to hide his neck wattle as he croons to young-enough-to-be-his-daughter love interest Audrey Hepburn in “Funny Face.” (A friend told me about the 2017 Burt Reynolds film “The Last Movie Star” saying it explored [not always successfully] interesting aspects of the aging male screen icon.)

      Another interesting observation you make is how FEDORA is almost like an apology for SUNSET BOULEVARD. It certainly lacks the bite. And in place of a kind of clear-eyed honesty about how Hollywood discards the elderly, is a (to me) tone of wanting to have it both ways: the upholding of old myths is simultaneously criticized and revered.

      Best of all is your reference to LITTLE ME and the kind of sleaze Hollywood has always been about before the nostalgia-as-cash-register TCM crowd began to convince one too many of those who should know better that the images of the stars and the stars themselves are intrinsically linked.

      I concur that there are perhaps many old Hollywood stars who would love to have SOME kind of legend attached to their images or careers (those autograph shows I hear about always find stars who once bemoaned being typecast in one role or another, in their old age, coming to embrace the very real miracle that they are lucky to be remembered at all). I however eschew the idea that speaking out about the very real issue of sexual abuse offers anyone – even a publicity seeking star - an opportunity to “cash in” on anything. That’s a myth a lot of abusive males and their apologists cling to like a life raft.

      Movies about Hollywood made by guys with axes to grind (Robert Altman, Wilder, Blake Edwards, Joe Eszterhas [BURN HOLLYWOOD BURN]) all suffer from a form of self-pitying narcissism: they always cast some principled innocent as a surrogate--blind to the fact that said principled surrogate is usually just a self-serving hack in the eyes of the audience--then proceed not to bemoan no longer being allowed to play in the game they claim to abhor so.

      Thanks for introducing so many themes and angles for viewers to consider and explore!

    4. Ken, I could have - indeed should have - worded my Me Too comment a whole lot better. While Hollywood has so far done a great service to a movement I have great respect and admiration for, my fervent hope is that the publicity will translate to real change for the less-privileged women of the world: women who are violated in the name of feeding themselves, with no other options. I applaud speaking out. While absolutely nobody anywhere should be sexually or verbally abused on the job, my cynicism about actors and the business of Hollywood suggests to me that we all should be listening more to Tarana Burke and less to Hollywood. As for the blowback from men who abuse (and their apologists), it's just more showbiz drivel.

      I'm in agreement with a couple of feminist academics I dialog with: Hollywood is far from the ideal platform to make the palpable and real changes that Me Too pursues. But from a short-term activist POV it's fine if it kicks off sustained and ongoing social justice.

      And yes there are many faces of frustrated Pygmalions - and worse - in the ways Hollywood men choose to represent themselves on film. It's always amusing when a fella substitutes principled art for good old-fashioned amorality without experiencing any apparent cognitive dissonance!

    5. Rick
      I think you worded all of this beautifully. I, like you, hold a largely cynical view of Hollywood when it comes to it's tendency to treat very serious social issues like just another photo op or red carpet opportunity to wear another gaily-colored ribbon.
      I's very true Hollywood has been great for visibility, but Tarana Burke and the voices of the less-privileged offer a more substantial place to listen.
      You are gifted in your way with words and how you express your insightful observations. I thank you for the clarification, which - in that you so beautifully put the issue in clear-eyed perspective - reads as an illuminating take on how Hollywood--in matters of substance--tends, ever and always, to be (alas) Hollywood. Thanks so much for this! Excellent points made!

  4. Oh wow! An almost forgotten blast from the past...

    I know I must've seen this on cable in the early 80's (I remember talking about it with a friend). And I've read Tryon's 'Crowned Heads', and 'All That Glitters' within the last decade, but I have absolutely NO definite recollection of the film.

    (And it was obv well before my appreciation for the delightful Arlene Francis developed fully.) I'll be watching this one (again) soon!

    1. Hi Mr. F
      I remember when this made the cable rounds for a while. But it's odd that so many people seem to forget it or remember very little about it. Perhaps because it seems like t's comprised of elements from so many other sources. Sometimes it's a very pleasurable experiencing re-watching a film one barely remembers. As the film unspools it can sometimes dawn why the movie failed to leave a lingering impression.
      And I loved seeing Arlene Francis here. As welcome as when Kitty Carlisle appeared in RADIO DAYS.
      Thanks for reading the post and commenting! Hope you get to check out FEDORA again soon.

  5. Ha!! So happy you have written about this, one of my favorite guilty pleasures! (And thanks for the shout out to my own write-up.)
    It is indeed a strange film with so many wonderful little Wilder touches and nuances, capturing some of the mysterious charm of the Tryon novella, making us long for those golden days of Hollywood...yet much as I love Marthe Keller, she just doesn’t have the megawatt star power to put this over. YES—If only Miss Dunaway had played it....maybe even with Miss Dietrich as the Countess...this might have ended up a classic too.
    Now I need to ull out this DVD and watch again, Ken! Bravo!!
    - Chris

    1. Hey Chris
      Glad you enjoyed it. When you wrote your piece a while back, that was the first time I'd seen any writeup on the film in ages. I'd since acquired a copy and couldn't resist wanting to record my own impressions of this rediscovered favorite. I've never seen it look as good as the current DVD release.
      And yes, the mind spins imaging this material with a little real movie star wattage behind it! Thanks for checking it out!

  6. In the topless pool shot, I know it's obviously not the case, but as that photo hove into view, I thought, "Jared Leto?!"

    I read Crowned Heads at a young age and it kinda scarred me for life. Then I reread it as an adult and was scarred in a different way after recognizing the one tale was about Ramón Novarro's murder. He starred in the 1925 Ben-Hur--which the 1959 version copied shot-for-shot in some cases--that was also one of the first films with colored sequences (well, two-strip Technicolor, anyway--it's still amazing to see the contrast, esp. in a silent film!). I already empathize with so many of the closet cases in Hollywood during the past century, but the fact that Novarro met with such a horrible end breaks my heart. I definitely wish that part of Crowned Heads was wholly fictional.

    Fedora is definitely the most cinematic story in the book, though. I'm sorry it didn't live up to its potential, especially as a Billy Wilder film.

    1. Ha! I love your "first impression" sightings...they are so hilariously off while simultaneously being right on the money!
      I'd forgotten that Ramon Navarro-based story from the novel. I recall that Tryon's book was my first exposure to the narrative of the actors death until I think "Hollywood Babylon" came out. I've never seen a Navarro film, but from still images he was quite stunning and so contemporary-looking.
      Your comment points to something I remember feeling from Tryon's book that I wished had made it into Wilder's film: that kind of "The Day of the Locust" like sad beauty of the grotesque that seems to be a part of so much Hollywood lore. "Fedora" didn't feel very much like a HOllywood film to me (the locale and ll those clashing accents). Much like New York, Hollywood is as much a state of mind as a geographic location, and stories that are intrisnically Hollywood suffer a bit when they don't actually take place there. This puts in the mind f Quentin Tarantino's forthcoming Manson/Tate era film "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood" - he's doing so much to recreate the look of 1969 Hollywood in the real locations here. He's not a favorite of mine, but I like that he "gets" the importance of Hollywood being a character in the film.
      Thanks for your comment Lilliana, makes me think I could stand to revisit Tryon's book and see how it plays to me now.

  7. Great post and great reference to the Dunaway/Gucci spot! I love the way Faye makes Jane Fonda appear like a woman in her prime!
    I think Marthe Keller could also try 'the countess' again- this time without the disturbing makeup (though she still looks gorgeous):
    Watch her as "spiteful, elderly aristocrat" Anushka La Charnay in the first episode of Amazon's mini-series 'The Romanoffs' (2018).
    By the way (not that it really matters): Miss Keller is Swiss/German. Her father fled Germany during the 'Third Reich'.

    1. Hi Richard
      Oh, it does matter that Keller is Swiss/German (not sure where I got the Austrian thing), if only because I'd hate to add to the already difficult-to-wade-through sea of cinema misinformation on the internet. To my amazement, a couple of my essays have actually been cited in the source references of a couple of film books and college papers, so it matters a great deal if I print an inaccuracy. I've made the correction, and thank you for calling it to my attention.
      I did see the incandescent (and surprisingly funny) Marthe Keller in THE ROMANOFFS. I absolutely adored the series, and seeing her again reminded me of how enthralled by her I was as a youngster.
      She looks marvelous and would make an outstanding countess in a FEDORA remake, but it seems no one today (in the film industry anyway) ages like that anymore. Certainly not Dunaway or the positively astounding Jane Fonda. -- And yes, the marginally younger Dunaway DOES make Fonda look like a woman in her prime! Thanks so much for reading and commenting, Richard!

  8. Wow thank you so much for writing about this great forgotten film. It opened here in New York at the Trans-Lux East but then disappeared. After seeing it the first time I went so crazy over it I brought different friends to see it and almost all of them loved it as well. I truely thought I was the only one who remembered this gem. I also have to say I still quote the classic line uttered by the countess, "Monroe & Harlow they were the lucky ones."

    1. Thank you very much for reading this. I liked reading about how enthusiastically you responded to the film. The film is thought of much more kindly today than when it was released, so you were somewhat ahead of your time in appreciating it so. That places you in a rarefied minority. Similarly, you were one of the few to see it at a theater before it more or less disappeared.
      The fact that so few people seemed to remember it was one of the reasons I decided to write about it. Your finding this post and taking the time to read it makes me feel it was worthwhile. Thank you!

  9. I, too, saw it on first release at Lincoln Square (NYC) and remember the same dispiriting shrug and the titters at the Michael York bit. For me the primary draw was the Miklos Rozsa score. Rozsa had been sidelined from mainstream Hollywood and the "rediscovered" in the same fashion as Bernard Herrmann. There was a French connection (Resnais's "Providence") and then a flurry of Hollywood interest: Demme's "Last Embrace," Cohen's "Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover," and "Fedora." Weirdly, thanks to the production delays you describe, all three movies came out around the same time. Rozsa had maintained a long friendship with Wilder following their forties collaborations: "Five Graves to Cairo," Double Indemnity," and "The Lost Weekend." The friendship endured through the unhappy "Private Live of Sherlock Holmes" experience but was (temporarily) ruptured by the removal of so much music from "Fedora," which Rozsa blamed on studio suits. Alas, nobody was at his best in this movie, though I do find the long Oscar presentation scene with Fonda in the golden sunlight and Rozsa in his element to be an affecting moment.

    There's been a recent novel about the making of this movie, and I see that it's now scheduled for filmization.

    1. Hi John! - Nice to hear from you.
      The older I get the more I appreciate having experienced some of cinema's less acclaimed moments first hand. Hearing from people like yourself, folks who saw FEDORA during its initial release, feels like a bunch of war veterans sitting around telling battle stories.
      Thanks for sharing so much interesting information on what it was like seeing FEDORA for the first time, when curiosity and interest was high. Also, you have contributed a wealth of history on Miklos Rosza and his involvement with Wyler and this film.
      I had no idea a novel about the making of FEDORA existed (!), much less that it is due to be adapted for the big or small screen. I'm stoked!
      Despite the film's shortcomings, I'm glad that, like me, you were able to salvage a few moments and things that you remember and enjoy. The Fonda sequence is a good one. Thanks for reading this post and contributing!
      Cheers, John.

    2. Jonathan Coe's novel got some good press and is now being prepared for filming by Stephen Frears and Christopher Hampton, with Christoph Waltz as Wilder. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mr_Wilder_%26_Me