Jonathan Coe mixes reality with fiction in this book which is an unapologetic love-letter to the titular Billy Wilder, one of the greatest film directors of our time.
We first meet Calista as a fifty-seven year old composer of film scores in contemporary London. Her children are grown and her work has dried up: ‘Writing music, and bringing up children. That’s what I do. And now I’m basically being told that neither of these skills is required any more.’
The novel turns back the clock to 1977 when an unworldly Calista has escaped the expectations of family and unexpectedly finds herself employed as an interpreter on the film-set of the famous Billy Wilder’s latest movie, Fedora. Calista knows nothing about the movie business, but quickly finds herself immersed in the lives of Wilder and the rest of the film crew. Her time with them will determine many of her life choices.
This novel is an ode to the golden years of Hollywood; in particular, to the films of Billy Wilder. Coe reflects with nostalgia on those heady days when going to the cinema was an escape from the ugly reality of life. As Wilder tells Calista after she’s seen Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, ‘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….that it didn’t have before.’
Mr Wilder & Me is also a meditation on growing old and feeling obsolete. Calista is confronting these feelings at the beginning of the novel and Wilder knows his best work is behind him when Calista meets him. Coe and Wilder share compassion for their ageing characters, ‘struggling to find a role for themselves in a world which is interested only in youth and novelty.’
I’m now excited to work my way through the Billy Wilder canon. I think I’m in for a treat. And if you are at all interested in the business of making movies, you’re in for a treat too when you read Mr Wilder & Me.
Reviewed by Gaby Meares
Mystery and Crime Reading Group