Fedora (Billy Wilder / France-West Germany, 1978):

A Sunset Blvd. remembrance from the vantage of Billy Wilder's autumnal years: The result is a more gallant Hollywood-Babylon concerto that nevertheless arrives at an image of cinema as an ageless beauty with withered hands. William Holden essays Joe Gillis at 60, an "independent producer" pulling into a funeral done "like some goddamn premiere"; the superstar in the casket is the titular husky-voiced diva (Marthe Keller), whom he had met decades earlier while covering her naughty bits from the censors. The first flashback finds Fedora hidden behind gloves, shades, and sunhats in her island-villa, Holden comes a-knockin' with a script in his pocket, he tells her his woes (Hollywood is now run by "kids with beards"), she tells him hers (caretakers and quacks are all around her, love letters from Hemingway are to be auctioned for money). The prospect of a comeback in Anna Karenina only helps throw the unstable actress under the wheels of a train; Holden cries foul play until the Countess (Hildegard Knef) lifts her veil and reveals the truth. Wilder's grave, intricate structure is a ghost story (with Michael York and Henry Fonda among the phantoms) broken into two movements, first elucidating the more morbid elements of The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes and Avanti!, then ringing out a fugue about memory, pretense, artifice, embalmed glamour. In the past, the Countess would have been thrown with the rest of the "waxworks" ("Cinema vérité," she scoffs with the same air she uses to dismiss "Valse Triste" as "so tacky"), yet Wilder sees his reflection in her as much as he does in Holden's battered studio survivor -- majestic dinosaurs all, struggling to defend the medium but instead entrapping it in a tragic, preserved image. Hanging on to the past is a perilous thing: Wilder knows he can't fight "handheld cameras and zoom lenses," all he can do is shame them by turning his devastating irony upon himself. To critics, this was "old hat." Vertigo and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance were misunderstood, too. With José Ferrer, Frances Sternhagen, Mario Adorf, and Hans Jaray.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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