Meant as a wry companion piece to SUNSET BOULEVARD/’50, his classic Hollywood noir, Billy Wilder’s penultimate pic was always going to be a tough, out-of-its-time sell. But it really didn’t stand a chance after Wilder failed to sign up his dream-team leading-lady double act of Marlene Dietrich & Faye Dunaway.* As stand-ins, Hildegard Knef & Marthe Keller at their best couldn’t pull off the story’s requisite glamor & Golden Age Hollywood hauteur . . . and they’re hardly at their best. (The film barely got a Stateside release.) William Holden, weathered but fit, has a role similar to BLVD.’s debt-drowned scripter, but he’s crossed over union lines to play a debt-drowned film producer betting on his charm & a shared romantic past to get Fedora (a reclusive Greta Garbo type) as star for a new ANNA KARENINA. In her late 60s, but fabulously well preserved, Fedora just might go for the deal, if only she weren’t surrounded by an entourage of ‘protectors:’ the Countess, her nurse, a personal physician & the chauffeur/bodyguard. Are they keeping her safe, or just locked up? Wilder must have known audiences would guess the secret to Fedora’s eternal youth, so he reveals it halfway thru (a la Hitchcock), then runs a series of flashback ‘reveals’ to fill in the missing pieces. Problem is, there’s really not much left to learn. As a late admirer, Michael York is a good sport playing himself, especially standing in line to view the open casket. If only the film weren’t also embalmed.
SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: *Wilder’s luck turned in the mid-‘60s. Whereas SUNSET BOULEVARD lost Montgomery Clift only to gain William Holden in his breakthrough role, Billy had no such luck recasting IRMA LA DOUCE/’63 with Lou Jacobi after Charles Laughton died; replacing Peter Sellers with Ray Walston after a heart attack on KISS ME STUPID/’64; or making up lost star power on THE PRIVATE LIFE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES/’70 when both Sellers and Peter O’Toole declined, even with so superb a duo as Colin Blakely & Robert Stevens.
DOUBLE-BILL: SUNSET BLVD. seems the likely choice, but a better match might be Joe Mankiewicz’s equally flawed THE BAREFOOT CONTESSA/’54.