The Late Billy Wilder
Changing our Viennese directors in mid-stream, we watched Billy Wilder’s FEDORA (sadly an ancient pan-and-scanned VHS off-air recording), which prompts all sorts of thoughts about the phenomenon of the late film, especially as I was just pontificating on Otto Preminger’s last works. Older filmmakers’ output has a tendency to be neglected upon release, especially in Hollywood, where fashion is all. Wilder in particular suffered about twenty years of critical and commercial decline. After THE APARTMENT won him three Oscars in one night, Moss Hart is supposed to have said, “This is the moment to stop, Billy.” If that’s true, how those words must have rung in his ears as he released ONE, TWO, THREE and KISS ME STUPID and AVANTI! and THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES to a largely indifferent or hostile public. And then, following the bloody train wreck that is BUDDY, BUDDY (don’t watch it, folks), another twenty years of enforced idleness.
That last movie is the only real disaster, for me — I find much to enjoy in the later films, though perhaps you have to be sympathetic to Wilder as a filmmaker first. Here’s Steven Soderbergh and Richard Lester on the subject:
SS: Clearly around the late sixties his view of society or his take on society became… not interesting to an audience.
RL: He had a very oblique take on a very formal structure, and then that structure was taken away and there was an empty field there and he didn’t have to become oblique. You see, there is a parallel with me. If I don’t really know what we’re doing now, how can I have that oblique take on it? I think that may come from, as you say, the coccooning of physical and financial comfort. Then you don’t take buses and you don’t know what’s going on and I listen to Oasis and say, ‘But I absolutely heard all those chords before …’
Well, he’s dead right about Oasis. And he may well be right about Wilder. Certainly Wilder developed his skills within the constraints of the Hays Code and the studio system, and when it was forced to relax its stranglehold Wilder was handed his freedom and maybe didn’t know what to do with it. If your skill is in a kind of Lubitschian suggestiveness, suddenly being able to say or show anything you like must be daunting. Voluntarily working within the PG certificate might be a solution, but Wilder had always made films aimed at adults.
And although he was an enthusiastic consumer of literary pornography (it seems likely he read the first, anonymously published Henry Millers) his relationship to sex onscreen became uncomfortable. There are little, uncertain flourishes of nudity in the later films, but they feel oddly forced and unnatural. They violate the Wilder style.
FEDORA, from a story by actor-turned-novelist Tom Tryon, combines all the virtues and vices of late Wilder. The satire of ’70s Ho’wood is strained and inaccurate, although “The kids with beards have taken over,” is a great line. There is some awkward nudity, though by restraining the profanity to 1960s levels Wilder and IAL Diamond manage to avoid seeming like they’re either old-fashioned or jumping on a sweary bandwagon. For once in his career though, Wilder seems to have saddled himself with an ineffective structure — part one sets up a mystery: what’s with Garbo-like reclusive star of yesteryear Fedora (Marthe Keller)? And how has she remained so youthful? Fiona guessed the solution fifteen minutes in. Part two explains, in prolonged and unnecessary detail, how and why Fedora’s secret was maintained. But once the basic solution is revealed , the dramatic tension has dissipated and there’s only the mildest interest in learning the details. What’s left at this point is 45 minutes in the company of some nice actors in attractive locations, with a few excellent lines. And it’s testimony to the quality of William Holden’s performance and the sheer weirdness of Marthe Keller’s that this is very nearly enough.
It sounds like I’m down on the film, but I really enjoyed it. I was just conscious of what was wrong.
Holden plays washed-up producer Barry Detweiler (a transparent Wilder stand-in). When his voice-over starts up with exactly the same bitter tone as his V.O. in SUNSET BOULEVARD, I got goosebumps. Maybe that’s part of the trouble, the film borrows its resonance from earlier movies. Even Fedora’s breakdown reminded me of Robert Stephens’ suicide attempt during Wilder’s THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES.
Wilder’s earlier writer-director gifts really only show in a scene where Holden searches Keller’s bedroom and one baffling discovery leads smartly to the next — empty film boxes, school jotters filled with the line “I am Fedora,” written over and over, a drawer full of white gloves, a hidden shrine to Michael York…
Apart from Holden’s crusty, bitter presence, York’s appearance as himself adds a certain bizarre gaucherie– the one role York can’t possibly play is himself. I can’t quite say why, but the York performance style, which seems perfectly acceptable in other roles, becomes absolutely preposterous once it’s supposed to stand in for the actual person we’re looking at. In a role intended for Faye Dunaway (which would have made this a Holden-Dunaway NETWORK re-match) the normally naturalistic Marthe Heller, in white gloves and Jackie O shades, gives an expressionistic perf of terrifying eccentricity, like a strung-out elf, or a Michael Jackson puppet in drag. One could quibble, but why bother when she’s the most interesting thing onscreen?
Fiona provides the epigram: “It’s a film about physical decrepitude that’s really about artistic decrepitude.” And consciously so – that’s exactly why Holden’s character is our guide through this curiously one-way labyrinth. Wilder is recasting the past, trying to bring it back, and yet the last exchange of dialogue puts a rueful postmodern spin on the inevitability of failure:
Countess: “I know you will keep this to yourself… for old time’s sake.”
Detweiler: “Too bad. Because this would have made a much better picture than the script I brought you.”
Countess: Yes… but who would you get to play it?”
(I found the above clip and Wilder’s grave at A. Gropius and Nana’s blog, “in dreams begin responsibility”. Only fair to link to them.)