Following is a special guest post by Jeff Alexander, his contribution to the Billy Wilder Blogathon scheduled for June 22. You can contact Jeff directly by way of Facebook here or leave a comment below.
Ask anyone familiar with the name of Billy Wilder to list his films and it’s a safe bet that Kiss Me, Stupid (1964) and Fedora (1978) will be far down, with Some Like It Hot (1959) and Sunset Boulevard (1950) understandably among the first. As for their actual quality, I put Stupid and Fedora above Buddy Buddy (1981); Kiss Me, Stupid above the more popular Irma La Douce (1963); while Fedora ranks just above The Front Page (1974) and about on the same level of The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970).
Stupid and Fedora were plagued with production problems and both were commercial failures, having gained a cult status years after their release. The two have quite a bit in common, as a result, and not just because they are part of the Wilder lexicon of movies.
First, Kiss Me, Stupid. It was envisioned initially for Peter Sellers and Marilyn Monroe. But Monroe died even before Wilder got Irma La Douce filmed, although Sellers was subsequently cast in Stupid, bowing out after a series of near-fatal heart attacks. According to Cameron Crowe’s excellent Conversations with Wilder, scenes with Sellers as Orville J. Spooner were filmed, but put away and Wilder shrugged off any desire to see them unearthed and viewed. Probably painful memories.
Ray Walston, on hiatus from the title role of TV’s “My Favorite Martian” and a supporting player in Wilder’s The Apartment, was cast after Tony Randall, Danny Kaye and Bob Hope (!) were reportedly considered to fill Sellers’ shoes. Dean Martin (whose last name is never mentioned throughout) was always to be “Dino,” and Cliff Osmond, Kim Novak and Felicia Farr (freshly wed to Jack Lemmon, another Wilder favorite) took other major roles.
It’s a twisty comedy, with Dino stranded in parched Climax, Nevada, for a night. Desperate to sell him their repertoire of Gershwin-like tunes (and those are actual songs written by the Gershwins), piano teacher Orville Spooner and gas station attendant Barney (Osmond) work out a scheme where Spooner’s wife, Zelda (Farr) switches places with Polly the Pistol (Novak) for an evening of dinner & romancing. Zelda, unaware of the plot, winds up in Polly’s trailer behind the Belly Button saloon (love that name!) and soon encounters the crooner on her own. The prostitute becomes the wife for the night, while the wife becomes the prostitute.
Derided for being vulgar (this was six years before the X-rated Midnight Cowboy won its Oscar as Best Picture and three years before The Graduate hit the big screen), the movie is loaded with double entendres the type which could engender heavy laugh-track use a decade later on TV’s “Three’s Company.” An example: “She grows her own parsley.” Novak is quite touching as Polly and the lovely, gracious Farr might have been a bigger star had the movie been more successful.
Walston, although funny, pushes the comedy a little too hard — understandable since he was rushed into the production, while others had the luxury of rehearsing/filming with Sellers. Dino is as relaxed as always, not taking himself too seriously — his stock in trade in so many of his movie roles, including Matt Helm.
The VHS release from more than 20 years ago (which I own) contains a scene between Zelda and Dino where it is merely suggested that the two spent the night together. The subsequent DVD release contains that scene but as an extra, but incorporates a more telling one into the body of the film where there is no question of the seduction. The suggested scene is actually a little better played and preferable to the more blatant one.
Morals on the big screen were a little loser by the time Wilder filmed Fedora, notable for its style of flashbacks-within-flashbacks. In this one, there was no question that the title character and a lover spent the night together (in the 1940’s), a sequence occurring minutes after a nude scene in a pool was included.
Rather than give too much of the intricate plot away (both Stupid and Fedora have official DVD/Blu-Ray releases), I’ll just say that Marthe Keller and Hildegarde Knef star in it with William Holden portraying an independent producer trying to coax the reclusive Fedora (a Garbo-like actress) back into the movie business.
There’s excellent performances by Holden, Jose Ferrer, Frances Sternhagen and Mario Adorf, but Knef and Keller are hampered by dubbing of their voices by actress Inga Bunsch. Ironically, the dubbing does work on one level — it does add a little to the mysterious allure of the beloved, but almost forgotten Fedora.
Financing was reportedly the problem behind this one and Wilder was more pressured into completing the project than he was on the earlier The Front Page. In an interview, Sternhagen remarked that it was a shame that Wilder didn’t rehearse scenes more in depth and Holden, who already made Sunset Boulevard, Stalag 17 (1953) and Sabrina, (1954) replied that Wilder used to. Still, it doesn’t feel rushed, although there may be a scene or two which seem rather incomplete. But a hospital sequence featuring a heavily-bandaged Fedora has the pace and tempo of a horror movie.
Overall, Fedora is the kind of movie where you have to think about it after to add up all the elements. Wilder and his collaborator, I.A.L. Diamond (with whom Wilder worked on all of Wilder’s films starting with Love in the Afternoon from 1957) penned a nice little mystery (based on Tom Tryon’s novella) making it a good choice as a double feature with Sunset Boulevard (the stark, black-and-white Kiss Me Stupid, in contrast, might be a bookend to Some Like It Hot).
As essential as Sunset Boulevard, Some Like It Hot, and The Apartment are in the Wilder library, Kiss Me, Stupid and Fedora should not be given short-shrift. Failures at the box office, they might have been, the two are the type which merit at least one viewing — maybe more in order to sort everything out. I have seen each at least a dozen times over the years and still get pleasure from each. And wasn’t that the purpose of Wilder films?