Today Billy Wilder is remembered as one of Hollywood’s greatest film directors, but because his masterpieces are all in black and white, many film buffs might not realize that he continued making movies all the way until 1981. Jonathan Coe’s novel Mr. Wilder & Me finds the director shooting one of his later films, 1978’s Fedora. On the outs with the Hollywood studios, Wilder is forced to accept foreign money to finance the picture, which he films in Greece, Germany, and France. The return to Germany is an emotional one for Wilder, an Austrian who fled to Hollywood early on during the rise of the Nazi party and never discovered the fate of his mother during the Holocaust.
Our entry onto the set of Fedora comes in the form of 21-year-old Calista Frangopoulou, a half-Greek, half-English woman who bumbles her way into a dinner with Wilder and his screenwriting partner I.A.L. “Iz” Diamond on a trip through Los Angeles. Amused by her naivete and looking for insights into what young people want from the movies, Wilder brings her aboard as an interpreter for their filming in Greece.
Calista makes such an impression on Mr. Wilder and Mr. Diamond that they bring her with them to Greece and France too, though their need for a Greek interpreter has passed. She witnesses the great director process his return to Germany through confrontations with the German press and a particularly obnoxious Holocaust denier.
At the back of the novel Coe presents an annotated list of all the sources he researched to create his portrait of Wilder. It’s nice but, in my opinion, unnecessary. The Billy Wilder encountered in these pages feels completely real. He has opinions, eccentricities, and flaws. He’s as fascinating as the real man must have been. Mr. Wilder & Me shows the rush of creativity and encountering true genius, and the thrill of discovering a bit of it within yourself.