I was in my early 40s, when I first saw Fedora (1978). I was not worried about ageing or conscious of ageism, as work, family and activism kept me very busy yet I was left with two very strong impressions. I could, at any time since then, recall Dutch’s (Barry Detwweiler- William Holden) view through his binoculars: on the terrace below there were three women, one in black in a wheelchair, the mysterious Fedora all in white. Dark glasses and wide-brimmed hat complemented by a scarf tied round the neck concealed her face. The third woman was nondescript in my memory. I also remember the risk of disfigurement due to plastic surgery and that although the face can be rejuvenated, the hands betray the concealment of ageing. Although shots of aging hands are not uncommon* in films, the usual cinematic image of an ageing woman is nearly always the subject looking at herself in the mirror. The power of cinematic images in this film is for me is so strong that while for other people it has been my white hair that signaled advancing age, it is my hands that I examine for lines and liver spots.
I tried to obtain the film for years. It is only last year that finally a remastered copy became available in the UK. My first impression was that the film is exceptionally self-contained and controlled. It is absorbing, rich in connotations and references, visually challenging.
In spite of a very complex narrative structure, the story spanning more than 30 years is simple to reconstruct. Fedora, a Hollywood star, relied for years on cosmetic surgery to maintain the illusion of youth. A new procedure administered by Dr. Vando (Jose Ferrer) followed by an infection leaves her disfigured. She retires and lives secluded in Corfu as Countess Sobryanski. When she is awarded a long coveted Oscar she decides to ask her daughter Antonia ( Marthe Keller) to impersonate her and receive the statuette at home from the hands of Henry Fonda. Both daughter and mother collude in this impersonation and for 15 years Antonia as Fedora appears in many films until she falls in love with Michael York her lead in a production of Anna Karenina. Prevented from disclosing the subterfuge by her mother, the doctor and faithful nurse Balfour ( Frances Sternhagen) she turns to drugs and finally throws herself on the tracks of a coming train.
To tell this unlikely story Wilder uses three narrators and many flashbacks to different time frames that engage the attention and produce suspense. This structure permits him to comment on many aspects of cinema: script writing, acting, producing, directing. The death of Hollywood’s studios and star systems is also a feature both in the dialogue and visually. Of course it is impossible not to recall Sunset Boulevard on hearing Holden narrate, but this film is the work of an older director. Glenn Erickson** writes with detailed quotes that Fedora seems to be taking a tour through all of Wilder’s work, and the work of others as well.
Apart from these filmic references Wilder (72) explores “celebrity” and two aspects of ageing. The producer Holden (60) witnesses and struggles with major changes in the Cinema industry. He is the main narrator of the story, the observer. As far as Fedora is concerned, we can differentiate two aspects: the ageing Hollywood star (Hildegard Knef 55), demanding, controlling, fiercely defending her image, and in the Marthe Keller impersonation, the victim of celebrity culture.
Fedora as Hollywood star: In a flashback, we see her being filmed in a studio set where she appears in a bathrobe and walks attended by crew members to a swimming pool. Young and beautiful she disrobes and walks naked in the water. She demands the sexual attention of the young Dutch. In a brief scene, we see how cruelly she panders to the attentions of the press and neglects her daughter – a daughter whose existence she hid from the public. In other flashbacks we are informed that she had to resort to cosmetic surgery to retain her beauty and fame until the last intervention disfigures her and puts an end to her career. She retires and hides from the public but gains the attention of her daughter who joins her after years of estrangement.
The incident that initiates the tragic turn of events is the intervention in their lives of the Academy Award, the Oscar that Henry Fonda delivers personally to Antonia impersonating Fedora. Both the star and her daughter connive to carry on the deception for 15 years. There are no accounts of these unlikely 15 years but our imagination easily accommodates the fiction and the fact that Fedora, the star, turns into a controlling monster when her daughter wants to escape and regain her own identity. Fedora as the Countess behaves as a film director at her own funeral***: she gives orders to the master of ceremonies making sure that the light falls advantageously on the face of the deceased, that her make up is not overdone, that her gloves soiled by the mourners’ touch are changed, that the floor of the hall is clean, that the messy loose flowers are disposed of. In short the Countess (old disfigured Fedora) directs the funeral of Antonia (Fedora’s daughter and impersonator) and puts to rest the Hollywood star.
Fedora as celebrity: There are two aspects of celebrity. As a Hollywood star Fedora attracts the attention of famous admirers. We are given two lists of people celebrated for their achievements. They express their admiration in letters of appreciation when she is alive and condolences at her death. The overblown lying-in-state ritual that attracts the general population is grotesque in the excesses of the floral tributes and as Dutch says in a long queue filing past Fedora’s open coffin: They done a good job on her considering the messy way her life had ended. At least she was going out in style with the spotlights, the fiddlers, the honour guards with feathers in their helmets all those T.V. cameras as if it were some goddam premiere.
The tragic aspect of celebrity is the loss of identity of Antonia. She starts by being excited at the thought of receiving the Oscar from Henry Fonda himself. However unlikely, we accept that she has sustained this travesty for fifteen years. She even has to submit to some surgery to make herself look older than she is. The film does not show the trajectory of her 15 years of impersonation but when she wants to escape the role it is too late. She has lost the freedom of making her own choices and declaring her feelings to her co-star Michael York (playing himself). She has to comply with the demands of her mother aided by Balfour, the doctor and her public. Visually the hold on her of remaining ‘the star’ is expressed by two powerful images: the abandoned bed with its shackles and the pages and pages of numerous copy books filled with the lines: I am Fedora… In her distress she resorts to drugs and eventually throws herself under the train.
The mise-en-scene is extremely rich in its connotations. All the main actors and characters but one are over 60 and the mood is one of the end of an era. The comic touch of the hotel owner character makes fun of the fascination that ordinary people have for Hollywood, but Dutch does not benefit from an expense account. Dutch in a boat crossing towards the island and then spying on the three women recalls Hitchcock’s The Birds and Rear Window. Pretence is expressed not only by the written script but also by images. The ageing hands always covered by gloves, the drawer full of gloves, the gloves that the Guards of Honour take off when resting and the gloves hiding the age of the dead body.
In its masterful treatment of the desirability of youth, and mainly of the tragic effects of celebrity, this film is as relevant today if not more than in 1978. Cosmetic surgery is blooming and Botox, facelifts, nose jobs, breasts enlargements are commonplace not only for performers but also for ordinary women. I read now that even hands can be rejuvenated. The focus of celebrity has changed from the Hollywood dream world to the music world and to reality shows’ non entities. ****
* “Never before has this award gone to anyone younger than its recipient tonight. How fitting that it should pass from my hands to hers. Such young hands, – close up of plump smooth hands crossed on a table but no close-ups of his hands – such a young lady… young in years but whose heart is as old as the theatre.” All About Eve 1950
**** I just happened to see Amy. According to this documentary about Amy Winehouse, the singer was forced to comply to the demands of celebrity that she did not seek.
The members of the film group enjoyed Fedora. They stressed that cosmetic surgery is common place nowadays. They pointed out that the story was unbelievable but the way it was told very engaging like a fairy tale. One of the members pointed out that the speech had something bizarre about it. (The dubbing). Another woman had seen the film when it first came out and remembered it in these terms.
My memory was of Dutch being in turn incredulous, then angry – finally confronting Fedora in a scathing diatribe. In fact there was barely a rebuke from Dutch, and when Fedora remembered their one night stand he visibly melts and changes the subject with a wistful ‘you remember’. Male vanity meets the wild power of the female Holywood megastar.
I wish I had more time to investigate the research about what we remember about films…