When Louis B. Mayer saw Sunset Boulevard, he cursed Billy Wilder as a “man who bites the hand that feeds him.” He was misguided, of course, about that cool, beautiful, piercing movie.
But 1978’s Fedora, made by Wilder nearly 30 years later — again starring William Holden — does show evidence of the bitterness Meyer alluded to; it could have been made by Norma Desmond. Holden stars as an aging producer fallen on hard times who hopes to revisit his past by luring a reclusive former star, the supposedly fabulous Fedora (Marthe Keller) out of retirement.
He tracks her down to Corfu, where she lives in a musty-genteel mansion with a withered old countess (Hildegard Knef) and a quack doctor (José Ferrer). Fedora, who hasn’t aged a whit across the decades, swans around in a privacy- and skin-protecting broad-brimmed hat, sunglasses that scream “Please don’t take my picture, I’m famous!” and white cotton gloves to protect her presumably shriveled hands.
She’s a woman of mystery, all right — with her pasty-ghost skin, self-conscious mannerisms, and garish, lipsticky smile, she looks a lot like late-era Michael Jackson. Fedora may sound like campy fun, but it isn’t. Wilder isn’t making a sharp statement here, just belching out one long “they don’t make ’em like they used to” grumble. The great Holden alone survives unscathed, a sympathetic presence amid all the sourness.
Wilder may have been a genius, but not everything a genius does is a work of genius. Fedora is a curiosity, not a lost masterpiece.