Mr Wilder & Me
A delightful read. On one level this is the tender and nuanced coming-of-age story of Calista, a shy and innocent Greek teenager, who meets the famous film director Billy Wilder, and tells of her experiences working for him in the late 1970’s film industry. But this is also a poignant study of the ephemeral nature of success, and its waning, as experienced by Wilder at the end of his multi-award-winning career.
The narrator, Calista, a composer of film scores is at a crossroads in her life. Her two daughters are in the process of making life-changing decisions. Her own career is in the doldrums - she fears that she is now largely forgotten. As she works on composing a new piece, ‘Billy’, inspired by the great film director Billy Wilder, she reminisces about a pivotal moment in her life when she met him and his writing partner, Iz Diamond. She subsequently worked with them both in Corfu, firstly as a translator, then as a production assistant, on Wilder’s little-known film Fedora (1978). On the set, she meets Matthew an ambitious young man with whom she has a relationship. This first love experience, all doe-eyed and self-doubting, is beautifully captured by Coe.
The focus of the story is, however, on Wilder. He is engaged in making a film that everyone, other than himself, considers is no longer culturally relevant. At this stage, Wilder’s post-war, feel-good, comedic hits such as Some like it Hot (1959) and film noir, such as Double Indemnity (1944) had been replaced at the box-office by films engaged in gritty realism, or that look beyond the farce of the everyday to fantastical adventures in space or some idealised past. Wilder feels he is being superseded by a new generation of film directors whom he calls, ‘the kids with the beards,’ up-and-coming directors such as Spielberg, Scorsese, and Coppola.
Dwelling on his early life, in the middle of the book, Wilder, an Austrian Jew, reminisces about his experience as a refugee from the Nazi regime, and the woman he had heartlessly abandoned. This story is played out as a script, with Wilder playing the leading role using an unusual, but highly effective, narrative device.
Mr Wilder & Me gives the reader insights into the film industry and its reaction to the horrors of World War II. It also illustrates how artists can ultimately reach a point in their career, when their work is no longer in line with popular styles of production. Wilder, despite his dazzling successes, sees a patchwork of unequal merit that includes the multiple mundane contributions and failures forgotten by everyone else. Maybe this is also an aging man’s reflection on life itself.
This was an effortless read, in lucid, sparkling prose, that stayed with me for a long time afterwards as I mulled over the novel’s subtleties and its multiple, layers of meaning – this was perfect summer reading.