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Marthe Keller

Videophiled Classic: ‘Fedora’ – Billy Wilder’s memorial for old Hollywood

Fedora (Olive, Blu-ray, DVD) opens with a moment right out of Anna Karenina: a woman throws herself in front of an oncoming train, a steam engine puffing out white clouds against the night sky. A grand, glorious, powerfully melodramatic suicide right out of a glamorous tragic Hollywood romance. It’s a fitting in many ways, but especially because the woman, a reclusive Greta Garbo-esque Hollywood legend by the name of Fedora, has just been offered the lead in a new screen version of the Tolstoy classic, a comeback opportunity that her watchers—a gargoyle-ish group reminiscent of the waxworks that kept company with Norma Desmond in Sunset Blvd.—turn down for her. So this actress appropriates the role for her exit. It turns out she’s all about role playing, to the point that she no longer can tell the difference between who she is and who she plays.

The penultimate film from Billy Wilder and a more fitting wrap to his career than his final feature Buddy, Buddy, Fedora (1978) recalls and plays off of Sunset Blvd. in numerous ways, from the premise of a retired Hollywood legend living in self-imposed exile (here it is in an isolated villa in Corfu) to William Holden in the lead, playing an out-of-fashion Hollywood producer named Barry ‘Dutch’ Detweiler, a former assistant director who worked his way through the ranks (and who could be Joe Gillis in 25 years had he survived his first brush with a Hollywood legend). He tracks Fedora (Marthe Keller), who walked off the set of her last film 15 years before and never returned, to an island villa owned by the aging Countess Fedora Sobryanski (Hildegard Knef). She looks like she hasn’t aged since the forties, which is attributed to the controversial work of once-famous plastic surgeon Doctor Vando (José Ferrer), who is now in his own kind of exile thanks to controversial treatments and scandalous failures, but she’s also paranoid and fragile. The villa could be an asylum or a fairy tale prison and the “companions” either her tough-love caretakers or jailers. In fact, appearances are deceiving in every way, and as Barry attempts to get his new script to the retired actress (with whom he had a brief fling back in his Hollywood apprenticeship), he discovers the truth behind the legend of the Fedora and her sudden disappearance years before.

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Review: ‘And Now My Love’

[Originally published in Movietone News 44, July 1975]

The first splotch of color in Claude Lelouch’s And Now My Love occurs somewhere around the end of World War Two. It is not simply a matter of suddenly switching to color stock and letting the cameras roll; instead, the scene is calculated as an eye-catching gesture that begins by looking at a military parade out in a street and then pulling back into a room where two of the characters are making love—a room with a remarkably blue wall and some very conscious lighting effects that nudge us towards an awareness of the scene’s stylized appearance. It’s perhaps the most subtle instance of life and movie intermingling in the film, and it’s so nice because it uses the medium of filmmaking to illustrate the transparent regions of style and artificiality wherein movies must become about themselves as well as about the various and sundry people and events that go to make up the story we’re watching. As for the more explicitly self-inspecting aspects of movies-in-movies, and of And Now My Love—well, cameras staring at cameras seem to hold some fascination for even the most casually infected cinemagoer.

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Review: Bobby Deerfield

[Originally published in Movietone News 58-59, August 1978]

Sydney Pollack has carted the same thematic luggage down the road so consistently that running a standard, connect-the-dots literary tracer through his feature works is relatively easy. Pollack has concerned himself not so much with issues of death as with things that are dead, or so close to death that there is no appreciable difference. His films imply that rigor mortis set in long before the scenario began, and will spread after the last reel. To his credit, the repackaging of the principal components of this tragic vision has always been fresh. We’ve had the opportunity to see Pollack’s marked men and women slowly die while slavishly and knowingly dressing up the cancer of a metaphorical promise (They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?), through the ultimate victimization of human relationships by virtue of living in vulgar, extremist times (The Way We Were) or by a contagion of paranoiac losses (Three Days of the Condor).

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