There’s no doubt in our minds that Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard is a genuine ‘classic.’
It certainly qualifies on the two counts that we underscore when using that elusive term: the 1950 drama starring Gloria Swanson as faded film star Norma Desmond is just as watchable today as it was on its first day of release; and, the movie has endured. (The Andrew Lloyd Webber musical stage version starring Glenn Close is still going strong.)
What puzzles us, then, is why Wilder’s Fedora — his 27th and penultimate credit as a director — is all but forgotten today.
The picture was made largely with German tax shelter money in 1978, was shot in Europe and features two fine European-born actresses — Hildegarde Knef (German) and Marthe Keller (Swiss). Wilder beside directing is also credited as coscripter and producer.
Besides its subject matter, what really ties Fedora to its 28-year-old predecessor is its leading male actor, William Holden. He played Joe Gillis, the young screenwriter-on-the-make in Sunset Boulevard. In Fedora, Holden is weathered Hollywood producer Dutch Detweiler, who is like Gillis very much down on his luck. (That’s Holden above at the film’s debut at the Cannes Film Festival.)
Despite its European trappings, Fedora is essentially a Hollywood story. Holden’s ‘Dutch’ travels to the Greek island of Corfu in pursuit of the movie’s reclusive title character, an internationally renowned former movie diva who abruptly quit the business after abandoning the London set of an elaborate costume drama costarring Michael York (who plays himself).
‘Dutch’ has just completed a screenplay based on Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, and figures he can get his movie financed if Fedora accepts the leading role. The problem is that she is apparently kept in isolated seclusion by a bitter Countess (Knef) and a sinister doctor (Jose Ferrer) abetted by a dictatorial nurse played by Frances Sternhagen. Getting to her is a challenge that keeps the plot and ‘Dutch’ moving.
There’s a suicide in Fedora as well as a funeral in Paris, an occasion that confronts ‘Dutch” with the formidable Countess, and supplies a surprise plot twist. We don’t see it coming. Fortunately, ‘Dutch’ lives to tell about it unlike the earlier Joe Gillis, that fellow lying face down in the swimming pool.