A reclusive foreign-born actress, one of the greatest movie stars of the century, has inexplicably retained her youthful beauty despite her advancing years. She commits suicide by throwing herself in front of a train, and among the mourners at her funeral is aging has-been Hollywood producer Barry "Dutch" Detweiler, with whom she once had a brief affair.
Detweiler recalls how he had visited Fedora two weeks earlier, at a villa on an island near Corfu, determined to convince her to star in a new screen adaptation of Anna Karenina. She had told him she was a prisoner in her remote retreat, held captive by aged Polish Countess Sobryanski, her overprotective servant Miss Balfour, her chauffeur Kritos, and Dr. Vando, who seemingly was responsible for keeping the one-time star looking so young. When he had tried to respond to Fedora's plea for help, Dutch had been knocked unconscious by Kritos. He had awakened nearly a week later, only to learn Fedora had killed herself.
At Fedora's funeral, Dutch accuses Vando and the Countess of driving Fedora to her death. The Countess ultimately reveals she actually is Fedora, and the woman who died was her daughter Antonia, who had been impersonating the actress for years after one of the doctor's treatments disfigured her. Antonia's charade was successful until she fell in love with actor Michael York while making a film with him and decided to tell him the truth. In order to ensure her silence, she was held captive and kept drugged, until she finally killed herself. Dutch bids the real Fedora farewell, and six weeks later, she dies too.William Holden ..... Barry "Dutch" Detweiler
Marthe Keller ..... Fedora/Antonia
Hildegard Knef ..... Countess Sobryanski
José Ferrer ..... Dr. Vando
Frances Sternhagen ..... Miss Balfour
Stephen Collins ..... The Young Barry Detweiler
Gottfried John ..... Kritos
Arlene Francis ..... The Newscaster
Mario Adorf ..... The Hotel Manager
Michael York ..... Himself
Henry Fonda ..... President of the Academy
Wilder's previous film, The Front Page, had been released four years earlier, and had been a critical failure. Furthermore, two more recent Hollywood-based films, Gable and Lombard and W.C. Fields and Me (both released in 1976), had failed to engender any interest at the box office. As a result, executives at Universal Pictures were hesitant to offer the auteur his usual deal. Instead, they paid Wilder and Diamond to write the screenplay with the understanding the studio would have 45 days following its submission to decide if it wanted to proceed with the project. They ultimately put it in turnaround, and Wilder began shopping it to other studios with no success. An infusion of capital from German investors enabled him to proceed with the film.
Wilder originally envisioned Marlene Dietrich as Fedora and Faye Dunaway as her daughter Antonia, but Dietrich despised the original book and thought the screenplay was no improvement. Sydney Pollack invited Wilder to a pre-release screening of Bobby Deerfield, in which former fashion model Marthe Keller had had a featured role. Wilder decided to cast her as both mother and daughter in Fedora, but the actress had suffered such severe facial nerve injuries in an automobile accident that she was unable to endure wearing the heavy makeup required to transform her into the older character, so he cast Hildegard Knef in the role.
After viewing a rough cut of the film, Wilder realized to his horror that neither Keller nor Knef could be understood easily, nor did their voices sound very much alike, which was crucial to the film's plot. He hired German actress Inga Bunsch to dub the dialogue of both women for the film's English-language release. Keller eventually recorded the voices for both characters in the French version, and Knef did likewise for the German release.
Allied Artists dropped its deal to distribute the film after it was screened at a Myasthenia Gravis Foundation benefit in New York City and the audience response was unenthusiastic. The film was picked up by Lorimar Productions, which planned to peddle it to CBS as a television movie. Before the network could agree to the offer, United Artists stepped in. After cutting twelve minutes of the film based on studio recommendations, Wilder sneak previewed the film in Santa Barbara. Halfway through it the audience began derisively laughing at all the wrong places. Dejected by the response and despondent from all the problems he had encountered up to this point, the director refused to make any more edits.
On May 30, 1978, the film had its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival as part of a retrospective of the director's work. Afterward, it was released in only a handful of select American and European markets with little fanfare, prompting an insulted Wilder to claim the studio spent "about $625 on a marketing campaign." It was later shown as part of the Cannes Classics section of the 2013 Cannes Film Festival.
Both Henry Fonda and Michael York make cameo appearances as themselves, although Fonda is only credited as "The President of the Academy." In the film, Fonda is the President of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences who presents a lifetime achievement award to Fedora, but he never actually served as AMPAS president.
Fedora was a re-teaming of Wilder with Holden, who had collaborated on Sunset Boulevard, and like the earlier film, it too harshly criticized Hollywood's often shabby treatment of its most prominent talent. However, unlike Sunset Boulevard, what Fedora attacked was Hollywood's youth-oriented culture, not the apparent disposability of perceived has-beens.
In her review in The New York Times, Janet Maslin called it "old-fashioned with a vengeance, a proud, passionate remembrance of the way movies used to be, and a bitter smile at what they have become. It is rich, majestic, very close to ridiculous, and also a little bit mad. It seems exactly what Mr. Wilder wants it to be, perfectly self-contained and filled with the echoes of a lifetime; no one could mistake this for the work of a young man. Indeed, it has the resonance of an epitaph. That, too, seems a part of Mr. Wilder's design . . . The compactness and symmetry evident in Fedora aren't easily achieved these days without a good deal of self-consciousness. Mr. Wilder achieves them naturally."
Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times wondered, "Should you see it? I dunno. If you do, go with a clear mind and a slight grin on your face and a memory for the movies of the 1940s. Accept the dumb parts, and the unsurprising revelations, as part of the film's style instead of as weaknesses. Trust Wilder to know what he's doing, even during the deliberate clichés. See it like that, and I bet you'll like it. See it with a straight face, and you'll think it's boring and obvious. Fedora's odd that way: It leaves itself up to the audience."
TV Guide describes it as "defiantly and proudly old-fashioned both in style and content, weaving an (intentionally) campy melodrama about the mysterious suicide of a faded movie queen into a spellbinding meditation on cinema and the price of manufactured illusions . . . Fedora is a marvelous lesson in classical storytelling and the pleasures to be had from an absorbing narrative. It's almost as if Wilder is bidding adieu to the Golden Age of Hollywood, utilizing opulent sets, elegant crane shots, ultra-slow dissolves, and a flourish of voice-overs and flashbacks-within-flashbacks in a final demonstration of virtuoso scenario construction, only to tear it down at the end and show it was all a lie . . . The film is not perfect, and would have undoubtedly been better still had Wilder been able to persuade Marlene Dietrich to play the Countess, but it's still a worthy late addition to the work of a master."
Time Out London calls it "a shamefully underrated film . . . and one of the most sublime achievements of the '70s . . . it has a narrative assurance beyond the grasp of most directors nowadays: finely acted, mysterious, witty, moving and magnificent."
In his Chicago Reader review, Dave Kehr stated, "Its spare classical style, its sense of character, and its occasional romantic excesses are all very much Old Hollywood . . . but the deliberate and sometimes dismaying anachronisms are signs of a deep, unshakable commitment to a personal aesthetic – a commitment that is sometimes more moving than anything in the film itself."
Variety opined, "Wilder's directorial flair, the fine production dress, Holden's solid presence and Michael York . . . and Henry Fonda . . . add some flavor to this bittersweet bow to the old star system," and added, "Missing are needed hints at Fedora's true star quality, which are not . . . inherent in Keller's performance or that of Knef . . . and which mar pic with disbelief."