When the Austrian director and writer Billy Wilder fled Nazi Europe for Hollywood in 1933, he didn’t speak a word of English. By 1946, he had won two Oscars for The Lost Weekend, and by 1958, he was directing Marilyn Monroe in the defining performance of her career in Some Like It Hot.
As he hit his sixties, however, Wilder had started to fall out of favour with the box office. When he made Fedora in 1978, a film about an ageing actress who forces her daughter to take her place and name after plastic surgery leaves her disfigured, Hollywood had already declined to finance the film, and Marlene Dietrich turned down the starring role. It’s at this moment, as the spectre of irrelevance looms, that we first encounter Wilder in Jonathan Coe’s latest novel, Mr Wilder & Me.
We’re introduced to Wilder and Fedora through the nostalgic reminiscence of a fictional character named Calista Frangopolou — the meek “& Me” of the title — an Athens-born composer in her late fifties, now living in London.
When we meet her, it is the present day and she’s facing the unhappy
prospect of a declining career and an empty nest, as one daughter goes travelling and another must decide between an abortion and university, or keeping her baby.
Cut to LA, 1977: the 21-year-old Calista is invited to dinner with the family friend of her travelling companion, Gill. They arrive wearing “manky t-shirts and cut-off shorts”, neither of them realising that they’re tucking into steak frites with Billy Wilder and the legendary writer Iz Diamond.
The naivety of youth charms both Diamond and Wilder, under the somewhat tenuous notion that they’re keen “to know what the young people want from the pictures these days”, despite neither Gill nor Calista expressing much interest in cinema. They’re especially delighted when Calista yawns at the dinner table, an act which inspires a moment in their new film, Fedora (a young producer yawns when he sees Hollywood superstar Fedora’s naked body for the first time on set, intriguing the actress and sparking their affair). The dinner cements Calista in the director’s mind, and back home in Athens she gets a call inviting her to the film set of Fedora to act as translator, and so begins her unlikely friendship with the most famous of Hollywood’s golden age director-writer duos.
The satirist — a descriptor often attached to Coe — is generally more fond of caricature than of subtlety. It’s a style that served Coe well in the case of What a Carve Up!, the 1994 Thatcherite satire and his most widely acclaimed novel. There, the caricatures are bang on their target. But without the biting political commentary, Coe’s caricature of youth veers towards cliché.
The plot pivots on Calista’s personal charm enabling her friendship with Wilder and Diamond, a charm that feels unconvincing when filtered through Coe’s mocking lens, and the middle-aged Calista’s narrative voice. She recalls her response to an elderly, revered composer telling her that he never received a thank-you note from Hitchcock when he won his movie an Oscar, as “that sucks [ . . . ] I mean it stinks”.
As Calista is seduced by the glitz of filmmaking — and an arrogant young freeloader called Matthew — and Wilder struggles to make the film cohesive, we realise that this is a coming-of-age story twice over: a story about what it means to grow into both adulthood and middle age. In this case the latter is the more compelling, and it is Wilder that proves the more fascinating character.
Coe recently described his novel as “a close-up portrait of the artist late in life”, and it sometimes feels like Calista is little more than a conduit for this project. When Coe allows Wilder to narrate his own story by telling his dinner guests how he came from Europe to America, a 50-page section which takes the form of a screenplay, the result is the most compelling piece of writing in the book.
Back in present-day London, Calista re-watches Fedora, and is struck by Wilder’s “fundamentally generous impulse” in making the film, and the compassion it shows to its middle-aged characters.
It inspires her to attend to her own family’s predicament, and she resolves to enable her daughter’s freedom by making a sacrifice of her own. It’s a neat mirroring of Fedora, in which the leading character imposes her own life on her daughter’s to tragic effect. But it’s a domestic resolution to a novel with far more interesting dilemmas at its core — can we escape the lure of nostalgia? Why do we feel compelled to keep making art? What can good cinema achieve? — and the result is an overwhelming sense of bathos.
With Wilder absent from the end of the novel, and Calista left to carry the story through to a satisfying ending, the novel’s energy dissipates. It confirms the niggling suspicion that our leading lady was never more than a supporting actress to Wilder’s lead.
Mr Wilder & Me, by Jonathan Coe, Viking, RRP£16.99, 246 pages
Join our online book group on Facebook at FT Books Café