Fedora: Billy Wilder’s recurring Hollywood nightmare

William Holden is drawn into the dysfunctional, secluded household of a fading Hollywood star, seduced and horrified by what he finds. In his familar crisp voice-over, he tells a sad story of Hollywood brutality. This beautiful screen siren, her heyday far behind her, has a terrible secret, but despite her advanced age, she remains fascinating, almost irresistible…

No, it’s not Sunset Boulevard, but Billy Wilder’s penultimate movie Fedora, which is released on Blu-ray and DVD by Masters of Cinema on Monday 26 September. Made in 1978, Fedora belongs to a different era than 1950’s Sunset Boulevard. “The kids with beards have taken over,” as Holden’s character laments, referring to those cinematic titans who were once movie brats: Coppola, Spielberg, Lucas, Scorsese. And Fedora is not a silent movie star either. She belongs especially to the 1930s and 1940s, when she made woman’s pictures, a genre that has gone out of date in 1978. But still, her career was suspiciously long.

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It’s said that Wilder may have modelled Fedora on Pola Negri – she is Polish, aristocratic and melodramatic, and she was one of the women approached to play Norma Desmond way back then, too. Negri also retired to live quietly with a lady companion, after a couple of brief comebacks in the 1940s and 1960s. But Negri’s latter years were spent in San Antonio, Texas, devoted to Catholicism. Fedora skulks in an island villa in Corfu, and her end is much less pleasant. Wilder refused to pin this character down though. “I have known Garbo, Swanson, Dietrich, Lombard, and Monroe,” he said. “Fedora is a fictitious combination of them all.”In the opening sequence, in fact, Fedora looks like a much earlier screen goddess, Musidora, as she sprints in a fluttering black cloak towards her fate.

It’s a less successful film than Sunset Boulevard, hazier and a perhaps a little squeamish. Fedora’s story, told here in a series of flashbacks (of course) is far more gruesome than Norma Desmond’s, but the film seems to pull its punches – what could be almost be a horror film is far gentler than that, and it is not as darkly comic as Sunset Boulevard either. But it is beautiful, with luscious cinematography, and a couple of star cameos (Michael York and Henry Fonda) to bolster its evocation of a lost Hollywood. In fact, the beauty is almost sickly, a sweet coating for a bitter pill. Like the earlier film, Fedora feels funereal – there is a corpse, laid out for public viewing and surrounded by floral tributes, for much of the scene, and Fedora herself is half-dead really. Hollywood was always the Uncanny Valley, but Fedora takes that idea to its vile conclusion.

Much like Holden’s Dutch, you may find yourself beguiled. Even when Hollywood appears to be rotten, it retains its allure, and Wilder felt that fascination more than anyone. Stars aren’t real people, but monstrous distortions of them, freaks that we adore. As the film asks: “Is there any woman more interesting than Fedora?”

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4 thoughts on “Fedora: Billy Wilder’s recurring Hollywood nightmare”

  1. Fedora is even older than Negri, a stage play by Victorien Sardou, written as a vehicle (1882) for Sarah Bernhardt. Every country had its Fedora: in the UK Ellen Terry, in America Fanny Davenport. Even Asta Nielsen may have tried the role. The play, with its mixture of society, backstage frivolity, feather boas, contrived situations, fading-but-gritty actresses, etc. inspired Bernard Shaw to invent the damning label “Sardoodledom”.

  2. Fedora is even older than Negri, a stage play by Victorien Sardou, written (1882) as a vehicle for Sarah Bernhardt. Every country had its Fedora: in the UK Ellen Terry, in America Fanny Davenport. Even Asta Nielsen may have tried the role. The play, with its mixture of society, backstage frivolity, feather boas, contrived situations, fading-but-gritty actresses, etc. inspired Bernard Shaw to invent the damning label “Sardoodledom”.

      1. Another silent film version of the Sardou play (and not even the first Italian adaptation) is Francesca Bertini’s Fedora of 1916, which survives at Eastman House but isn’t publicly available.
        That said, I’m not sure that the Sardou play has a relationship to Wilder’s film – which looks very interesting, thank you for the writeup!

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