In Jonathan Coe, the film director Billy Wilder has long had one of his fiercest cheerleaders. For decades, at every chance he gets, in articles and interviews,Coe has cited the director of classics like Some Like it Hot as his “greatest influence”. Coe even admits to having sent the gravely-ill Wilder a fan letter, desperate for Wilder to know how much he loved the Private Life of Sherlock Holmes before he died. Wilder dictated a response from his sick bed, dismissing the flick as “not a success,” but adding, in a very Wilder way, “It is wonderful to see that for somebody it has become an obsession.”
The obsession is that Coe, a biographer of film stars like Humphrey Bogart, as well a novels including What a Carve Up! and Middle England, believes that Wilder is under-appreciated as one of Hollywood’s greatest artists. Wilder & Me is another fan letter, albeit undeliverable, to a hero now long gone. The response though is expected from a reader being introduced to a complex, incredible man whose talent was thrown into Hollywood’s trash cans along with his scripts, when the new wave of film maker such as Spielberg and Scorsese turned up.
Our guide into Wilder’s psyche is Calista Frangopolou, a 57-year-old film composer whose work has dried up as younger directors’ tastes have changed. Also confronted with one of her twin daughters leaving London for university in Sydney, and the other becoming accidentally pregnant, she is reminiscing about her time as the set interpreter for the 1978 movie, Fedora. The character is an invention, but the film is real. It was Wilder’s second to last movie and an unmitigated box office bomb. Through Calista, Coe merges fact and fiction to reconstruct a troubled production as it lumbers from Athens to Munich to Paris. On set, friction and personal battles are filtered through the optimistic eyes of a 22-year-old who only sees opportunity as the septuagenarians she works for contemplate failure and mortality. Many of the events really did happen. Coe’s spoken to some of those who were there and was given access to the unpublished manuscript of Wilder’s scriptwriter Iz Diamond by his family.
Much of Wilder’s own dialogue is taken from direct quotes including his infamous response to a journalist in Munich who asked why the film was being financed by German money instead of by an LA studio. “If this picture is a big hit it’s my revenge on Hollywood,” he replied, adding: “If it’s a total financial disaster, it’s my revenge for Auschwitz”. The line came from the heart. Wilder, a Jew born in Poland, escaped Berlin as Hitler came to power. His mother disappeared. In a lengthy section of the novel, formatted as a screenplay, Coe recounts how Wilder took a post-war job as a documentary maker for the US government. He spent hours trawling through harrowing footage of concentration camps, looking for a glimpse of the woman he had not seen or heard from since war broke out. He never found out what happened to her.
The Billy Wilder of Jonathan Coe’s imagination is an old school gentleman, with a deliciously wicked side and a caustic wit. He is also a true film maker, whose scripts were so finally honed that he refused to allow actors to change so much as one word of them. The book has a similar mix of pathos and silliness as the movies of the man who inspired it. There is a sadness as these former Hollywood titans confront their irrelevance in a new age, but also much joy as they find new ways to cause trouble. Wilder turning up late on set because he had been on a brie and wine binge is based on a real event. A brisk 240 pages does not feel like enough time in that world of charming Golden Age rascals. You may, like Coe, come to adore the man whose response would probably be – to take from the Apartment’s final scene 60 years ago – “Shut up and deal”. In other words, just put the book down and put the movie on.
Mr Wilder and Me by Jonathan Coe (Viking, £16.99)