Shockwaves have been sent around the world after the recent suicide of classic European movie star Fedora (Marthe Keller), who threw herself under a train. Tributes have poured in, and the seemingly ageless actress is lying in an open casket in a French cathedral where her fans can offer their final respects, but one mourner has an unusual reason to be there. Barry Detweiler (William Holden) is a film producer who since going independent has struggled to find the right property to adapt for the big screen, but he had the brainwave of coaxing Fedora out of retirement to take the lead in this script he had developed. Obviously that won't happen now, but his experiences with trying to persuade her have shocked him...
The penultimate film directed by Billy Wilder and his last with frequent collaborator I.A.L. Diamond was a barbed, regretful tribute to the old Hollywood that had been so good to him previously in his career but was now finding there was little place for him. It had been based on a novella by another Hollywood survivor, Tom Tryon, an ex-star who had taken up writing books as an additional method of making his living, which had become what he was best known for. Though there was sympathy here for the way the system screwed up its ageing talent and threw them away when there was no more profit to be made from them, the manner in which the film made this point was unsettling, even sickly.
It hinged around a twist that you may be able to see coming after a fashion, but was resolved about the halfway mark, leaving the second hour as an exercise in filling in the blanks, which was less an elegy for the Greta Garbos and Marlene Dietrichs of the world, and more going over the same ground in a preoccupied manner, and none too healthy at that. Fair enough, Wilder had worked with some of the biggest names, male and female, in the business, and perhaps he wanted to relate to the audience the dilemma they had when the years caught up with them and/or they were no longer fashionable, reasoning that after Sunset Boulevard turned such a personality into a monster that a more understanding approach was necessary.
Yet that didn't quite pan out, as Fedora turns out to be a bit of a monster herself, exploiting the one person who should have been dearest to her in order to prolong her mystique, and no, I’m not referring to her cosmetic surgeon played by José Ferrer, a doctor who obviously has more than a few issues himself judging by the way he knocks back whole bottles of cognac in one sitting. If Wilder's previous classic had seemed the final word on the matter back in the nineteen-fifties, his motives for retreading the concept a quarter of a century later were none too clear, especially when the most they served up for the tragedy the plot delineated was a creepy sense of people having gone too far and continuing to do so for increasingly selfish gains, even to the point of driving an innocent individual to madness and self-destruction.
When Barry arrived in Corfu to attempt his meeting with Fedora, something we see in one of myriad flashbacks peppering the film, he spied on the villa she had retreated to with her entourage, which included Ferrer, Countess Hildegard Knef in a wheelchair, and maid after a fashion Frances Sternhagen, shocked to see Fedora raging in a tantrum. This is the first indication that all is not sane her mind, and it won't be the last: she wasn't murdered by falling under that train, but she might as well have been. Barry is more determined than ever to rescue her from this exile, but when he does speak with her she is patently deeply disturbed, meaning it would be impossible to work with her, a fact that when she realises it herself leads to her desperate actions. The latter sections detailed what had really happened, such as Fedora's unrequited love for co-star Michael York (gamely playing himself), but more often than not skirting horror territory in uneasy scenes of the titular actress's mental torture. As a whole, it just about got away with this awkward structure thanks to the feeling it was investing in its idea of a classic star, but it was disquieting when it thought it was classy. Music by Miklos Rozsa.
[Eureka's Blu-ray has a restored print and deleted scenes and restoration comparisons as extras, plus a detailed booklet on the film's production and the reaction it received. There are also subtitles on the disc.]