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Mr Wilder & Me/Jonathan Coe

You do not have to read a biography by a film critic to appreciate a legendary director as this novel which I finished yesterday by audio book confirms.

Jonathan Coe

The narrator is a Greek girl called Calista who when she first meets Billy Wilder in the late 1970s has never heard of him. Later she works as an interpreter in his film Fedora set in Corfu and as a p/a to his long term co script writer I. A.L Diamond.

It is Wilder’s persona not Calista’s that dominates.

The making of Fedora came at an interesting critical point in Wilder’s career.

After many successes his  Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970) bombed at the box office.

He could not get American finance for Fedora (1978) but from a German company specialising in tax shelters.

This in itself raised a problem for Wilder who had been a journalist in Berlin but, in moving to Hollywood, had cut his teeth on directing reels of film of the Holocaust.

He admitted that he pored over these films in the hope he might see his mother. One of the most moving parts of the book is when he confronts over dinner one of the young German financiers who questions the Holocaust.

Wilder asks him:

If it never happened how and where did my mother die?

The book is also fascinating for the views of an eminent but ageing director on the new wave of American directors like Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese.

He says of them that they did not suffer in the war and if they had they would realise a cinema goer seeks glamour and fun as he/she knows life is grim.

The Lost Weekend

In fact as well as comedies Wilder directed gritty films on alcoholism, The Lost Weekend, cynical journalism The Ace in the Hole and the harsh reality of being a Prisoner of War in Stalag 17 and film stars confronting a career that is finished in Sunset Boulevard and indeed Fedora.  

Calista’s one night stand lover Matthew represents a younger modern film buff who regards Wilder as past it.

Thus the character in Fedora Barry Detweiler, played by William Holden, is not only a reprise of the failed scriptwriter he was in Sunset Boulevard but Wilder looking for finance to make the film.

I did have to ask the question of this novel whether it would be of interest to someone who had little interest in Wilder.

The answer probably is no as Calista’s story is not that engaging. After a series of failed relationships she does marry and has twin daughters to whom she is devoted.

One has a difficult choice over an abortion – the resolution of which ends the book.

Some of Wilder’s later films notably the first pairing of Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau in the Fortune Cookie are interesting. Above all Billy Wilder was a great wit. His wife once asked him to buy  a bidet in Paris.   He telegrammed back

”I cant find a bidet.  Suggest you do handstand in the shower. “

About Neil Rosen

Neil went to the City of London School and Manchester University graduating with a 1st in economics. After a brief stint in accountancy, Neil emigrated to a kibbutz In Israel. His articles on the burgeoning Israeli film industry earned comparisons to Truffaut and Godard in Cahiers du Cinema. Now one of the world's leading film critics and moderators at film Festivals Neil has written definitively in his book Kosher Nostra on Jewish post war actors. Neil lives with his family in North London. More Posts