Dedications: My four late friends Rory, Stan, Bryan, Jeff - shine on you crazy diamonds, they would have blogged too. Then theres Garry from Brisbane, Franco in Milan, Mike now in S.F. / my '60s-'80s gang: Ned & Joseph in Ireland; in England: Frank, Des, Guy, Clive, Joe & Joe, Ian, Ivan, Nick, David, Les, Stewart, the 3 Michaels / Catriona, Sally, Monica, Jean, Ella, Anne, Candie / and now: Daryl in N.Y., Jerry, John, Colin, Martin and Donal.

Sunday, 17 June 2012

Billy Wilder's Fedora

What becomes a legend most?

The curious case of Billy Wilder [he was big, its the pictures that got small] - he created at least 4 classics we all love and I regard as essential, while others of his I never want to see at all! I am passionate about DOUBLE INDEMNITY, SUNSET BOULEVARD, SOME LIKE IT HOT (still the best comedy ever written and played), and THE APARTMENT - which I only saw finally last year (it is currently revived in London by the British Film Institute). I loved the frantic speed and zaniness of ONE TWO THREE back in 1961 when I was 15 but I never wanted to see IRMA LA DOUCE (as I found Lemmon and McLaine highly resistable from then on), KISS ME STUPID regarded as 'vulgar' at the time was fun on release - I wasn't overly impressed by THE FORTUNE COOKIE, we didn't bother with AVANTI! at the time, 1972 and catching it later it was grim seeing Lemmon & Juliet Mills getting naked with the new cinema freedoms; I also never wanted to see Wilder's version of THE FRONT PAGE in '74, then came that labour of love FEDORA in 1978, and again we had no interest in his last film BUDDY BUDDY in '81- perhaps I just found that Matthau-Lemmon combination highly resistable?

The earlier Wilder is something else - that fascinating life, losing family members including his mother in Auschwitz, those early scripts like NINOTCHKA for Lubitsch and BALL OF FIRE for Hawks, and his early films in Hollywood in the '40s, hits like THE MAJOR AND THE MINOR, THE LOST WEEKEND (another I didn't need to see), A FOREIGN AFFAIR has the usual acerbic Wilder touches and its a good role for Dietrich; after SUNSET BOULEVARD came ACE IN THE HOLE, one of the sourest comments on human nature, STALAG 17 of course brilliant too, getting Holden his Oscar. We like SABRINA a lot, a perfect 1954 film with Audrey at her loveliest. THE SPIRIT OF ST LOUIS with Jimmy Stewart didn't make much impact on me, I never saw the '57 LOVE IN THE AFTERNOON (Billy back in Paris with Audrey, the older Cooper, Chevalier- but when I saw it a few years ago this souffle (Wilder's word) in homage to Lubitsch fell very flat for me - no wonder this one is never revived now. WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION remains one of his hits, as of course does that first with Monroe, THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH in 1955. Wilder, like that other great writer-director Joe Mankiewicz in '49 and '50 (with his A LETTER TO 3 WIVES and ALL ABOUT EVE) hit his stride in 1959 and 1960 - SOME LIKE IT HOT is for me the best constructed comedy ever - but that was BEN HUR's year so Billy getting the awards for THE APARTMENT in 1960 was a course a shoo-in for not getting them in 1959. His THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES in 1970 has its admirers but may have been too whimsical for popular success....

The '40s and '50s though were Wilder's peak period with his usual writers Charles Brackett and I.A.L. Diamond - there are so many moments we relish in those classics: Stanwyck's "theres a speed limit in this state" comment and that whole scene with McMurrary in DOUBLE INDEMNITY as her suburban Medusa Phyllis Dietrichson ensnares patsy Walter Neff; and that brilliant script for SUNSET BOULEVARD and so many perfect lines in SOME LIKE IT HOT. But like Hitchcock (1966's TORN CURTAIN was the only one of his I didn't want to see) Wilder seemed to lose the impetus that made his great works so great as he got older. He remained a great conversationalist, became immensely wealthy with his art collection, books were written about him, he was photographed in restaurants with David Hockney and the like ... but the run of great films were over. He died aged 95 in 2002 (as did Hildegarde Knef, his FEDORA).

Wilder with Keller and York
His second last film FEDORA made with German money, was a moderate hit in 1978 on the indie circuit and is a fascinating oddity now - is it a mess? the work of an old man, or a comic take on the world of SUNSET BOULEVARD and old movie stars tucked away in retirement? William Holden, re-united with Wilder, is the less than successful producer arriving in Corfu to peddle a script to the great star Fedora ( a mix of Garbo and Dietrich) who has not been seen in public for years, but still remains astonishingly youthful (as played by Marthe Keller) when Holden gets to meet her. I was in Corfu  myself in 1977 and 1978 and it is nicely caught here. Hildegarde Knef is the crippled bitter Countess Sobryanski at the villa with that sinister doctor (Jose Ferrer) and assistant Miss Balfour (Frances Sternhagen). Mario Adorf is amusing too as the hotel owner. We soon discover in flashbacks the secret of Fedora - as the young Holden, nick-named Dutch (Stephen Collins) meets her in a studio pool in 1947. Wilder gets in his disdain for "faggots, queers, fairys" - Fedora's words as she accuses him of picking up sailors at the bus station (as he yawned at seeing her naked body!). They have a night at the beach ... as Fedora returns to being a great star.  Holden's meddling in Corfu results in Fedora's entourage fleeing to Paris where she throws herself under a train [his script is a new version of "Anna Karenina"] obliterating that famous face - why would she do that? whose face is it?

Spoilers: It turns out of course that the old Countess in the wheelchair stage-managing Fedora's lying-in-state is the real Fedora (who is only meant to be 67!), whose face and health was ruined by an operation to keep her young going wrong, the younger Fedora is her daughter trapped into being her and continuing the myth of the ageless Fedora but she falls for actor Michael York on a film, but cannot reveal her real self. There are some good lines along the way to the final bitter denoument. If only Wilder could have persuaded Dietrich and Faye Dunaway to play both Fedoras.... Its a must though for devotees of Wilder's caustic, cynical wit and an amusing take on Hollywood, from actor Tom Tryon's book of stories "Crowned Heads" (another story of his was based on silent star Ramon Novarro, and Clifton Webb's devotion to to his mother). 

Marthe Keller is one of those European actresses taken up by Hollywood for a while - she and Knef (a contemporary and friend of Dietrich's) share the role of Fedora; Holden rails at the new generation of directors "the young guys with beards" taking over Hollywood... Henry Fonda and Michael York play themselves. In all, fascinating to see again - now I want to go back to those real Wilder classics...

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