Mr. Wilder and Me by Jonathan Coe (Middle England, The Rotters’ Club) isn’t so much a work of fiction as a fictionalization of some true events. The book covers the period when Billy Wilder, one of the greatest screenwriters and directors in old Hollywood, helmed one of his final films, Fedora (1978), about a Greta Garbo-esque former movie star. (One thing about reading not-quite-novels is that they inevitably send you down rabbit holes on Wikipedia and IMDb.) The book is narrated by a Greco British woman named Calista Frangopoulou, who serves as an assistant during the shoot and, later, earns renown as a film-score composer herself. She doesn’t have a Wikipedia page, so perhaps we can assume she’s fictitious.
When the book opens, middle-aged Calista is living with her husband and one of their twin daughters in London. Her daughter is going through a bit of a crisis, and this jogs Calista’s memory of a time when she was about her daughter’s age. In the late 1970s, Calista was carefree, so much so that she and her friend swanned into a swanky Hollywood restaurant to have dinner with the eminent director while wearing cutoff jeans, T-shirts and flip-flops. Calista even yawns in the middle of the meal, which Wilder finds charming and inspiring.
But Coe’s book isn’t so concerned with capturing a side of Hollywood or the process of moviemaking as it is with summing up a life and a fading era. The studio system under which Wilder and his peers have flourished is dying, and though he will live many more years after making Fedora, his glory days are over. But bitterness isn’t part of Wilder’s makeup, which is especially remarkable when you know that he barely escaped the Nazis, who slaughtered the rest of his family. Coe emphasizes the director’s kindness, humility and graciousness, such as in one of Calista’s most vivid memories, when Wilder allows himself to be persuaded by their driver to pause at a humble farm on their way to a film set; once there, they happily sample some of the farmer’s brie.
Wilder may be famously hard on his actors, but he’s also hard on himself. Through middle-aged Calista’s perspective, we hear about him wanting to show up the “kids with beards,” like Steven Spielberg and Francis Ford Coppola, but when Spielberg directs Schindler’s List, a film Wilder wanted to make himself (this is true!), the older man acknowledges it as a masterpiece.
Beautifully written and filled with compassion, humor and an abundance of knowledge about old Hollywood, Mr. Wilder and Me sheds light on lives that aren’t perfect but still well lived.