Archive for Michael York

The Late Billy Wilder

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 25, 2008 by dcairns

One Grave to Cairo 

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

The Shrine

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?

Marthe My Dear

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.)

Euphoria #39:Somewhere a glory awaits, unseen…

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Politics, Theatre with tags , , , , on February 6, 2008 by dcairns


We are collecting the little bits of film that make induce joyfulness. When we have fifty, they will be melted down and injected into Michael Haneke, in an effort to cheer him up. 

Today’s volunteer from the audience, his “consciousness violently shaped by war,” profers a slice of Cinema Euphoria that is STRONG MEAT:

“Tomorrow Belongs to Me”

So many moments of CABARET are talked of, repeatedly shown, revered. We think of the compere, Liza’s rendering of “Money, Money, Money,” the dancers using the chairs as props, the seedy life of some, the occasional splendour — but let’s not forget the oft-forgotten scene of the Hitler Youth choir singing in the bier-garten: memorable, hypnotic, seduction of another form. Would you have signed up? I might have. Fortunately, tomorrow belonged to me — not them.

Emotions can be disturbing.

Circa 1939

Who is this masked man, lurking behind the mask of anonymity like Hugo Weaving in a tall hat, answering only to the nom-de-plume of “Circa 1939”?

It’s my Dad, and that’s the year of his birth.

When he mentioned, after a very satisfying dinner, that this would be his nomination, I have to admit that eyebrows were raised to stratospheric heights where the chilly conditions threatened to wither them at the roots.

“Is that euphoric?” queried Fiona, dubiously.

“It’s a toe-tapper,” I admitted.

The power of this sequence is the exquisite balance of seduction and repulsion, letting us see how empowering it would be to join that song, how hard and frightening to resist, while trusting our knowledge of history to let us make the right choice. It’s an amazing piece of MONTAGE, drawing it’s power from the assembly of little bits of film of faces, connected to a stirring tune to create an extraordinary emotive crescendo.

Leni Riefenstahl’s extraordinary Nuremberg rallies material from TRIUMPH OF THE WILL quickly became an icon of easy horror, but this sequence freshens the imagery and makes it potent and alarming again.

(I love the stories about various filmmakers sitting down to a screening of TRIUMPH OF THE WILL to see what America’s propaganda response should be. René Clair was horrified: “This must never be shown!” Frank Capra wrote later was that his initial reaction was that immediate surrender was the only sane response in the face of such mass unity of will. Only Chaplin sat laughing until the tears ran down his face. He’d had an idea for a film.

Adenoid Hynkel

Later, Capra claims to have conceived the idea of turning this weapon back on the Nazis, using it show the horror of mass conformity, threat of fascism and the need to resist. Luis Bunuel seems to have had the job of cutting Riefenstahl’s epic down to size so that it could be deployed in this way.)

CABARET was turned down by at least ten top directors, including Gene Kelly, who must have been terrified of it,* and Billy Wilder, who had lived through this time and place and felt too close to it. (I always think of the stubborn old guy in the Bier-Garten as Wilder.)

So Bob Fosse got the gig, despite SWEET CHARITY, his only other film, having rolled over and died at the box office. An incredible piece of luck, for us and for him (he pipped Coppola to the Oscar). I am SO impressed with the shot of the Joel Grey’s compére at the end there, dropping in out of the blue like the images of demonic Linda Blair in THE EXORCIST, and doing a camp variation of The Crazy Kubrick Stare. Chilling and oddly exhilarating.

– – – – – – – –

Speaking of the volk, we are halfway through watching Lang’s NIEBELUNGEN, so expect more thoughts on mythic structure when we’re done with Part II: KRIEMHILD’S REVENGE.

*See Comments for Aunt Suzy’s correction, re Gene Kelly’s role in CABARET’s gestation.