Mr Wilder and Me
By Jonathan Coe
Penguin, 2020, 246 pp., $26.99
Originally from Austria, Billy Wilder was a force to be reckoned with in Hollywood from the 1930s, gathering 28 Oscars in his illustrious career. In the early 1960s his string of hits started to falter and, in the town where you are only as good as your last movie, he hit the skids.
In Mr Wilder and Me we meet him in the 1970s as he makes his final film, Fedora, which is somewhat of an allegory of his own story – an aging, washed up character still possessed by a creative spark. The novel is narrated by a young Greek woman, Calista who quite accidentally works as a translator on the Greek island locations.
As an innocent abroad in this exotic movie world she slowly discovers the back story to Billy Wilder and so leads the reader through a history lesson about his films.
That would make for nothing more than a diverting holiday read except for an abrupt change mid-way through the novel where Coe stops writing in the narrator’s voice and instead gives us an object lesson in how Wilder wrote his scripts. But the script is the story of his life in the movies and how he fled Nazi Germany.
It is a powerful anti-fascist piece of writing, and it is followed with a note-perfect joke that is completely in keeping with Wilder’s comic style.
It was around this point that I realised that each time I stopped to contemplate a passage, or laughed out loud or even turned the page it was at a time decided for me by Jonathan Coe. He is an unobtrusive yet masterful story teller.
Mr Wilder and Me is not high art but is a Christmas time reading indulgence with a bit of a punch.