Very massive stars do not expire quietly but tend to age angrily, bloated on their own gas, and finally collapse in on themselves – particularly Hollywood stars. ‘I am big. It’s the pictures that got small,’ says Gloria Swanson’s character in Sunset Boulevard, with bitter, prima donna conviction, as she gives instructions for her dead monkey to be buried in a satin-lined coffin in the garden. (This, the audience is being nudged, is a character who may be losing her grip on reality.)
Billy Wilder, who wrote that famous line, suffered the small irony of a similar demotion from the Hollywood firmament. By the mid-1970s, after a string of box office flops, he found himself, as he put it, ‘dragging [his] ass along Hollywood Boulevard’, cruising the studios like mad old Norma Desmond looking for someone to back his next movie. To the studio executives, who never let artistic good sense get in the way of their passion for commercial viability, a Wilder picture was no longer bankable.
It is in this diminished state that we encounter Wilder in Jonathan Coe’s new novel. Coe’s protagonist, Calista Frangopoulou, is herself somewhat stalled in the present day, both in her career as a composer of film scores and as a mother whose two adult daughters are leaving home. She comes to reflect on her formative encounter with ‘Mr Wilder’ in 1976, when, following a series of happy accidents, she found herself having dinner with the veteran director and his writing partner I A L Diamond, endearing herself to them by having heard of none of their films. She was hired as a Greek interpreter, then retained in the rather improvised role of assistant to the gruff but amiable Diamond, joining the crew of what would prove to be Wilder’s penultimate film (and another box office dud), Fedora.
Fedora is a variation on The Picture of Dorian Gray: an ageing Hollywood star (Fedora) contrives the appearance of eternal youth by having her daughter stand in for her following her own retreat from the public eye after botched plastic surgery. The dutiful and permanently overawed Calista, ingénue on the filmset, followed the movie through its lengthy production, travelling from LA, via Greece and Munich, to Paris (Wilder later reflected, ‘in that time I could have made three lousy pictures, instead of one’).
Like Sunset Boulevard, and indeed Fedora, Coe’s novel unravels in an extended flashback, as Calista reminisces about her brief acquaintance with Wilder. There is also a fifty-page flashback-within-a-flashback – the most formally playful part of the novel – with Wilder narrating, in screenplay format, the story of his escape from Nazi Germany in the 1930s as part of the exodus of European artists to America. The novel is nostalgic in its very structure, then, the overriding tone one of gentle poignancy. Looking back, Calista sees the Wilder she knew as someone ‘nursing a deep, private, unassuageable disappointment’ – a disappointment, which she has come to share, that ‘what he had to give, nobody really wanted any more’.
As she carries on with her reminiscences, Calista describes a brief romance in Paris with Matthew, a ligger on Wilder’s set and a thrusting would-be director who gave dogmatic expression to the aesthetic manifesto of the American New Wave (here, Wilder mockingly refers to the up-and-coming independent directors of the ‘Hollywood Renaissance’ as ‘the kids with beards’). On their date, Matthew persuaded Calista to watch Taxi Driver (‘You feel emotionally drained. You feel like someone’s beaten you to death. Your soul is crushed … That’s exactly how I want the viewer to feel when they’ve seen one of my films’). Calista in turn made him watch Lubitsch’s The Shop Around the Corner, a film in which James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan unknowingly fall in love as pen pals while working together in a leather goods store. ‘It might just be the most romantic film ever made,’ Calista reflects. It was certainly a view shared by Wilder, who, it is said, had framed on his office wall a tapestry embroidered with the simple memento, ‘How would Lubitsch do it?’
Coe has previously confessed to his lifelong love of Billy Wilder’s work, and not just the agreed-upon classics of the Hollywood golden age – Double Indemnity, Some Like It Hot, The Apartment – but also more disputed cases, like The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. While once he was thrown by the journalist’s favourite question of who his greatest literary influences are, Coe now confidently answers, ‘Billy Wilder’. He is evidently keen that his novel should be biographically faithful to Wilder’s life (it comes with a bibliography and list of sources for various of the anecdotes that are woven into the plot). Although the marriage of biography and fiction is largely successful, it does render the fictional Calista a rather impotent presence in the book – a perennially unquestioning wallflower, whose shrinking character is calibrated so as not to disrupt the flow of historical event.
Nonetheless Mr Wilder and Me has considerable charm and a Wilder-like slightness and levity of spirit. Coe vividly captures Wilder as a vestigial figure of a departing era, one who saw himself as a master craftsman rather than an auteur director. His opinionated, unpretentious, Mitteleuropean sensibility and loyalty to a particular style of filmmaking – the taut dialogue; the close play of melodrama and sexual comedy; the lean, elaborate plotting – placed him defiantly at odds with prevailing cinematic fashion, with which he was hopelessly out of touch. But, as Wilder would riposte in his old age, ‘Who the hell wants to be in touch with these times?’