I have to admit, I haven’t watched a ton of Billy Wilder films. I’ve watched a lot of the big ones but not enough. I have loved Some Like It Hot since I was a teenager. My sister had a copy of it on VHS and I used to steal it from her room all the time. Without asking obviously and I wouldn’t give it back if I could help it. I sort of hoped that the longer it was in my possession for the easier it would be for me to just claim it as my own. Of course, at that point, I didn’t know anything about the Austrian born director or his Moldovan co-writer Iz Diamond. I just knew that it was a funny film. I’ve since learnt a thing or two about the pair, so I was very excited when Jonathan Coe’s new book was announced. Not only was it an insight into the real-life figures but it was a blending of fact and fiction. I love books that mess with real-life events. I bought it a week or so ago and I started it as soon as I possibly could. I knew that I was going to like it but would it become my new favourite Coe novel?
“You haven’t made a serious picture unless your audience comes out of the cinema feeling like they want to commit suicide.”
At least, that’s what the film director Billy Wilder tells the narrator of Jonathan Coe’s latest novel. He is referring to the shift that came in Hollywood during the 1970s that saw the bearded young men (as Wilder and his co-writer Iz Diamond have nicknamed the new breed of director) turn films into a grittier and darker form of drama. By those rules, many people who read this book won’t see it as a serious novel. They will see it as sweet but won’t see much beyond that. However, that is just willfully ignoring what is in front of them. There is plenty of depth to this novel even if it is light on tension and plot. That tension doesn’t reside between a hero or a villain. It’s not even meant to exist between the old Hollywood and the new. This is simply a story about the tension that resides between your younger and older selves.
Mr Wilder & Me is the story of the Summer in which our narrator, Calista, met and worked with director Billy Wilder. After a chance meeting, the young woman finds herself behind the scenes on the set of Wilder’s 1978 film Fedora. As well as getting the chance to see a true film legend at work, she finds herself on a coming-of-age journey that will change her life forever. Part history and part fiction, Mr Wilder & Me is an in-depth look at one of Hollywood’s most beloved figures and one of the key moments of his career. An ageing Wilder realises that he is becoming more and more irrelevantand sees Fedora as his chance to show he still has it. The story is framed within Calista’s own life as she struggles to find a purpose in her twilight years.
As we know from his previous works, Jonathan Coe is a lover of film, so his research on this era of filmmaking is pretty deep. There are fantastic details in the story and he has really captured the mood of the 1970s film scene. Though the character of Calista is fictional, his version real-life people feel accurate. It might feel like a world away from Coe’s traditional political satire but there are still plenty of hints there to see. Looking deeper, it’s possible to see the criticism of Brexit and the idea of Englishness. However, this is very much a book about films and nostalgia. Its arguments about what makes a film good are interesting given the current penchant for remakes, reboots and sequels. However, the book makes it clear that the past isn’t necessarily something to crave for.
That’s not to say that people who don’t have a love of film can’t appreciate this novel. It’s a very charming and engaging read. Coe has always liked to experiment with humour in his books and this is no different. There are some straight-up farcical moments as well as some fun repeated gags. Although, just as Mr Wilder and Mr Diamond are worried about comedy’s place in 1970s Hollywood, Coe also understands the limitations of humour in the modern world. It’s funny but this is a story with more than a hint of darkness. About halfway through the novel, there is an extended fake screenplay concerning Wilder’s experiences with fascist Germany. It feels slightly experimental but it works so well.
So, whilst this book might not leave you feeling like you want to “commit suicide”, it offers plenty to keep you reading. It gets the balance just right and will leave you with an increased love of cinema and human nature. Is it a serious read when compared to Coe’s other books? In the sense that it is not politically motivated, perhaps. But does that matter? What do we really want from a novel? What do we really crave when we open the pages of a new book? I’ll leave it up to Mr Wilder again to offer some insight.
“You have to give them something else, something a little bit elegant, a little bit beautiful. Life is ugly. We all know that. You don’t need to go to the movies to learn that life is ugly. You go because those two hours will give your life some little spark”.
In terms of “spark”, Mr Wilder & Me has more than enough to share. I bloody loved it.