Fedora: The ugly side of Hollywood



Billy Wilder was one of the most prolific filmmakers in Hollywood, who made almost one film a year, from 1929 to 1966. Post-1966 he made five films, all of which bore the distinct stamp of a master filmmaker. His penultimate film, ‘Fedora’ (1978), which although is considered a classic today, was forced to have limited exhibition when first released. In a way, ‘Fedora’ rightfully criticised Hollywood’s often shabby treatment of its most prominent talent.

The film based on a 1976 novella of the same name by American actor-turned-writer, Tom Tryon, is about a legendary actress, who returns to the screen after a seventeen-year absence, miraculously unchanged. The story was expanded by adding characters and plot complications.

Wilder’s previous film, ‘The Front Page’ (1974) had been a critical failure. Furthermore, two of the then recent films based on the theme of Hollywood, ‘Gable and Lombard’ and ‘W C Fields and Me’ – both released in 1976 – had failed to generate any interest at the Box Office. As a result, executives at Universal Pictures were hesitant to offer Wilder his usual deal. Instead, they paid Wilder and his long-time co-writer, I A L Diamond to write the screenplay with the understanding that the studio would have 45 days following its submission to decide if it wanted to proceed with the project. The studio ultimately put it in turnaround, and Wilder began to search for a buyer in other studios with no success. Finally, an infusion of capital from German investors enabled him to proceed with the film.

Wilder originally envisioned the legendary actress, Marlene Dietrich in the roles of Fedora/Countess Sobryanski, and Faye Dunaway as her daughter Antonia, but Dietrich despised the original book and thought the screenplay was no improvement. When the casting for ‘Fedora’ was in progress, filmmaker Sydney Pollack invited Wilder to a pre-release screening of his ‘Bobby Deerfield’ (1977), in which former fashion model Marthe Keller had a lead role. Wilder decided to cast Keller in a double role, as Fedora/Countess Sobryanski as well as Antonia, but the actress had suffered such severe facial nerve injuries in an automobile accident that she was unable to endure wearing the heavy makeup required to transform her into the older character of Countess Sobryanski. Finally, German actress, Hildegard Knef was cast in the role of Countess Sobryanski.

‘Fedora’ was a re-teaming of Wilder with actor William Holden, both having earlier collaborated on films like ‘Sunset Boulevard’ (1950), ‘Stalag 17’ (1953) and ‘Sabrina’ (1954); Holden being nominated for the Academy Award in the Best Actor category for ‘Sunset Boulevard’ and then winning it for ‘Stalag 17’.

Both Henry Fonda and Michael York made cameo appearances in the film as themselves. In the film, Fonda is the President of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, who presents a lifetime achievement award to Fedora, even though he never actually served as AMPAS president.

The shooting of ‘Fedora’ began in June and concluded in August of 1977. Wilder employed all the characteristic trademarks of classic Hollywood moviemaking for the film, including lush camera movements, lavish sets and dense, flashback-driven narratives.

Filming of ‘Fedora’ witnessed a strained relationship between Wilder and Keller, with Wilder underrating her performance. Keller, on the other hand, openly stated that she did not perceive the ‘inspiration’ she was expecting from the director, including the much needed rehearsals.

During screening of a rough cut of ‘Fedora’, Wilder realised to his horror that performance of neither Keller nor Knef could be understood by the viewers easily, as also their voices did not sound very much alike, which was crucial to the film’s plot. He then hired German actress, Inga Bunsch to dub the dialogue of both for the film’s English-language release. When this didn’t prove entirely satisfactory, Keller and Knef were given back their voices except in scenes where both voices had to match. As a further compromise, Keller recorded the voices for both characters in the French version of the movie, while Knef did likewise for the German release.

Allied Artists dropped its deal with Wilder to distribute ‘Fedora’, after it was screened at a Myasthenia Gravis Foundation benefit in New York City, as the audience response was found to be unenthusiastic. The film was picked up by Lorimar Productions, which planned to peddle it to CBS as a television movie. Before the network could agree to the offer, United Artists stepped in. After cutting twelve minutes of the film based on studio recommendations, Wilder sneak previewed the film in Santa Barbara. Halfway through it the audience began derisively laughing at all the wrong places. Dejected by the response and despondent from all the problems he had encountered up to that point, Wilder refused to undertake any more editing of the movie.

On May 30, 1978, the film had its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival as part of a retrospective of Wilder’s work. It was then released in only a handful of select American and European markets with little fanfare, prompting an insulted Wilder to claim the studio spent “about $625 on a marketing campaign.”

When released, the show business trade paper ‘Variety’ described ‘Fedora’ as a “bittersweet bow to the old star system”. Produced at a budget of $6.7 million, the film performed poorly at the Box Office, with its gross collection in the US standing at $2.2 million.

At the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, digitally re-mastered ‘Fedora’ was screened as a part of the Cannes Classics section.