You don’t have to be a film buff to love acclaimed British author Jonathan Coe’s at once melancholic and laugh-out-loud funny novel “Mr. Wilder and Me.” But don’t be surprised if reading it inspires you to binge-watch Hollywood movie classics “Some Like It Hot,” “Sunset Boulevard,” “The Apartment” and others written and directed by cinema great Billy Wilder (1906-2002), the Austrian-American producer, director and screenwriter to whom Coe gives star credit in his title.
The “me” of the title is first-person narrator Calista Frangopoulou, whose fictional life story Coe nimbly intertwines with Wilder’s real-life history. Theirs is not a romantic love story, but something more tender and rare: a charming, ironic fairy tale about an accidental, intergenerational friendship that, even as it changes the entire trajectory of young Calista’s future, will also help the aging Wilder accept his own limitations.
The novel opens in pre-covid London, where the happily married Calista is a moderately successful film composer in her 50s and at a crossroads. Her fading professional career, combined with the imminent departure of her 18-year-old twin daughters (affectionately named after characters in Wilder’s movies), has left her feeling adrift, without purpose. Wondering what comes next, she flashes back to herself at 18, a naive Athens native venturing abroad for the first time, on a low-budget trip across America.
The year was 1976, and at that point, too, Calista had contemplated her future with gloomy uncertainty. Her British mother had taught her flawless English, a highly useful skill to be sure, but one she worried would doom her to spend the rest of her life as a language tutor and translator. And yet translating her true passion, playing and writing music, into a professional career seemed like a far-fetched dream.
It’s in hopes of escaping such thoughts that Calista makes her way across America. She soon finds a friend and travel companion in Gill, a British college student of about the same age and similarly at loose ends. Their connection turns out to be fortuitous; once in Los Angeles, Gill invites Calista to a boring dinner with a friend of her father about whom she knows only that he is a Hollywood director.
The improbable evening that follows is a perfect setup for the kind of witty farce Wilder reveled in.
The two young women arrive at the posh Beverly Hills bistro so underdressed in T-shirts and beach shorts they are at first refused entry. Even after their host — Billy Wilder — graciously introduces them to his wife Audrey and to his longtime writing partner I.A.L. Diamond and his wife Barbara, Gill and Calista have no notion that they have stumbled into an evening with Hollywood royalty.
Just as mystifying to them as the haute cuisine menu is the conversation, sprinkled with references to “Marlene” (as in Dietrich), “Garbo” (as in Greta) and “Al” (as in Pacino), who happens to be sitting at a nearby table. Calista listens, bewildered, as Wilder and Diamond lament their inability to gain financial backing for their latest film project — “Fedora,” about an aging, reclusive movie star — which has been universally nixed by ever-youthful Hollywood bigwigs who dismiss the distinguished team as long past their Oscar-winning prime. In the era of “Jaws,” they were dead in the water.
Soon enough, Calista becomes so drunk on martinis and red wine that all she can do is yawn and yawn — and in so doing thrills her hosts by giving them the comic twist to top off a key scene that they’d been struggling to find for days.
One year later, back home in Athens, she receives an unexpected reward: Wilder and Diamond have finally found financing for their film — which is being shot in Greece — and hire her as their translator.
Even better, they keep her on the payroll as an assistant when filming shifts to Paris and Munich. The settings strike Calista as magical. For Wilder, though, they carry different associations. He had lived in each as a fledgling filmmaker before Hitler’s rise to power had compelled him, as a Jew, to flee Nazi Europe for America. He had saved his own life, but the family members he could not take with him had been murdered in the Holocaust. No wonder he is outraged when a German dinner guest asserts that the Holocaust never happened. In a feat of bravura storytelling, Coe relates the horrors of those years through an imaginary screenplay conceived in the style of Wilder. The centerpiece is Wilder’s description of his postwar job, as a U.S. Army colonel based in Munich, editing a documentary film titled “Death Mills,” composed from newsreels that exposed the horrors uncovered by Allied troops at Auschwitz and other death camps: field after field filled with corpses and the dying.
All Wilder could do while gazing at these images is wonder if one of these lifeless bodies could be his mother — and all he can do in responding to the callous Holocaust denier is ask the stingingly simple question: “If there was no Holocaust, where is my mother?”
This, Calista realizes, was the tragic burden Wilder could never unload. Yet he had also managed to create a body of work that embraced all human possibility, ranging from blunt evil and base cynicism to daffy humor and unaccountable generosity and love. That is the lesson he embedded in his films: that every life story inevitably commingles possibilities for both heartbreak and joie de vivre. And that model for adaptation and creativity also becomes his personal gift to Calista in her own path to reinvigorate the rest of her life.
Although I was disappointed that I could not find “Fedora” available to rent or stream, I was not surprised, since it was one of Wilder’s least successful films. But now that a film adaptation of “Mr. Wilder and Me” — to be directed by Stephen Frears and starring Christoph Waltz — is in the works, I suspect that will change. Its rediscovery, as a result of Coe’s gem of a novel, would be a perfectly ironic outcome worthy of Wilder himself.
Diane Cole is the author of the memoir “After Great Pain: A New Life Emerges.”
Mr. Wilder and Me
By Jonathan Coe
Europa Editions. 256 pp. $27
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