Reviewed by Annabel
Jonathan Coe’s latest novel couldn’t be further from his Costa-winning Middle England (which I reviewed for Shiny here), which examined 21st century Englishness as we went about Brexit. In Mr Wilder & Me, Coe steps back a few decades and his lens focuses on one of the later films by Billy Wilder, he of the sublime Sunset Boulevard, Some Like It Hot and The Apartment. Fedora, his penultimate film released in 1978, was a flop, the movie world had moved on from serious dramas of this sort and this production provides the backdrop to the novel.
The novel begins in the present though, with Calista, 57, contemplating an empty nest, one of her twin daughters leaving for Australia, the other pregnant and deciding whether to keep the baby. Calista has had a career as a film composer, but that’s also dried up over the years that motherhood took priority. She’s keeping her hand in, working on a chamber orchestral suite called ‘Billy’, for Billy Wilder, the director with whom her fate has been entwined since she was a teenager.
She was on a road trip around the USA with a friend, when the pair were invited to dinner with the Wilders and the Diamonds when they reached LA, via a connection of her friend’s father. Iz Diamond was Billy’s writing partner and their wives felt the pair were more married to each other than them! While Wilder and Diamond were keen to find out what the youth of today watched at the cinema, Calista was embarrassed not to know much about film at all; her friend mentioned Jaws which provokes Billy…
‘My God, this picture with the shark. When will people stop talking about this picture with the shark? You know that damn shark has made more money in the States than anything else in the history of Hollywood. Even Monroe, event Scarlett O’Hara, didn’t make as much money as this shark. And now, every stupid executive in town wants more movies with sharks. This is how they think, these people. We made one hundred million dollars with this shark, we need another shark. We need more sharks, we need bigger sharks, we need more dangerous sharks. My idea was for a picture called Jaws in Venice. You know, you have all the gondolas going up and down the Grand Canal, all the Japanese tourists, and then you have about one hundred sharks coming up the canal attacking them. I pitched it to a guy at Universal, as a joke. He thought I was being serious. He loved it.’
Wilder goes on to talk about “the kids with beards” as Mr Diamond calls Mr Spielberg, Mr Coppola and Mr Scorsese. I loved Billy’s politeness, always talking of fellow directors with honorifics, like conductors being called ‘Maestro’.
However, Calista’s Greek heritage struck a chord with Wilder. When she is offered a job as translator on location in Greece on the set of Fedora, she can’t resist, and is kept on as an assistant to Mr Diamond when the film moves to Munich and Paris. In Corfu, she also meets a young man, Matthew, who has a different vision to the ageing producer, and their budding relationship is itself on the cusp for some time.
One clever thing that Coe does to break up the story is to turn to screenplay. A central fifty-page chunk of the novel is written as a script complete with stage directions and voiceovers. In it, the narration turns to Billy as he tells the story of his WWII experiences from Berlin in 1933 through to 1945 when he worked for the British to edit a documentary of the Holocaust from news films from the camps, always looking out for his lost mother in them. (Later Billy wanted to film Schindler’s List, but couldn’t get it off the ground, to Spielberg’s gain.) This section, as a story within a story, worked really well with some sparkling dialogue, particularly between Billy, who was himself Austrian, and his friend Emeric Pressburger, a Hungarian, as they tried to understand the English.
Coe has reached sixty himself, and uses the novel to explore generational differences and career milestones in his unique gentle way, although looking back with rather rose-tinted glasses in Calista’s case. As a foreigner with no film knowledge, at first she is an ingénue to be moulded, and hanging around with Billy and Iz, until Matthew comes onto the scene, makes her act and speak as both naïve and older than her years. There is a sense of Coe playing with us in making Calista the main narrator. A big fan of the work of Wilder, he’s more concerned with exploring his own middle age, than trying to be hip and possibly failing. The result is a glorious novel, homage to one of his heroes and a glimpse into good old-fashioned movie making and storytelling.
Annabel is one of the Shiny editors, and can’t resist a cinematic novel.
Jonathan Coe, Mr Wilder & Me (Penguin Viking, 2020). 978-0241454664, 320pp.,hardback.