Mr Wilder & Me. Jonathan Coe

As part of our preparation for the next season we have been reading a great number of books, and then at some point we need to decide which books make it to the final round, the writing of a complete reader guide. Mr Wilder & Me was one of my favourites that did not make it through the final discussion. There are the obvious questions, such as, is there enough material in the book to promote discussions? I would say yes in the case of Jonathan Coe’s book, especially since it is also a book about the film career of Billy Wilder in the form of a novel. However, this is disadvantageous these days as we tend to concentrate on “pure literature”. And I think you readers deserve more. So, this is not a standard short review, but more of an advertisement for both Jonathan Coe’s book and the filmmaker Billy Wilder.

Reading Mr Wilder & Me will let you travel with a young girl, Calista, who meets Billy Wilder by accident while staying in California on a holiday. She meets a girl who has a dinner planned with the famous Billy Wilder, but she ran off half -way through the dinner to meet a lover. Calista stays behind. From that moment on, she is plunged into a dazzling whirlwind of a story. The great Billy likes her, as does his screenplay writer Iz Diamond and they take her under their wings. From “just a girl” she becomes an intimate friend, especially of Iz. Diamond must stick with Billy while they are filming Fedora to help him through the long periods when he cannot go home. This is to be one of Wilder’s swan songs.

This film looks back at his great success of Sunset Boulevard. But he is struggling, with his age, with financing the movie, the cast. Although Calista admires him a great deal it is obvious that the Great Billy Wilder seems to have lost his magic touch. Also, Iz Diamond is aging, and struggling with it. Maybe it is the youthfulness of Calista that distracts and pleases them. And if you wonder, is there a #metoo in the book, there is not. It is decent, full of admiration for the successful film couple. It shows great respect for their achievements.

The film Fedora is a somewhat weird story about a film actress who is imprisoned by some Countess, also a man who had a crush on her and tries to help her escape. All critics agree, not Wilder’s “going with a bang”. But that makes the book even more fun. Billy Wilder is a character larger than life, and, in his slipstream, there are more than enough pearls to be found.

For instance, the part where Billy Wilder is telling a story at a dinner party to employees of the German company that raises money for his film. A young man who poses a question on “new” research on the Nazi regime:
‘I read one of the books on this subject last year…. I found it rather persuasive’ ‘Can I tell you a story which you might also find persuasive’ After which comes a 55-page exposé of Billy’s own experience, ending with this horrific statement:
‘so...yes.' Billy said, with a steely coldness in his voice that I had never heard before. 'Yes, I am familiar with these the stories that have been circulating - not just recently, but ever since the end of the war, in fact. That the numbers are wildly exaggerated. That those pesky Jews, once again, are telling lies for their own benefit. That there was never really a Holocaust.' He took another sip of brandy. 'Which brings me to the question l was going to ask you. And it is a very simple question I must say. The question is this. If there was no Holocaust, where is my mother?'

And even now we are not done, there is another layer. Miklos Rosza makes an entry, he is the composer of much of the film music. And he is also a “serious” composer. So, take this challenge and explore the music of Miklos Rosza.

But let’s end with another of Mr Wilder’s witty remarks: His wife once asked him to buy a bidet in Paris. He telegrammed back: ” I can’t find a bidet. Suggest you do handstand in the shower. “

Believe me, this book is worth your time. And at the appropriate moment, immerse yourself in the background interviews, stories and films of this great director of cinema.

Marc Kalff

Billy Wilder interview and documentaries

How did you do it (3 parts):

Billy Wilder films online

Death mills
Some like it hot
Sunset boulevard
The apartment

Miklos Rosza

Film music highlights Ben Hur Violinconcerto Rhapsody